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Q&A: Child advocates support tribe’s vulnerable

BRIGHTON – The Seminole Tribe’s Advocacy & Guardianship Department is responsible for several programs, but each one has an overarching goal: ensure that tribal members and families are supported – especially vulnerable children and adults.

Joseph Hernandez

Joseph Hernandez is a child advocate on the Brighton Reservation. He and two others work child advocacy cases in Brighton, Fort Pierce and Tampa. There are child advocates assigned to the tribe’s other reservations as well.

Hernandez has been in his position for two years, but has been working with children for many more, including as a therapist and forensic interviewer. As a child advocate, he works with the child protective investigators and dependency case managers at the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF).

The Tribune asked Hernandez about his work. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What does a child advocate do?

Our goal is to do what’s best for a child or vulnerable adult in the case of potential abuse or neglect. We work with families to ensure that they are aware of all the services and resources offered by Advocacy & Guardianship and the other departments within the tribe, including counseling assessment, mental health evaluations through the Center for Behavioral Health (CBH), and parenting classes. As a child advocate, we’re there to support tribal families.

How do cases come to you?

Sometimes someone will alert Advocacy & Guardianship. All of us are mandated reporters, so if we become aware of any potential abuse or neglect of a vulnerable child or adult, then we make a report to the DCF abuse hotline. Sometimes we receive referrals from the Seminole Police Department, CBH or DCF.

What typically happens next?

We are present either in person or by telephone for every contact DCF has with a vulnerable adult or child in the family if they’re tribal. DCF will not proceed with an investigation without a tribal representative there. We ensure that DCF knows if a child is subject to the Indian Child Welfare Act and its protections – it also extends to descendent children and children that are eligible for enrollment.

Is DCF always involved?

Sometimes we’re able to assist families without DCF getting involved. We do supportive services; if somebody is having issues like keeping their home clean, we would probably just go out ourselves and assess the situation and see what we can do to help. The only time we would contact DCF is if there was any kind of suspected neglect or abuse.

What typically happens when DCF opens an investigation?

DCF follows a timeline. If the case isn’t resolved after 60 days, then more may need to be done. DCF might determine if the family needs more intervention, such as non-judicial, voluntary case management in the home – if it doesn’t rise to the level of dependency court, but families still need some help.

Sometimes, unfortunately, cases do have to go to dependency court. DCF can take the family to court to remove the child from the home if evidence is found of egregious abuse or neglect. It’s a bad situation in the home if a removal happens, because they’re trying to keep families together.

How does dependency court fit in?

The goal of dependency court is to achieve permanency for the child in the timeliest way possible. We ensure that the child or the vulnerable adult is in their best place, or the best place possible. One of our primary purposes is to encourage tribal placement with family members within the Seminole Tribe if we can.

The court determines whether the child goes into foster care; first we look for family members to foster a child. Background checks are done on prospective foster families as well as drug screens and home studies to ensure the foster home is appropriate for the child.

The tribe is currently looking for foster parents, correct?

Yes. It’s really important for children to remain with family members if at all possible. If there isn’t a family member that’s able to foster the child, we try to keep the child in the same clan. It’s also important to place the child with someone who’s willing to work with a parent, because they’re going to have to work together on visitation. Parents have the right to see their child when they’re in foster care and we encourage them to communicate with each other. We’re very thankful for the foster parents that we do have.

Editor’s note: Anyone who knows of or suspects the abuse or neglect of a child or vulnerable adult should make a report to the DCF hotline, which is (800) 962-2873. A report can also be made online at To contact Advocacy & Guardianship, call (954) 985-2320.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at