Your Rights in DCFS Investigations

Your Rights in DCFS Investigations
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Last updated: July 2013

I Am a Parent and Someone Called DCFS on Me, What Should I Do?

There is no simple or easy answer to this question. Each case is different and has a different answer, depending on the situation. However, teaching yourself about how DCFS investigations and the courts work in cases involving claims of child abuse or neglect will help you make better decisions.  

If I Am Working with a Lawyer on a Case Involving My Children, Should I Let My Lawyer Know if DCFS Has Been Called on Me?

Yes, definitely. Before you talk to a DCFS investigator, police officer, detective or medical professional, you should call your lawyer for advice. Any statement you make to anyone other than your lawyer may be used against you by DCFS, the police, or in court. If you do not have a lawyer, you should think about hiring one. If you do not have enough money to hire a lawyer, some organizations may give you free legal advice. Although many DCFS investigations do not involve police or end up in court, many do, and some can even lead to criminal charges against you, which can lead to jail or prison. 

What Happens When Someone Calls DCFS?

DCFS stands for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. It is the state agency in Illinois that looks into claims of child abuse or neglect. DCFS has a statewide hotline (1-800-25-ABUSE) which people call to report possible child abuse or neglect. Anyone can call the hotline, but some people like doctors, teachers, child care workers and anyone else who works with children must by law call the hotline if they think a child is being abused or neglected.

When someone calls the hotline to tell DCFS about possible child abuse or neglect, the person who takes the call first decides if the reporter (the person calling the hotline) has good cause to think that a child has been abused or neglected. The person at the hotline also decides if the information given by the caller meets a number of other guidelines which DCFS and state law need to accept a report. If the person at the hotline decides that the report meets all of these guidelines, the next step is a formal DCFS investigation.

What Happens in a Formal DCFS Investigation?

A DCFS investigation is not a criminal investigation. However, anything you say to DCFS can be used against you by the police. Sometimes DCFS and the police investigate the same claims. When they do, they will talk and work together. 

DCFS has 60 days to complete a formal investigation. The investigation has two important purposes. One is to figure out if there is “credible evidence” that the child was abused or neglected. The other is to decide if the child is in danger in the home. 

First, someone at DCFS is assigned to investigate the case. This person is called a “Child Protection Investigator.” The investigator will try to see the child within 24 hours of the first report to the hotline to make sure that there is no direct danger to the child’s safety.

After the first visit to make sure the child is not in immediate danger, the investigator should follow specific steps in gathering evidence. As part of the investigation, the investigator will interview many different people. These people include:

  • The person making the report
  • The person accused of abusing or neglecting the child
  • The child, if needed
  • The child's doctors or teachers
  • Other people in the child's family
  • Any other person who may have information about the claims in the report

The investigator will also visit the place the abuse or neglect may have occurred and the child’s home. The investigator will decide if the child’s home is safe by doing a “Child Endangerment and Risk Assessment Protocol” or CERAP. If the child’s home is found to be unsafe at any point during the investigation, the investigator will ask that the parents or caregiver agree to a safety plan.

How Do I Know if DCFS Will Put My Children in Foster Care?

DCFS is not supposed to take a child from their parent unless it is the only way to keep the child safe. DCFS must try other ways to keep the child safe before taking the child from their parent.

DCFS may ask you to agree to a safety plan. A safety plan should be in writing and may involve the child or one of the parents staying with someone else while DCFS completes its investigation. You do not have to agree to a safety plan, but if you do not agree to a safety plan, DCFS may take protective custody of your child for 48 hours without asking your permission. During this 48-hour period, DCFS may ask the county States Attorney to file court papers asking a judge to give DCFS temporary custody of the child, so it can place the child in foster care. If the States Attorney’s refuses DCFS’s request to file court papers, or a judge does not give DCFS temporary custody of the child, DCFS must return the child to you after the 48 hours are over.

Another thing DCFS may ask you to do is take part in “Intact Services.” Like a safety plan, you do not have to agree to intact services. You should be given a service plan telling what intact services DCFS wants you to do. You may be asked to go to a parenting class, go to counseling, have a mental health evaluation and meet with a social worker. Taking part in intact services does not require you to go to court and does not involve putting your child into formal foster care. If DCFS asks you to do an intact service that you feel is not necessary, you have the right to appeal it. You can also ask for intact services that you think might help you. Some parents find intact services helpful. Most parents agree that it is much better than going to court.

Sometimes DCFS asks a parent to give someone else formal legal guardianship of the child. If DCFS asks you to do this, you should get advice from a lawyer before you agree or sign any legal documents. Do not rely on what the DCFS worker tells you about legal guardianship. You should ask your lawyer about the risks and benefits of agreeing to it. For more information on what guardianship is see What Options Are Available for the Placement of Children When Their Parents Cannot Care for Them.

It is important to know that even if you agree to a safety plan, or to intact services, or even to give someone else legal guardianship of your child, DCFS can still get temporary legal custody of your child and put them in foster care. If the States Attorney’s office feels that there is not enough proof to bring a case alleging abuse or neglect, it should reject DCFS’s request. If it agrees to file the court papers, you will be notified. When you go to court, if you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you. You should only discuss the situation with an attorney you hire or who is appointed for you, because anything you say to anyone else can be used against you in court, even though you have not been charged with a crime.

In some cases, the States Attorney will also charge you with the crime of abusing or neglecting your children. If this happens, an attorney will be also appointed to represent you in the criminal case if you cannot afford one. Depending on where you live in Illinois, it may be the same attorney appointed for both cases or different attorneys for each case. If you are charged with a crime, you should only discuss the situation with an attorney you hire or who is appointed for you, because anything you say to anyone else can be used against you in both the DCFS case and the criminal case.

What Happens after DCFS Finishes Its Investigation?

DCFS has 60 days to finish its investigations. If there is proof that you have abused or neglected a child, DCFS will label the case “indicated.” If DCFS does not find proof that you abused or neglected your child, the case will be labeled “unfounded.” In either case, you will be told of this in a letter from Springfield. 

What Are the Consequences if I Am Indicated?

If you are indicated, your name will be kept by DCFS in a database called the State Central Register, or “SCR.” Your name will stay in this database from 5 to 50 years, depending on the type of abuse or neglect. The SCR cannot be seen by the public. However, if you apply for a job in child care or working with adults with mental disabilities, the employer can see the SCR. If you are in the SCR you may not be able to get a job in these fields, and, if you already have a job in these areas, it may get you fired. Indicated reports can also be used against you if there are future claims that you have abused or neglected a child.

If I Am Indicated, Can I Appeal?

Yes, but you only have 60 days from the date on the letter from Springfield telling you that you have been indicated. Steps on how to appeal will be in the letter, but you should talk to a lawyer right away if you have not already done so.

What Chances Do I Have to Win an Appeal?

Your chances of winning an appeal depend on the strength or weakness of the evidence against you. A lawyer should be able to give you an opinion on this. In an appeal, DCFS has the burden of proof, not you. If you win the appeal, you will be removed from the SCR. 

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