If an extended family member has gained temporary custody of a child, a legislative proposal could allow courts to create a transition plan for that child to go back to their parents. On January 16, lawmakers approved an amendment to allow fictive kin to take part in the process.
If a parent is abusing, neglecting, or abandoning their child, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) can get involved. The child could be placed elsewhere and the parent must prove they are fit to get their child back.
“The line that changed my life was when my wife took out an aspirin because she had a headache and the four-year-old said to her ‘grandma, you know if you cut that up it works a lot faster,’” Lobbyist Ron Watson says. He's trying to adopt his grandchildren but says the process hasn't been easy.
“So it’s really hard in our scenario because we want to be helpful to the parents. Obviously, they’re our children. But at the same time we have to put what’s the best interest of child first,” Watson says.
There’s a second avenue. A family member can petition the courts to get temporary custody of the child, avoiding the DCF. But if family members choose this option, the parent can come back anytime and take the child away. That’s because the parent has a right to privacy—Meaning they can raise their child how they like without the state interfering. Rep. Spencer Roach (R-North Fort Myers) is sponsoring a bill to allow courts to enforce a transition plan when the parent comes back. He’s calling it an ‘exit ramp’ from the DCF.
“There generally is some reluctance on the part of a parent who may be struggling with an issue to leave a child with a relative caregiver if they think that the heavy hand of the state is going to get involved,” Roach says.
Watson says if this option had been in place, he might’ve taken it: “But we were so scared that they could come back at any moment and just reclaim the children."
David Hirschberg works with the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar. He agrees with the bill’s intention but says it needs to explain how courts should create transition plans.
“So they should really consider the age, the developmental stage of the child, and the period of time that this child may have been in temporary custody. For example, a transition plan where the child’s only been away from a parent for two months probably should be different than one where they’ve been away from a parent for three years or longer," Hirschberg says.
He's also concerned with a new addition to Roach’s bill. It allows fictive kin to have the same rights as extended family members—Meaning they can petition courts for temporary custody and a transition plan. But what is fictive kin? Roach explains:
“Fictive kin could be someone else in the child’s life who has a has been serving in sort of a parental role. It could be—It could even be a member of their church. It could be someone that’s a friend of the family. It could be a coach. It may be a teacher. Anyone who serves—has served in a role as a guardian or has parented that child in some way.”
Florida law defines fictive kin as ‘someone unrelated by birth, marriage, or adoption who has an emotionally significant relationship, possessing the characteristics of a family relationship to the child.’ Hirschberg says including this in the bill is going too far.
"By expanding it to beyond close family members to a neighbor, to a friend—It could lead to unintended consequences," Hirschberg says.
Hirschberg points to guardianship and dependency courts as other ways fictive kin can get custody. Roach’s bill is now advancing to its third committee stop. If approved, it will head to the full chamber for a vote.