First, one of the analogies I like is: if you ask a barber if you need a haircut, he’s always going to say “yes”. So, if you ask an attorney whether you need an attorney, he’s probably going to say “yes”. But, DCF is involved, I’d strongly recommend hiring an attorney.
Every case with DCF is different. While the facts might be different the process can be overwhelming and confusing. Things you say or refuse to say might be taken out of context. My first piece of advice is to hire an attorney as soon as possible. However, if that is not possible, or not possible right away, you might be confused by some advice that you see on the internet or websites, such as: “never allow DCF in your door”; “always allow DCF in your door”; “completely cooperate with DCF”; “sign everything and talk about everything with them”; “don’t say anything to them”; and “video record them”, etc.
There isn’t a cookie cutter approach for responding to DCF. Every case is unique and there are advantages and disadvantages in the way that you go forward with cases. It is important to look at the facts of your case. However, if DCF, is investigating reports that a child or children may be at risk of abuse or neglect, it can go to the court and DCF can get permission to remove the children from the home ex parte and/or in certain emergency situations; the court can either order custody to DCF or conditions about working with DCF or other situations that are difficult.
DCF will respond to reports by anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect. DCF doesn’t need to find actual abuse or neglect; it only needs to suspect that children are at risk. DCF might file a “51A report” or investigation. There are people called “mandated reporters” (such as teachers, daycare providers, doctors, nurses and social workers) who are required to file reports with DCF. Other people non-mandated reporters) who might be less reliable (such as neighbors that you are in a conflict with an ex-spouse; ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend) can also make allegations of abuse or neglect.
Once DCF receives a report it begins an investigation. It can screen out an investigation without contacting anyone if DCF finds the allegations are very unreliable and/or does not meet very minimal standards.
You are limited in terms of knowing who filed a report. Sometimes the reporter will be anonymous and other times it will be done by a mandated reporter, but DCF redacts (crosses out) the name of the reporter; although, many times you may have a good idea who made the report or the person who reported you may tell you. You should send a written request to the DCF office to get a redacted copy of your records.
During an investigation, in a typical non-emergency situation, the social worker will come to your home. You are allowed to have an attorney with you and it is strongly recommended. If you cannot afford or are unable to hire an attorney by that time, have someone else present to help support you. They also can be a witness.
DCF worker may want to discuss the allegations and your background. This can focus putting a microscope on your life, including financial issues; sexual preferences; medical and emotional issues; background; housing situation; cultural; racial background. DCF might want to speak to family members and other people who are involved, such as teachers, doctors and so forth. DCF might want to examine your home. Realize that any information that you give to DCF can be used against you. You do not need to talk to the social worker and you have the right to refuse to participate in the investigation and you have the right to refuse to allow the social worker into your home. However, this is not a cookie cutter situation where you should always let DCF in your home or not always let DCF in your home. If DCF believes that your child is in immediate danger, it may try to either get the police or the court to help the, so that they can see your child. If you are able to talk to an attorney or an advocate or set up a time with DCF to come to your home after speaking to an attorney or an advocate and deciding whether or not to cooperate with DCF. Again, each situation is unique, sometimes you absolutely should cooperate other times you should not, but depends on the situation. An attorney experienced with DCF can help you navigate this complex process.
Again, if you are not having an attorney or an advocate help you, what are some things that you should do? You should ask what the specific allegations are. You should take notes; or better yet, have a support person take notes with you. There are some people that advise about using a tape recorder (which is reasonable suggestion in theory), but it generally is something that is very difficult to get DCF to agree to and many times can end up starting the process on a bad foot. It may be appropriate in certain situations, but having an attorney or an advocate or at least a reliable support person present who can take notes that would be most helpful.
You do not want to let DCF use the interview as a fishing expedition. You also need to be aware that DCF may say things that are either false, exaggerated, or that may upset you. The key is not to lose your temper; not insult DCF; not make threats and to be as polite as you can. DCF can sometimes take things out of context or the wrong way. Even though it is a very emotional time, you do not want to get upset or losing control which might get you in trouble.
The social worker may ask you to sign “Information Releases”, but it is not cookie cutter whether you should sign them or not. An attorney should look over any documents before you sign them. You may not choose to sign any of the releases.
As basic advice, if you are having an appointment with DCF make sure that your home is clean and organized. Understand that they may attempt to interview your children, school records, attendance records, grade reports, child’s pediatric care, certificates for the children, awards, pictures showing them playing sports or involved in outside
activities or family events. What you want to do typically, is to show the good things about your family, but again, it depends on what the circumstances.
If the allegations involve possible criminal conduct or if the police are involved, it is even more strongly recommended that you have an attorney and generally that you do not want to discuss circumstances involving facts related to the incident.
If DCF does support a “51A”, you have an opportunity to file a Fair Hearing Appeal. There is a very short period of time to file that appeal which you send to the Fair Hearing office and a copy to the area Director. This is something that is strongly recommended that you do in most cases. Sometimes DCF may try and get families to agree to a Voluntary Placement Agreement (children placed in foster care). If DCF is asks you to sign the Voluntary Placement Agreement, you should absolutely ask for an opportunity to talk to either an attorney or an advocate before you sign.