Most DCF social workers, supervisors, and managers are good to excellent. As in any organizations with nearly 4000 employees, a few bad apples slip in. There is no way to look at a person and know if he or she is being straight with you.
It’s all how you look at it. One judge recently chastised me from the Bench for criticizing DCF in strong terms, even though I thought my comments were warranted in that case. And yet I sit and hear client after client coming in with horror stories of DCF.
This section outlines typical DCF tricks, in the form of slogans used by some workers. There is no suggestion that all DCF employees do these things. However, the client must beware. These slogans can put you off your guard.
1. “It’s a routine form.”
The form that you are asked to sign may be routine for DCF, but that does not make it good for you. It’s like the wills for sale in hardware stores or in magazines. They may be “legal”, but that doesn’t mean that they will be in your best interests. Very often, you sign a routine, standard form, and realize too late that you have lost important rights.
You should never sign a legal document without having a lawyer review it. A decent small-firm lawyer should not be that expensive.
Just remember: when someone tells you that a form is “routine”, “standard”, “pre-approved”, “commonly-used”, or the like, ask them: “Who approved it? And, what does it do to my legal rights?” And if that person is not your lawyer, they have no business answering; and you have no business signing.
It does not take that long for a qualified lawyer to review a form before you sign it.
In particular, DCF often asks you to sign “releases.” People are then surprised that their friends, employers, neighbors, doctors, and children’s teachers are being asked for information about them, and wonder what is wrong. It can be most embarrassing.
Also, DCF often asks you to sign a “Service Agreement.” That is discussed further below.
2. “You’ll get a copy.”
Everywhere in the civilized world, you are entitled to a copy of legal documents that impact your rights. If a police officer writes you out a traffic ticket, you get a copy. If the sheriff serves you an eviction notice, you get a copy.
Some DCF workers do not subscribe to this philosophy. In earlier days, when you signed a Service Agreement, DCF promised to send you a copy, and seldom did. Since then, thanks to the efforts of this office with Commissioner Dunbar, DCF now uses a carbonless set, and gives you a copy. Unless the worker forgets. Assuming that your lawyer has agreed to the Service Agreement, be sure to insist on a copy after you sign.
And don’t accept excuses. In May, 2010, we had a client who had previously signed a service agreement, but was not given a copy, because the DCF local office had run out of carbonless service agreements in English (they did have them in Spanish). The social worker should, of course, have immediately made a copy and given it to the client, but she could not be bothered.When I got involved and asked her to, she did, but she was clearly annoyed.
I then asked the social worker if the problem had been corrected by escalating the shortage to management. She did not know; and sensing trouble, immediately asked that a DCF office lawyer join the conversation. I later asked the Area Director of the local office, and he refused to respond. Finally, I wrote to the Commissioner, who did solve this copious problem.
It is understandable that an
office may run out of forms, temporarily, due to State cost
However, it is not understandable why the office should use that
as an excuse to not give a copy to the client. Every DCF office has copy machines.
As of this writing, release forms are not on multiple sets. The worker may promise to send you a copy, but unless she is organized and makes a note, that is unlikely to happen. Assuming that your lawyer has agreed to signing the release, be sure to insist that a copy be mailed to you, make a note of what you signed, and tell the lawyer for follow-up.
3. “You don’t need a lawyer.”
This one is tricky. It is true that you don’t “need” a lawyer, as it is not illegal to represent yourself.
If you think that you don’t need a lawyer, just ask anyone who has tried to battle DCF without one.
Do not fall for the suggestion that having a lawyer is an admission of guilt. Plenty of innocent people have gone to jail, and plenty of decent parents have lost their kids. When the entire State of Connecticut is marshaled against you, it helps to have a lawyer on your side.
A more subtle DCF argument is that the lawyer will add to the time to resolve the case. In my experience, the exact opposite is true. DCF is more likely to speed things up if it knows that you have a lawyer who is on top of things.
To provide but one example. DCF will always ask one spouse if the other drinks too much. If the spouse says something like, “I wish he didn’t drink so much wine”, DCF may write (and in one notorious case did write) that “Mother states that Father has a drinking problem, which he will not acknowledge”. The sad thing is, once such a statement appears on a status report or social study, it takes on a life of its own, and is almost impossible to overcome.
4. “Call if you have a
If you have a question, you should indeed call, but not DCF. Call your lawyer.
It is this simple: verbal assurances are not worth much.
If it’s not written down, it probably won’t be useful to you. Every lawyer has stories of “he said/she said” disputes, with the parties disagreeing, often vehemently, as to who said what and who meant what. The problem can usually be avoided if you call the lawyer, and deal with DCF in writing.
this Service Agreement, or safety plan, or we’ll seize the kids.”
A “Service Agreement”, sometimes called a Safety Plan, is a voluntary agreement that you will do or not do something. For example, you might agree that Uncle Joe cannot be allowed in the presence of your children; or you might agree that you will submit to a sexual abuse evaluation. It is not a court order, and you cannot go to jail for violating it. However, the threat is that if you do not comply, the kids may be seized, or other consequences.
Most people assume that if they do comply, then all will be well. You will notice that the Service Agreement never says this. Virtually every week, someone says to me, “I did everything they wanted, and yet they are still in my lives after all these months....”
It is foolish to sign a Service Agreement without the advice of a lawyer. This document can really come back to haunt you. Despite the pressures you will be under, you have every right to first consult a lawyer.
In order to seize the kids, DCF needs a judge’s order. A DCF manager can also order the kids seized for a maximum of 4 days, but then must return them unless a judge signs an order. In other words, Service Agreements should be taken seriously; but do not be pressured into signing without a lawyer.
6. “The Court will get you a
The Court will not get you a lawyer if you are simply being investigated.
The Court will not get you a lawyer if you have been substantiated as a perpetrator of abuse or neglect, and wish to appeal that substantiation.
The Court will not get you a lawyer if you have been placed on the Central
Registry and wish to appeal that finding.
In fact, some social workers imply that you will do better without a lawyer.
The Court will get you a lawyer if DCF files a Neglect Petition, or a Termination of Parental Rights Petition, in the Juvenile Court; and if you are found by the Judge to qualify on the basis of financial need. In that case, the court-appointed lawyer will cost you nothing.
The problem is that, at present, Juvenile court-appointed lawyers are paid seriously under market rates by the State, to put it mildly. As of February, 2013 court appointed lawyers for parents are capped at $500.00 per case. Even a 20- hour case would work out to $25.00 per hour for self-employment, equivalent to a wage of about $8-12 per hour. And most cases take far more hours; to the point that the lawyer is sometimes working for free.
Fortunately, it is possible in some complicated cases to request hourly billing at $50.00 per hour. This request may or may not be granted.
And on top of that, most direct expenses, such as
auto travel, long distance calls, your own expert witnesses, etc., are either
not reimbursable, or are very difficult to get reimbursed. Further still,
paperwork requirements to get paid are burdensome, and court-appointed lawyers
who complain about the system run the risk of getting audited or not
Many court-appointed lawyers are excellent in spite of the above problems. Others, however, simply do not have the financial resources to do the demanding work of challenging the State of Connecticut. The State remains in a budget-cutting mood.
When I did court-appointed cases, I was astounded at how many people told me
that I was the only lawyer who ever visited them or their kids. I was amazed
that many lawyers never followed-up with DCF, but waited until DCF filed motions
and petitions. I was often asked to call other lawyers and beg them to call
One of the strangest incidents occurred when I was new to the field. I represented a child, and attended a case status conference, which is a gathering in the courthouse of all parties and lawyers on a case, but without a judge. The idea is to be informal, get status, and try to settle matters. The conference was run by a Court Services Officer (CSO), and this particular CSO was, and still is, one of the best. The CSO went around the room and asked every lawyer and DCF what they thought. She clearly saw me, and yet completely skipped over me. When all others were done, the CSO started to summarize. I interrupted with, “I’m the child’s lawyer. Don’t I get to voice my opinion?” The CSO looked incredulous. She assumed that, as the child’s court-appointed lawyer, I would not bother to actually visit the child, but would simply adopt DCF’s position. We straightened it out. Fortunately, that type of thing is no longer a problem; but it is still common to see lawyers for parents and children not actively involved in case status conferences.
In other words, you can get a court-appointed lawyer under some conditions. It is wise to check and be sure that the lawyer is working for you.
I found out in January 2008 that a good friend of mine had waited until twelve days before a TPR trial to ask his client if she had any possible witnesses in her defense at the TPR. This, despite the fact that DCF had been involved with her for over a year, and despite the fact that TPR trial preparation takes months. Preparing witnesses for direct and cross is not a straightforward matter. And he is one of the better, more conscientious lawyers! There is no avoiding the fact that you cannot defeat DCF for free; or at least very seldom can you do so.
In 1991, a committee of the American Bar Association published a volume called “Trial Manual for Defense Attorneys in Juvenile Court.” The volume contained a statement which remains true to this day:
“State intervention proceedings generally bear most harshly on poor persons. It is well established that the children of the poor constitute the vast majority of individuals coming to the attention of the juvenile court….Two family law system exist, one derived from the civil courts and one from the poor laws. In the first system, a powerful presumption is recognized in favor of privacy of the family and parental rights; in the second system…the presumption in favor of the parents does not exist or is substantially weakened.”
I am not saying that I favor universal free legal aid. But keep in mind that the State has enormous resources, and a vast bureaucracy to maintain. You may wish to consider your decision carefully.
FURTHER NOTE ON LAWYER INVOLVEMENT
I said above that the days of a CSO skipping over the child’s lawyer were ended. But some people have not gotten the word regarding parents’ lawyers.
In October of 2008, I attended a DCF Administrative Case Review, or ACR. These are sometimes also called Treatment Planning Conferences, or TPC’s.
The DCF facilitator was an excellent and well-meaning person. After she spoke a few words, and we all introduced ourselves, she asked me, “Have you met your client yet?” She actually believed that a lawyer could represent a client, even at an informal gathering, without having met the client or having reviewed the file.
Such is life in the world of DCF defense lawyers. The happy result: the facilitator turned out to be excellent, and the ACR was extremely productive.
NOTE ON PAYMENTS IN OTHER STATES
There is no national standardization of pay rates for court-appointed lawyers in juvenile matters.
In Maryland, juvenile court lawyers are part of the regular public defender system. They have decent salaries and benefits, access to the appellate division for appeals, and access to forensic and mental health divisions for their experts. They are on a par with the AAG’s who represent DCF. As one Maryland lawyer put it, “I can’t imagine having it any other way.”
We can well imagine. In some states, a lawyer may get $1,000.00 for a case that can go on for several years. In others, lawyers face unrealistically low hourly rate caps, and then are subject to being challenged on their bills.
In Connecticut, the AAG’s representing DCF, as well as DCF in house counsel, are well-paid, with benefits and vacations. Court-appointed lawyers have to struggle with low reimbursement rates. The State Legislature is in no mood to increase pay for lawyers.
7. “It’s just a
If a parent fails to show up for a visit with a child in a DCF case, then that fact is noted and is often used against the parent for years to come.
If the parent shows up, but a DCF worker or volunteer fails to bring the child for any reason, and fails to call the parent ahead of time, then it’s often excused as a “communication problem.”
The term “communication problem” is one of the most Orwellian phrases in American usage today. It means everything and nothing. If someone uses it on you, beware. If you have a lawyer who uses that phrase on you, I would find someone else.
There are, in my view, no communication problems. There are: unintentional errors; semi-intentional errors; and intentional errors. I make unintentional errors every day. I admit them, and when called for, I make a refund to the client. DCF, for some reason, is very reluctant to admit errors. This is probably more a reflection on bureaucratic imperatives than on individual workers. Organizations have a life of their own.
There is only one known cure for communication problems: put it in writing!
Further, if you have a problem: TELL YOUR LAWYER IMMEDIATELY. The lawyer should be able to do something to solve the problem. If the lawyer doesn’t know, then he cannot help. Please, do not assume that the lawyer will automatically get wind of a problem.
Another reason for putting things in writing is that social workers on a case frequently change, for a variety of reasons. Everyone has experienced calling an organization and hearing, “He doesn’t work here any more, and I don’t know about that.” Verbal deals are meaningless even with honest persons, if the person is no longer there. Tell the lawyer, who will put it in writing.
Errors can and should be corrected. And “communication problems” are simply a myth.
Here are three actual examples of DCF
“communication problems” that occurred in 2009:
1. If you receive a substantiation letter, it states in the letter that you may get a postponement only by writing to the Hearing Officer. DCF changed that procedure in March, 2009, by requiring you to instead file a form with the Admin Hearing Unit in Hartford. However, the Admin Hearing Unit did not change the instructions in its own substantiation letter. The letter still told people to write to the Hearing Officer! When this office pointed out the discrepancy, the person in charge was kind enough to write, “It would be a good idea to change our letter.” Hopefully, they have done so. It would be a shame if persons were denied the opportunity to postpone their hearing after having been misled by DCF’s own form.
2. DCF management put out a directive saying that social workers should interact personally with clients and lawyers whenever possible. This is commendable, but at least one social worker misinterpreted the directive as meaning that she was forbidden to use e-mail when dealing with lawyers! This would have been a disaster, as e-mail is many times faster, cheaper, and more accurate than telephone tag. Fortunately, it was straightened out; but one wonders how many persons have had delayed communications due to similar misunderstandings.
3. I received a form for a substantiation/registry appeal, asking me to fill it out and mail it back to a secretary at DCF. I did so, and requested in a cover letter to be notified that it was received and docketed. I got no reply and sent a follow-up. I still got no reply, and then wrote to the Commissioner. This time I got back a letter from the secretary saying that it was not her job to reply, and that I should have known to contact someone else. Needless to say, I was not pleased. The matter was straightened out, but it is incredible that DCF thinks in terms of “whose job is it” rather than “how should we respond to a legitimate inquiry.”
8. “We’re just protecting the
One subtle argument of DCF is that it requires special rules, and hearsay evidence, because it is protecting children; and children are often helpless and invisible victims. Everyone knows of the truly horrendous stories of child abuse, and every decent person wants to prevent child abuse and neglect. DCF, in its important battle against child abuse, often implies that parents’ rights must be skirted in order to get at the truth. In fact, one Judge actually lectured me recently from the Bench, saying, “You know, DCF must get at the truth, and parents and guardians don’t always tell the truth.”
DCF also uses this argument at State Legislative hearings whenever its power is threatened.
What DCF neglects to mention is that children at risk can always be protected under existing laws.
If DCF convinces a Judge, in a sworn affidavit, that a child is in imminent danger of serious harm, then the Judge will sign an OTC (Order of Temporary Custody), which empowers DCF and the Police to remove the child immediately, by force if necessary. The parents then get a hearing after the fact to plead their case, and are entitled to a full trial if agreement cannot be reached.
Also, if there is no time for an OTC, DCF can seize the child for 4 days (called a “96-hour-hold”). At the end of the 4 days, DCF must return the child, unless it has secured an OTC. In other words, children are not left unprotected simply because the rights of parents and guardians are protected.
9. “Don’t complain;
it’s a free country.”
Freedom is a relative thing. In this country, you can say almost anything that you want, provided that you don’t actually do anything. People who buck the system are not quite as free as the glad-handers would have you believe.
One Judge who knocked heads with prosecutors was removed from hearing cases after the prosecutors caused a very negative editorial to be published in a local newspaper. The resulting outcry by a public which did not fully understand the issues proved too much for the judge.
Another Judge who knocked heads with DCF and other authorities was suddenly the victim of a campaign to have her removed from the Bench. All sorts of allegations against her also surfaced; allegations which likely would have been ignored for more compliant judges. Fortunately, the judge survived.
Members of Congress who buck the leadership may find their district out of pork that year, and their re-election in jeopardy. The point is that no matter who you are, or how exalted a position you have, you are vulnerable if you don’t play the game.
Court-appointed lawyers who complained that the system was stacked against them have been subjected to audits, slow reimbursement, and even cancellation of their contracts.
In ordinary life, people who assert their rights too much may find themselves out of friends, out of a job, or even worse.
There is actually a legion of psychologists who make a lot of money, working for organizations, telling them how to deal with “attitude problems”, and diagnosing individualists as persons with “personality disorders”, “oppositional/defiant disorders”, and the like. The old Russian practice was to declare political prisoners insane, so that they could justify imprisoning dissidents, not for free speech, but for insanity. Today we justify stifling dissent by labeling dissenters as mentally disordered in one way or another.
Side Note: All this was identified over half a century ago by Marshall McLuhan. His classic book, “The Mechanical Bride”, is available through the internet. It is worth it, to understand modern life.
Yes, this is a free country, as the history of individual rights goes. But thinking that you can say or do what you want, so long as you don’t break the law, is a mistake. There are consequences for asserting yourself. Liberals as well as Conservatives do not like people who make waves.
I am always saddened when people come to my office, look at me, and say, “But I’m a law-abiding American citizen. Don’t I have rights?” And I have to respond, “Not as many as you think.”
The bottom line: When facing DCF, you do best to call a lawyer as soon as possible.