Forensic Files: Social Services

The next three articles I am writing have to do with forensic issues: Social Services, Attorneys and the Press. The reason I am writing this series is due to the extensive background I have working with forensic cases through Children’s Protective Services or as a psychotherapist taking on clients who are involved with the court on some level.

Forensic means court action involved in a situation. It does not mean murder or rape (solely) as most people think when they hear this word. Therefore if you are involved with the court on some level, some criminal action is taking place, you have a forensic case. Blood and guts do not have to play a part. Juvenile Forensic work is Children’s Protective Services (aka social services in some states), juvenile hall and psychiatric facilities (sometimes court is involved in continuing the stay at the hospital). Adult Forensic work might include people involved in accounting, real estate, finances, but also a case facing prison or jail time and again psychiatric facilities.

Now that I have explained this lets discuss Social Services. If you are involved with a case, your kids have been removed or someone in your family has been, or you are thinking about being involved as a foster parent, relative caregiver, or opening up a group home or other congregate care facility, then you need to read further to get some understanding of what you will be facing.

Social Services have the same federal laws that they have to follow in every state. A child can only be removed for abuse or neglect. How each state interprets these laws is dependent on the that region, the body of laws they  have put together to effect these laws and from what I can see the culture of the state’s people. Therefore, each state will behave differently based on the policies and procedures put together interpreting how they will run their county agency. To clarify, abuse means physical, sexual, or emotional (the latter is difficult to prove unless it is heinous) and neglect means medical, financial and basic needs, also not always easy to determine.

Having explained the above you will surprised to know that having a dirty house does not mean children should be removed. However, if there is no food in the house and the children are not attending school and do not have plumbing – basic needs not being met – this is a different story. Also, because the parents are using drugs, this is not a reason to remove. If they are using drugs and beating their kids or sexually abusing them or the kids are starving, this is a reason to remove their kids. Even domestic violence alone is not a reason to remove unless of course the children have been put in danger. This sounds very strange but acts of domestic violence do not always involve the children.

My background with social services was in California. All of us who worked as Child Welfare Workers (in our agency) had master’s degrees which meant we had clinical expertise. Social workers with undergraduate degrees do NOT have clinical expertise and have only experiential knowledge dependent on how many years they have been with the agency. This is a huge difference understanding why a family is behaving as they are vs. using judgement based on what you have seen and learned. California is an exceptional state because there were strict decisions adhered to with regard to “What is in the best interests of the child.” What I have seen in other states (for example Ohio where I am now) is much more loose and concerning.

If children have been removed from you or a family member and you are now involved with the court, here is what you need to know. These are the facts and maybe it sucks to hear this and it seems unfair but this is the way the laws are enacted and until something is done to change this, it is best that you listen. Not just read but listen! If you don’t, than you have no excuse for losing your child or family member. These are the facts. YOUR CHILDREN SHOULD COME FIRST NOT YOU. KEEP THIS IN MIND AS YOU READ.

1. You should have a right to an attorney – I hope all states at least allow this. Some states offer attorney’s for each child (CA). Whether you get a public defender or have to pay for one will be determined by your financial status. If this is your child that has been removed and you don’t have an attorney, you will be taken advantage of by the court and social services and there is nothing you can do about it. Get an attorney.

2. Judges only listen to attorneys in the court room. Social Services are generally not allowed to speak unless requested by the judge or asking the court supervisor to be allowed to speak. The same goes for parents who have no attorneys. If you have one, do not speak without your attorney’s permission. Do not make a scene in the court room. This will only make you look stupid and it does not influence the judge in a positive way.

3. Whatever has been charged against you as a parent, allow your attorney to deal with this and explain to them what actually happened. If you do not show up for court or your attorney does not win the case, the decision has been made. Do not expect that social services can do anything about it. Once the charge against you has been set in court, it will not change for the duration of your case. Wasting your time arguing with your social worker about this, is a waste of your time and theirs. Take responsibility for what has happened and go on to the next step of your case. Do you want your kids back or do  you want to waste people’s time? You had your chance and that time is over now.

4. Haven’t heard from your social worker? Time is precious, so don’t sit around waiting – ever. Don’t blame the system either. Often times we get the wrong phone number because someone is wasted at removal, or scared, or some other circumstance. Maybe your phone has been shut off. Take responsibility for your case. If your kids have been removed and it has been a day or two, call your local county social services number or go down there and don’t leave or hang up until you know who you should talk to.

5. Family Reunification. Once the court has removed your children and made them a dependent of the court, you will go into family reunification. If you want to get your kids back you have between 6-12 months to do so, depending on the age of the child and how many kids you have already lost to the system. If you are almost there at 12 months you often have an additional six months that you can request. This is the most valuable time you have to get your children back. If you waste it arguing about why they were removed, then you miss precious time focusing on yourself. There is a case plan, that you should be involved in and sign which details what you need to do to get your children back. Some states are not as formal with this process, which is very sad. Make sure you ask to see your case plan or ask your social worker “What do I need to do during family reunification to get my kids back? Do whatever they say. Yes that sounds harsh but they are professionals and it has been determined what you need to do to get your kids back. If you weren’t drunk that night and you weren’t in court to deal with this, than you need to go to AA. You didn’t abuse your child and you have to be in a parenting class and therapy, then you show up for that class and that therapist. Your boyfriend/girlfriend at fault – get rid of them and put your children first. Even if they are not guilty in your eyes, you need to focus on your children. You haven’t heard from your social worker, than follow step four and take responsibility.

6. Very small percentages of people get their children returned in the 6-12 months period. This seems to be the same odds in every state. The reason being is people do not take responsibility for why their children were removed. They want to argue the entire 6 months. They resist following through on services requested. They don’t show up for court. They continue to spiral out of control and keep behaving as if nothing happened. The public always wants to believe it is the fault of social services – sometimes it is, professionals make mistakes. But more often than not, it is the fault of the family. There are some damn good social workers out there. Even though I am horrified at what I have seen in other states, this does not mean that the professionals are any less concerned about the children they work with. It means their hands are tied by ignorant legislators and old-fashioned thought processes.

7. Adoption and Legal Guardianship – Adoption means your PARENTAL RIGHTS ARE REMOVED. Your child’s name is changed and their birth certificates are changed. Legally you can hire an attorney in the future – once you have turned your life around and try to get them back but don’t get your hopes up. Also, think about what you are doing to your children and to their life. But the longer you wait, the more you make this miserable for them. Legal Guardianship means you still have your parental rights but the Legal Guardian determines whether or not you get to visit your children. They have this right until they turn 18. So if you show up wasted don’t expect to visit. If you make lots of promises and then only show up 1 out of 10 times, don’t expect to get the visit. It is easier to get your child back than adoption but consider whether this is the best thing for your child. Get an attorney and don’t waste people’s time with this until you have turned your life around. Turning your life around doesn’t mean you are in rehab for the sixth time or even the first time. This means you have been clean for at least a year or have been in therapy for this amount of time or have a decent home and have taken parenting classes – whatever you were meant to do on your case plan, you have done it and have been consistent for a certain amount of time. This also doesn’t mean that you have a new boyfriend and he is going to take care of things. You have to take responsibility. The more games you play with social services – before you are ready, the more you make life difficult for your children.

8. Visitation with your children – Do not show up with candy and toys. Do NOT show up wasted. Do come with home cooked meals from your culture. If they have already eaten don’t show your sadness. You should spend this time loving your children with your food, attention, and ears for listening to them. Play with them and hug them appropriately. Do not grill them about where they live. Do not give them false promises. In fact do not promise anything. Behave like a mature responsible parent. If this is supervised visitation try to ignore the professional in the room and focus on your children. It is awkward for both you and the professional, however, if it is supervised, than there is a reason for this. Take responsibility for the situation.

9. Return all phone calls. If ever you get a phone call from your social worker, you return the call promptly. If the police show up your house for a “health and safety visit” because you have refused to follow through, don’t act surprised. No matter how much you hate your social worker, you have to follow through. They have the power to keep or return your child.

10. Problems with your social worker – If your county does not have an ombudsperson or someone who is assigned to objectively deal with problems with your social worker, ask for a supervisor and talk to them about the situation. Stick to the facts rather than bad mouthing your social worker about how you didn’t get your kids back. This person wants to hear about the problems you are facing with your worker. They don’t want to have to go over your issues with social services that you are taking out on the caseworker.

11. Document everything that happens on your case from the moment your children are removed. If you want to convince anyone of anything, you must have your own facts to back up the case. Give dates and times and don’t write this all down the night before you go to court.

12. If you are wasted, don’t expect anyone to take you seriously. If you don’t show up for hearings the same thing applies. Don’t give excuses either. Communicate with your social worker while you are clean and sober. If there is an issue getting to court, ask your attorney to get you an extension – sometimes it is possible.

There are probably other things I am forgetting here but feel free to ask. Don’t leave comments about a kid you didn’t get back though. Hire a family law attorney and have that conversation with them. I cannot comment on a state or county or isolated situation when I really don’t know all the details. Even if you think you are right, there are always multiple sides to the story (facts) that will be unknown to me. An attorney knows your state laws and your rights with regards to family law. Whatever has happened in your family is very sad and I empathize with your situation but I can not change it. Only you can through the correct channels.

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