As a parent or other caregiver (guardian, custodian, foster parent, or kinship care provider), the course of a DSS case can have profound impacts on your family. Meanwhile, the legal framework and policies surrounding these cases can be complex, agency practices can be confusing, and communication can be unclear. The question of whether, and when, to get the help of an attorney in a DSS case is covered in other blog posts in this series, as is the topic of guardianship and custody for caregivers. Meanwhile, there are simple practices every caregiver can adoption from the first moment of contact with DSS that should prove helpful, regardless of the particular details of the case:
If you receive a document of any kind from DSS, law enforcement, or any other agency relative to a DSS report, assessment, investigation, or case, store or scan these documents together in one place. You may need to refer to a document to verify dates, names and addresses, or other information. Saving all communications in one place assures that you are not missing anything and can also makes it easier for you to share the background of your case in an initial consultation with an attorney.
A DSS assessment or court case frequently involves a lot of oral communication between DSS staff and parents, caregivers, and family members of the child, whether face to face or by phone. DSS social workers normally document these interactions in an agency database, and their descriptions of the conversations may be very general, or may leave out something you believe to be important. Documenting your oral communications with DSS and other case participants as a matter of routine will create a useful record of what you heard and understood from these conversations.
In some agencies, worker turnover and reassignment can be high. Your ability to identify who you have talked to, who has worked on your case, and the names and contact information of current case workers and other staff you interact with may be critical when you need to discuss various issues in a case. Any number of internal challenges at DSS, including staff turnover, can cause case setbacks and other challenges, so anticipate this possibility and be prepared to share important information with a new worker when necessary.
Like any profession, social work in the child welfare arena has its own lingo, which may be unfamiliar to you, and some information you receive may be unclear to you. Make sure to speak up when you do not understand something that is stated to you—whether in oral communication or in writing—and make note of any persisting confusion you have regarding important aspects of the case so you can address these questions with an attorney.
When DSS makes a request of you, it’s generally a good idea to comply, and generally not a good idea to decline without a compelling reason. Although there are times when refusing a DSS inquiry, request, or recommendation may be appropriate, it is important to cooperate fully with an investigation concerning a child you love. Your cooperation with DSS helps move the case along and keeps the focus on the child’s well-being. Furthermore, your good faith efforts to help in an investigation or in-home case will be noticed by DSS, and any goodwill you establish with DSS staff during the case will help toward a positive outcome.
Cooperating with DSS doesn’t mean you leave your feelings at the door or avoid stating your needs, wants, and expectations to DSS staff. While the safety and permanence of the child always matters most in DSS investigations and court cases, how you are feeling as a caregiver is important to the overall success of the case. DSS should respect your desire to advocate for yourself. You should feel comfortable asking questions, carefully reviewing documents, and yes, consulting with your lawyer should you decide to hire one to help you with the case. You should feel empowered to propose solutions to issues affecting you or the child, and to voice concerns to DSS staff.
Every DSS case involves different specifics, but some of the same basic steps will prove helpful anytime a caregiver is involved with a DSS agency. Regardless of how large or small your role, or how challenging the issues in the case, adhering to the six simple practices described above will contribute to a favorable outcome in any child welfare case.