Your Rights in DCFS Investigations

Your Rights in DCFS Investigations
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Last updated: September 2015


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

There is no simple answer to this question because each case is different. However, learning about how DCFS investigations and the courts work in cases involving claims of child abuse or neglect can 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. You should always call your lawyer for advice before talking to a DCFS investigator, police officer, detective, or medical professional. This is very important because any statement made to anyone other than your lawyer may be used against you by DCFS, by the police, or in court. 

If you don’t have a lawyer, you should think about hiring one. If money is an issue, some organizations may give you free legal advice. Although DCFS investigations don’t always involve the police or end up in court, many do. Some can even lead to criminal charges, 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 (1-800-252-2873) that people call to report possible child abuse or neglect. Anyone can call the hotline, but by law, doctors, teachers, child care workers, and anyone else who works with children must call if they think a child is being abused or neglected.
When someone calls the DCFS hotline, the hotline worker who answers the call decides if the caller has good cause to think that a child has been abused or neglected. The hotline worker also decides if the information the caller gives meets other guidelines that DCFS and state law require before accepting a report. If the hotline worker 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 DCFS and the police often investigate the same claims. This means they will talk and work together. Anything you say to DCFS can be used against you by the police. DCFS has 60 days to complete a formal investigation. Formal investigations are used to:

  • Figure out if there is “credible evidence” that the child was abused or neglected
  • Decide if the child is in danger in the home

When a formal investigation begins, DCFS assigns a “Child Protection Investigator” to look in to the case. Within 24 hours of the first report to the hotline, the investigator will try to visit the child to make sure there is no immediate threat to the child’s safety. After the first visit, the investigator will gather evidence by interviewing many different people, including:

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

The investigator will also visit the child’s home and other places where the abuse or neglect may have occurred. 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 may ask a parent to agree to a safety plan. If the investigator thinks that a safety plan wouldn’t help at any point during the investigation, he or she can immediately remove the child from the home. This is called taking “protective custody.”

How do I know if DCFS will put my children in Foster Care?

DCFS is not supposed to take your child from you, unless it is the only way to keep your child safe. Before taking your child from the home, DCFS must try other ways to keep your child safe, such as creating a safety plan. A safety plan should be in writing and may involve you or your child staying with someone else while DCFS completes its investigation. You do not have to agree to a safety plan, but if you don’t agree to a safety plan, DCFS may take protective custody of your child for 48 hours. During this 48-hour period, DCFS may ask the county State’s Attorney to file court papers asking a judge to give DCFS temporary legal custody of your child, so it can place your child in foster care. If the State's Attorney denies the request to file court papers, or if a judge does not give DCFS temporary custody, DCFS must return your child after the 48 hours are over.

DCFS may ask you to take part in “Intact Services.” You may be asked to:

  • Go to a parenting class
  • Go to counseling
  • Have a mental health evaluation
  • Meet with a social worker

If you take part in ‘Intact Services’ you may not be required to go to court and your child may not be placed in Foster Care. Like safety plans, you do not have to agree to intact services. If DCFS asks to do an intact service that you feel is unnecessary, you have the right to appeal. Some parents see the benefits of intact services, so they ask for services that they think might help them. Most parents agree that intact services are much better than going to court.

Sometimes DCFS asks a parent to give someone else formal legal guardianship of the child. Before you  agree or sign any legal documents, you should talk to a lawyer or a free legal aid service about the risks and benefits of legal guardianship.You shouldn’t rely on what DCFS workers tell them about legal guardianship. For more information on what guardianship is, see the article "What Options Are Available for the Placement of Children When Their Parents Cannot Care for Them" in the ‘Related Content’ section. It is important to know that even if parents agree to a safety plan, to intact services, or to give someone else legal guardianship of their child, DCFS can still get temporary legal custody and put the child in foster care. 

If the State’s Attorney’s office doesn’t think there is enough proof to bring a case alleging abuse or neglect, it usually rejects DCFS’s request to file court papers. If it agrees to file the court papers, you will be notified. When it is time for court,  you will be appointed a lawyer if you can’t afford legal services. You should only discuss the situation with a lawyer that you hire or who is appointed to you. 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 State's Attorney will also charge you with the crime of abusing or neglecting your child. If this happens, a lawyer will be appointed to represent you in the criminal case if you cannot afford one. Depending on where you live in Illinois, the same lawyer may be appointed to both cases. If you are charged with a crime, you should only discuss the situation with your lawyer. Anything you say to anyone else can be used against you in the DCFS case and the criminal case.

What happens after DCFS finishes its investigation?

DCFS has 60 days to finish its investigation. If there is proof that you abused or neglected your 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 instance, you will receive a letter from the DCFS office in Springfield telling you the outcome of the investigation. 

What Are the Consequences if I Am Indicated?

If you are indicated, DCFS will keep your name in a database called the State Central Register, or “SCR.” Your name can stay in this database anywhere from 5 to 50 years, depending on the type of abuse or neglect. The SCR can’t be seen by the public. However, if you apply for a job working with children or working with adults with mental disabilities, an employer can see any information from the SCR that relates to you. If you are in the SCR, you may not be able to get a job in these fields. If you already have a job in one of these areas, you may get fired after your name is reported in the SCR. Indicated reports can also be used against you in any future claims of child abuse or neglect.

If I Am Indicated, Can I Appeal?

Yes, but you only have 60 days from the date on the letter from Springfield to appeal. Steps on how to appeal will be in the letter, but you should talk to a lawyer right away.

What Chances Do I Have to Win an Appeal?

Your chances of winning an appeal depend on how strong the evidence is against you. A lawyer should be able to give you an opinion on this. In an appeal, you don’t have the burden of proving you are innocent of abuse or neglect. DCFS has the burden of proving that they were right to indicate you . If you win the appeal, your name will be removed from the SCR.

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