If the Department of Social Services (DSS) opens an investigation and case on your family, then there are a number of things you should know.
1. DSS is required to investigate any report to them of abuse or neglect of a minor child.
2. Abuse usually means physical abuse but DSS may investigate mental abuse as well. Evidence of abuse are bruises, scratches, lacerations, burn spots and bald patches.
3. Neglect occurs if a child is malnourished, constantly fatigued, improperly clothed for the weather, left unattended and the like.
4. The investigation is commenced by the assignment of a social worker (case worker) who must start looking into the allegations within three days of the report.
5. The investigation will include home visit(s), interviews with the parent(s); the child and other household members. The case worker may speak to the reporting individual and others. This process is to determine if the allegations meet the legal requirements to labeled as neglect or abuse. If no, the investigation is terminated.
6. If the allegations meet the legal definition of neglect or abuse, then a more complete investigation will take place. This investigation may take a few weeks, or a few days and the purpose is to establish whether abuse or neglect in the opinion of the case worker in fact exists. If it does not, the case is “unsubstantiated” and your involvement with DSS ends.
7. If the allegations are confirmed, then the DSS will determine how severe the allegations are and what action need to be taken to protect the child. DSS can require a parent to:
a. make changes in the household,
b. undergo individual or family therapy,
c. undergo testing for drugs or alcohol,
d. place the child in DSS custody for placement with a family member or foster care.
8. Permanency Planning Services are provided to children who must be separated from their own parents or caretakers when they are unable or unwilling to provide adequate protection and care. The planning services and juvenile court involvement commences with a Petition filed by the DSS.
9. When a child is removed from the home the first hearing is a non-secure custody hearing – the judge decides if keeping the child out of the home is necessary. This is held within 7 days of the removal and periodically until disposition.
10. Within 60 days (or later if circumstances warrant) an adjudication hearing takes place where DSS must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the allegations in the petition are true. If DSS fails, the petition is dismissed, and the case is over. If DSS prevails, the child is adjudicated either abused, neglected and/or dependent.
11. The Disposition hearing may be held the same day as the adjudication hearing but, may be held up to 30 days later. Here, the judge decides with whom the child with live and the types of visits the parent will have.
12. Review hearings will usually take place periodically thereafter. If a parent can get their lives in order and can show a safe environment for the child, they may make a motion for review by the Court and ask for reunification.
13. If you are involved with a DSS case and you cannot afford an attorney a court appointed attorney will be appointed for you, however, private retained attorneys are sometimes better equipped to represent a parent’s interests. The Family Law team at Weaver, Bennett & Bland, P.A. has experience in dealing with complex cases brought by the DSS.
About the Author: Bill Whittaker
Bill is an Attorney and Partner at Weaver, Bennett & Bland in Matthews, North Carolina. He is a distinguished family law attorney with over thirty years’ experience in helping his clients navigate difficult periods in their lives.