Many people are aware that local county departments of social services are involved in investigating and protecting children from harmful circumstances in their homes. Since these agencies are most commonly referred to as “DSS,” I will use this term in this blog post series on various topics related to child protective services cases and investigations.
DSS agencies receive child protective reports from many different sources: doctors, teachers, therapists, counselors, family members, friends, and neighbors—anyone who may be aware of concerning situations affecting children they know. North Carolina law requires that any person or institution with a reason to suspect that a child is abused, neglected, or lacking an appropriate caregiver must make a report to DSS in the county where the child resides. In North Carolina, an adult’s duty to report child abuse and neglect is serious: the knowing, willful failure to report child abuse or neglect is a Class I misdemeanor crime. North Carolina law also strictly protects the identity of a reporter from disclosure.
North Carolina county DSS agencies use screening guidelines set by the State to sort incoming reports. Reports are investigated that, if true, would place a child’s living conditions below a basic acceptable standard of care. The dangers that require investigation may be anything from unsafe surroundings (such as unsanitary conditions or hazards in the home), to parental neglect (such as failure to provide food or medical care), to unsafe caregiver behavior (including domestic violence, substance abuse, or outright physical, sexual, or emotional abuse).
Depending upon the seriousness of a report, North Carolina DSS investigations fall into two categories:
Investigative assessments are conducted when the allegations in the report suggest imminent danger to a child. In these cases, North Carolina law and policy require DSS to make face-to-face contact with the subject child within 24 hours.
Family assessments are used when the reported conditions do not rise to emergency status. Contact with these children must be made within 72 hours.
In addition to face-to-face contact with children, a DSS investigation requires contact with both of a child’s parents, including investigation of paternity and/or tracking down absent parents where necessary. DSS also conducts background checks on non-parent caregivers, and seeks to identify family members and other supports. Standard forms are used to assess the level of risk to the child, and DSS is ultimately expected to reach a decision whether to “substantiate” or “unsubstantiate” the allegations in the report.
The core duty and mission of DSS child protection is to achieve safe and permanent living arrangements for children whose health or safety is at risk. DSS will normally try to correct the identified issues through voluntary participation by a parent or caregiver in recommended services. However, if the immediate safety risk to a child is severe at the onset, or initial efforts to achieve improvement are unsuccessful, the DSS agency may initiate a court case, in which a judge may order the parent or caregiver to take needed steps or face the loss of custody or even parental rights.
Difficult and frustrating scenarios can emerge during an active DSS investigation or court case—for a parent or caregiver, relative on non-relative kin, professionals (doctor, therapist, teacher, pastor, etc.), or family friend. Investigations sometimes move slowly and inefficiently, resulting in phone calls that are unreturned, forms that are not requested or delivered as they should have been, questions not asked or answered, or agency processes not adequately explained or followed. The court process can also be confusing, especially for those who do not get a “seat at the table” to decide the issues, which may include family members or foster parents caring for a child while a parent works through their issues.
DSS workers stand on the front lines of very difficult social problems within North Carolina communities that ravage our children’s lives: violence, addiction, poverty, lack of education, lack of opportunity, or simple lack of hope. As a result, social services agencies are plagued by high turnover, heavy caseloads, and pressure at every level to meet case goals within timeframes, which can result in poor morale or cynicism. To make matters more complicated, multiple agencies are often involved in a single case, including schools, hospitals, law enforcement, and/or mental health providers, each with their own confidentiality requirements and professional duties.
In addressing the frustration of dealing with DSS, it is important to remember that regardless of how you are involved, you are a constituent and the fundamental purpose for DSS’s existence is to help constituents, including you. For these reasons, in our work representing individuals in DSS cases, we typically emphasize two fundamental principles: total cooperation and agency accountability.
Total cooperation means doing everything you can, within reason, to assist the DSS agency in its work. Cooperation with the agency is important to achieving the most beneficial outcome for the child and family. Also, despite the fact that DSS has a duty to you as a citizen, your involvement with DSS will go more smoothly if you stay positive and develop rapport with DSS staff. Your ability to maintain positive personal interactions with DSS workers will go far in making the process work out better for you and for the children and families involved in the case.
Agency accountability means that you, as a constituent, should always feel empowered to ensure that DSS agencies are doing their jobs. DSS agencies are answerable to various laws, regulations, policies, and procedures. You should never feel that you are imposing on a DSS worker when you ask why things are, or are not, happening. If something doesn’t seem right in how a case is being handled, it is worth questioning.
Dealing with DSS in any capacity can be a highly stressful experience. The layers of DSS bureaucracy may sometimes be difficult to peel back, but an attorney with agency experience can help guide you through problems that develop when policies and procedures are not followed, interacting with DSS as needed, and supporting you in being your own best advocate.
In the series of blog posts that follow, I will attempt to provide useful insights into the DSS child protective process for parents, relatives, and other caregivers, who unexpectedly find themselves in the midst of this very challenging and sometimes vexing world.