DCS Rules of Engagement.

I’ve gotten a couple of calls requesting help from residents in the Volunteer State with issues regarding the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) or Child Protective Services (CPS) ever since my article on the “Vulnerable Persons Registry” went live at Fault Lines.  While I appreciate all the requests, I can’t help everybody.  My time and energy is limited, but there are a number of tips I can provide people experiencing issues with either DCS or CPS.

A couple of housekeeping notes before we begin.

  1. None of this is legal advice.  That you pay for.  This is free.
  2. Your mileage may vary depending on your state with these tips.  I’m dealing specifically with Tennessee here.
  3. If you’re not in Tennessee, you might have different acronyms (i.e. DCF in some states as opposed to DCS).  I’m using Tennessee’s for clarity and my own ease.

If DCS shows at your door, lock the door, tell them to get a warrant, and start recording the conversation.  

The first type of interaction most people have with a DCS or CPS worker is via a request to look around the residence and talk to your kids “to make sure they’re okay.”  This is a patently false statement on their part, as DCS workers showing at your door means someone called in a report of child abuse or neglect against you and a caseworker at your local office found the claims worthy of at least an in-house review.

Andrews v. Hickman County, Tennessee, a 2012 Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case held DCS workers are subject to the same restrictions when entering private property as police officers.  If they’re asking to come into your residence and “look around,” that’s the equivalent of asking to search your home, and you’re allowed to refuse that search and ask DCS to get a warrant.  If they continue to persist in their efforts to come in and search your home, simply wish them a good day and tell the caseworker they’re not allowed in your residence until they produce a warrant.

The Department and its caseworkers don’t like this holding.  When the decision was originally announced in December of 2012, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services head brass in Nashville announced no caseworker would remove a child from a residence before a three day probable cause hearing occurred. This position wasn’t overturned in Nashville until a number of Juvenile Court judges and magistrates spoke out openly against the policy, opining the Department’s failure to act could put some children in danger.

Record the conversations with any and all interactions you have with DCS or CPS workers.  They’re aware how much you care about your kids, and they will attempt to scare you with any number of outlandish statements.  The tone changes drastically if they’re being recorded.  It changes even further if you show them you’re recording their every statement.  I’ve had great fun sticking a voice recorder on the table at every single DCS meeting I attend and seeing the nature of the conversations change.  Regardless, the material you gather in every recorded interaction may be of use to you and your counsel later.

Get an attorney the moment DCS shows up.  Don’t answer any DCS questions or sign any documents DCS provides without having an attorney look them over first.

If DCS contacts you to “come in” and talk about a “crisis situation” in your household, your next call should be to a family law professional in your area.  Make sure DCS knows you won’t be attending the meeting absent counsel.  They will tell you that you don’t need an attorney, and they may get adversarial and hostile to you if you let them know you want counsel present.  That should give you an understanding of just how badly they want you to incriminate yourself.

Another great aspect of having an attorney present, even if it’s just for the first meeting, is the unspoken signal to DCS that you’re a headache they don’t want.  DCS workers love their jobs when it’s easy and compliant parents just sign the forms, complete all the steps in a permanency plan, and go on to another phase in life.  If you show up with an attorney present who plans on fighting all the issues DCS claims are present in your residence, then you’re potentially more trouble than they care to deal with.  This especially helps before a Juvenile Court Magistrate gets a Department Petition To Adjudicate Dependency and Neglect or Delinquency Petition on their desk.

One important note regarding “Delinquency” petitions.  I’ve seen cases where parents are carted before a Youth Services Officer (YSO) after kids act out at school or in another place and told if they don’t sign a Delinquency petition on their child the kid will be removed.  This is a half-truth, and a dangerous one.  It is true that a Juvenile Magistrate or Judge might find your child’s circumstances worthy of a Delinquency adjudication.  That doesn’t mean you have to sign off on a Delinquency petition on your own child at risk of having that child removed from their home.  Furthermore, if you sign a Delinquency petition on your kids, you run the risk of having a Petition to Adjudicate Dependent and Neglected (D&N) filed against you.

Ask about your status on the Indication (Vulnerable Persons) Registry.  Demand to see the indication letter if one exists.  Exhaust all remedies.
Finally, we get to the indication registry.  If you’ve had a D&N petition filed against you in Juvenile Court, you’re probably “indicated” as a person who “potentially” committed child abuse or neglect.  If a DCS Caseworker comes to your door and talks with you, there’s a good chance you’ve been “indicated” as well.  Ask about your status on the Indication registry or Vulnerable Persons Registry.  If the DCS worker acts clueless, demand to speak to someone who knows what they’re talking about.  This is a live registry that as of February 2015 went live and actively reports “indications” for people suspected of child abuse or neglect.  This list is used to deny people homes, jobs, and access to places where kids might be present.  You could potentially find yourself on the list and not know it until someone with a web browser and internet connection decides to snoop on you!

There is a letter that is to be sent to all “indicated” parties.  It informs them of their status on the registry, the allegations that gave rise to an “indication,” and outlines steps to challenge the indication.

It is imperative you challenge the indication letter. If you do not, you will be stuck on a list of people who actually abused children and the elderly and were found guilty of those offenses in a court of law.  There will be no distinction, and if you don’t timely challenge the letter within the dates proscribed you won’t get a second chance.  You will remain on the registry until a court overturns your status on the registry or the bureaucrats in Nashville get a clue.

Keep these tips in mind and leave with one parting thought.  DCS and CPS workers have badges, ranks and official titles.  They also have the state-sanctioned ability to deprive you of your rights and liberties.  These are things we grant police officers, and yet we treat DCS and CPS workers differently because they’re ostensibly not looking  for criminals.  They’re doing a “thankless job” for “the good of the children.”  Don’t fall for that line of bullshit.  Treat every interaction with DCS or CPS, no matter how minor, like it’s an interaction with cops, and you’ll come out better for it.

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