Child Welfare and Custody

Why Hire a Lawyer (In a DSS-Involved Case), Part 2: Non-Parent Caregivers

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There are a variety of reasons relatives or non-relative kin may benefit from having legal counsel when a child they love is involved with DSS. Family members and friends are sometimes asked to serve as temporary caregivers for a child who is at risk, or to provide long-term care for a child when parents are unable to do so. At each stage of a DSS case, supportive adults may have questions or confusion about what to do or how to respond to agency actions or questions. Discernment in these situations can sometimes be difficult without some insight into the social services system and juvenile law in general. An example of these challenges is when DSS asks a relative or non-relative to act as a child’s legal custodian or guardian, a scenario that is the subject of a separate blog post in this series.

Finding your way in a DSS case

Although relatives and non-relative kin do not always have the same “seat at the table” a parent gets in a DSS case, relationships with non-parents (or non-relative caregivers) can be very significant for a child. Memories with grandparents or other family elders serve as obvious examples of the important bonds many children have with extended family members.

A relative’s involvement with a child during a DSS case can involve many forms of caring, sometimes in the dual roles of temporary caregiver to the child and supportive adult for the parents. Unfortunately, relatives sometimes find they are called to protect a child from some harmful conduct of a parent.  Some relationships between children and non-parents can even deepen so as to end in legal adoption. And bonds are not confined by bloodlines: a child can be closest to a family friend, a mentor, a foster parent, or other caregiver who develops a relationship of nurture to the child.

Relative and nonrelative caregivers alike may feel some tension between their hopes for a parent to succeed in basic parenting and wanting the very best for the child. DSS cases can be rife with drama, sometimes created by the parents everyone is trying to help to love their children better, and there may be significant family history. Whether as a relative who has known a child for years, or as a foster parent or family friend who develops a special role of caring toward a child as the result of a DSS case, there are many areas in which guidance can be helpful in reaching the best outcomes for the child.

Knowing when to hire a lawyer

It can be hard for a non-parent involved in a DSS case to know when to engage with a lawyer. An initial consultation can help illuminate the overall landscape of child welfare and answer basic questions, while also exploring whether, and when, it makes sense to hire an attorney. Once hired, the attorney can help sort through specific concerns and questions and plan with you to effectively address these matters to DSS, to the parents, or to other involved parties. When warranted, your attorney can engage directly on your behalf with attorneys for the other parties, DSS and court personnel, or State-level staff with responsibility over a particular area of concern.

At times during a DSS case an attorney for a non-parent may operate and advise primarily in the background rather than “taking charge” of the matter. When involved with DSS, your lawyer is no substitute for your relationships with the case participants. Remember, DSS is a staff of total strangers suddenly charged with planning for a child whose needs they only know through limited contact.  It is important for you as a caregiver to tell your story, and to share information directly with DSS that only you know best, and to maintain a communication pipeline by being consistently available and dealing with DSS as honestly and openly as possible.

While some non-parent caregivers may consider hiring counsel to be a luxury they cannot afford, others may look back and wish they had sought legal advice at an earlier juncture of their case. There are times in a DSS-involved case when very difficult legal questions can arise, and your informed decisions can have dramatic impact on the outcome. Ultimately, for a non-parent involved in a DSS case, the decision whether, and when, to hire an attorney is highly personal and subjective.  Below are some questions you as a non-parent caregiver can ask yourself as a check on how much guidance you may need at this time:

  1. Are you happy with the current plan for the child? If not, how would you want to see it change, what can you do to help make the change happen, and to whom are you able to address your concerns?
  2. Are you content with the amount, and quality, of communication and information you are receiving from DSS and the other parties in the case?  Do you know what information you are entitled to and what must be kept confidential? Is there anything being communicated to you that you don’t understand or that you wish were better explained?
  3. Is DSS or another party recommending something to you or asking something of you (such as serving as legal custodian or guardian) that you are unsure how to address? Do you have all the inputs you need to make the best decisions for yourself and the child?
  4. Are you being called to intervene in the life of a child to provide temporary or permanent care, and find yourself at odds with a parent, with DSS, or with the court system over what is best for the child and how to achieve it?

The answers to these questions should give you insight into whether hiring a lawyer could aid you now as a non-parent involved with DSS. If one or more of your answers reflect uncertainty about how to proceed, chances are that at least a consultation with an attorney skilled in this area could provide a helpful perspective.