Massachusetts family law lawyer Nicole K. Levy reviews the choices parents face when the Department of Children and Families (DCF) knocks on the door.
Ava Conway-Coxon died while in foster care. Jeremiah Oliver was missing for months and found dead in Fitchburg. Jack Loiselle fell into a coma with signs of dehydration, bruising, and starvation. And then there was Baby Doe. Children are at risk, whether they are placed in DCF care or not. There have been numerous reports of children who are placed in homes by DCF – or allowed to remain with their parents by DCF – who have ended up abused, neglected or worse.
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In Massachusetts, if there is suspected abuse or neglect of a child, any person can call DCF and report the suspicions. This can be a neighbor, a friend, or an ex-spouse. Some people involved with your child are mandated by law to report these suspicions, such as a doctor or a daycare worker. You are not entitled to know who called DCF; they keep the identity of the reporter secret. And if there is enough information reported to DCF that a child may be at risk, they will inject themselves into your life.
After receiving a report of abuse or neglect, DCF will then begin its investigation, which can be a long, arduous process that may require you to meet with an investigator, a social worker, and even other service providers, depending on why DCF became involved. Notably, if an emergency is alleged in which DCF believes a child is in danger, they may obtain a court order to remove your children from your home without any notice to you. A hearing will be held to determine if your children can be returned to you or if alternate housing needs to be found for them.
If DCF permits the children to remain in your home, they will send an investigator to visit your home. You will be expected to be present, as well as your children, and they will check to see that the home is a safe environment. You may ask questions about the allegations that have been made against you, but again, they will not tell you who called them. They will ask you questions, and they will expect you to cooperate. If you choose not to let the investigator into your home, or not to cooperate with the investigation, this will likely be used against you. What you say during the investigation can be used against you.
When you receive notice from DCF about the pending investigation, they will also send you notice about appealing the process, called a Fair Hearing. A Fair Hearing needs to be requested timely, or you will waive your right to be heard. Briefly, a Fair Hearing is held at a DCF office, and the hearing is determined by a DCF employee. You may present evidence and call witnesses.
If you do not elect to have a fair hearing (or if you do, as there is likely going to be a substantial period of time between your request and the actual hearing date), the investigation will proceed. This will include a social worker coming to your home and asking questions about your background, your children’s background, your family, your employment, your relationships, your finances, medical issues, and anything else they deem to be fit. The social worker may also want to speak to other members of your family, will want to see the children in your home, and may want to examine your home. The social worker will likely contact any collateral people involved in your children’s lives, such as teachers, doctors, day care providers, talk with daycare providers, relatives, doctors, and anyone else who may have relevant information. Remember that all of this information, including that from other people, can be used against you in court should DCF determine that they should seek temporary or permanent custody of your children.
DCF may determine that your children may stay with you, and not seek custody, or place the children in temporary foster care. They will also begin an assessment, during which time DCF will decide whether your family may benefit from services, and issue a service plan. While this is not always a bad thing, this determination can be arbitrary, or repetitive to services your family or children are already receiving. The plan will describe the services DCF expects you and your family to receive and anything else DCF believes you should be doing. You must comply with the service plan. While there is opportunity to negotiate a service plan, you must be careful and it is important to grasp exactly what DCF expects. Similar to your conversations with the investigator and the social worker, your service plan can be used in court to show that you did not follow though, or did not agree. DCF may seek custody should you refuse to comply with the service plan or are simply unable to partake in the services offered.
You may have an attorney present throughout the entire process, whether in court, or in your home. You should be cautious of agreeing to anything or signing anything without a thorough review and an opportunity to speak with an attorney.
About the Author: Nicole K. Levy is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer, family law attorney and DCF lawyer for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.
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