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The purpose of Chapter 39 is to provide for the care, safety, and protection of children; to ensure secure and safe custody; to promote the health and well-being of all children under the state's care; and to prevent the occurrence of child abuse, neglect, and abandonment. § 39.001(1)(a), Fla. Stat. (2014). Consistent with this purpose, § 39.01(15), Fla. Stat. provides seven independent grounds upon which a child may be adjudicated dependent. When a Florida court is presented with a dependency petition, the court's concern should be whether the allegations made in support of an adjudication of dependency satisfy Florida's statutory grounds for such an adjudication, not whether the juvenile hopes to obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). If a child qualifies for a declaration of dependency under Florida's statutes, the child's motivation to obtain legal residency is irrelevant. Moreover, if federal law grants a right to alien children to regularize their immigration status by first obtaining a state court adjudication of dependency, then there is no basis for failing to declare a child dependent so long as he or she meets the statutory criteria for dependency.
B.R.C.M., an unaccompanied minor from Guatemala, illegally entered the United States at age thirteen and was released by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to his godmother as a sponsor. After his arrival, a private petition was filed on behalf of B.R.C.M. alleging three grounds for adjudication of dependency under section 39.01(15), Florida Statutes (2014), which defines a dependent child as a child who is found by the court: "(a) [t]o have been abandoned, abused, or neglected by the child's parent or parents or legal custodians"; "(e) [t]o have no parent or legal custodians capable of providing supervision and care"; or "(f) [t]o be at substantial risk of imminent abuse, abandonment, or neglect by the parent or parents or legal custodians." In support of a determination of dependency, the petition asserted that B.R.C.M.'s father abandoned him at birth and never provided him with food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. The petition asserted that B.R.C.M.'s mother abandoned him at age four when she disappeared and never contacted him again or provided him with basic necessities. B.R.C.M. then went to live with his grandmother until she was no longer able to care for him because of old age and illness. At age thirteen, fearing he would be forced to join a local gang and having no family to care for him, B.R.C.M. fled Guatemala, travelled through Mexico, and entered the United States in Hidalgo, Texas. The petition asserted that B.R.C.M. was placed with his godmother in Miami, Florida, and met his father for the first time after his arrival in the United States. His father has maintained telephone contact with B.R.C.M., but has not provided for the child's basic needs. The petition was denied after an eight-minute hearing in the circuit court, during which the court made no factual findings. On appeal, the Third District repeatedly observed that the child's sole purpose in filing the dependency petition was to facilitate an application for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and seek lawful permanent residency. The district court determined it was "plain on the face of the petition that B.R.C.M. is not 'truly' abandoned, abused or neglected within the meaning of Chapter 39," and despite acknowledging that "[a] godmother is neither a parent nor legal custodian under the statute," affirmed the summary denial of the petition. The court concluded: "The purpose of the dependency laws of this state is to protect and serve children and families in need, not those with a different agenda."
Did the district court err in holding that B.R.C.M. was not entitled to the protections of Chapter 39?
In this case, the dependency petition was filed on behalf of B.R.C.M. by next friends having personal knowledge of the facts alleged, in accordance with Florida dependency law and procedure. The petition asserted three grounds for dependency under section 39.01(15), and alleged sufficient facts, establishing a prima facie case. Nonetheless, the Department of Children and Families did not investigate the allegations in the petition, and it was denied after a brief hearing in which no evidence was presented and no fact-finding resulted. When a petition for dependency alleged specific facts supporting a finding of dependency under any of the seven statutory grounds, the circuit court must make individualized factual findings and apply the law to the facts in order to make a proper adjudication of dependency. If the petition stated a prima facie case, the petitioner should be permitted to introduce evidence in support of his or her claims, and the court should enter specific adjudicative findings responsive to the issues presented by the petition and the evidentiary record. If a child met the statutory criteria for dependency, the child must be adjudicated accordingly, regardless of the child's motivations for seeking a dependency adjudication. Whether the petition sought an adjudication to assist the child in applying for an immigration status under federal law was not a basis for summarily dismissing or denying the petition. The determination of whether an immigrant juvenile may obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status was reserved for the federal immigration authorities. Because the Third District approved the summary denial of B.R.C.M.'s petition on the basis that his purpose was to seek lawful permanent residency, and determined that he was not "truly" needy without any factual record or evidence regarding the child's circumstances, the Court quashed the decision appealed from.