When DCFS Is Involved
What happens if the Department of Children and Family Services becomes involved?
During proceedings in domestic relations court a parent may come to believe he or she should call the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS or Department), the State’s child welfare agency, regarding the other parent’s treatment of the child or regarding a child that the custodial parent can no longer control. DCFS can also become involved when professionals such as doctors and teachers notify DCFS that they suspect that a child they are seeing is abused or neglected. Such “mandated reporters” must immediately report suspected abuse or neglect to DCFS. This is commonly done by telephoning the DCFS Child Abuse Hotline.
When a Hotline call is made and DCFS determines that it should send an investigator to interview the child and other persons having knowledge of the reported events, generally that investigator will either “indicate” the reported abuse (meaning that the investigator concludes there is some credible evidence to support the allegation), or will “unfound” the reported abuse (meaning that no services or restricted contact can be compelled between parent and child). DCFS will issue a letter to the caretaker parent and to the alleged perpetrator stating its decision. DCFS destroys unfounded reports within thirty days unless the person who was investigated requests that the reports be maintained.
If the report is indicated, DCFS assigns a staff social worker to the family to monitor the situation, or, much less frequently, to bring the case to the State’s Attorney’s Office for the filing of a petition in the child protection division of the juvenile court. That petition may allege that a child is an abused, neglected or dependent minor.
If petitions are pending in the juvenile court and the Domestic Relations Division concurrently, the respective judges should confer to decide in which court the case should go forward. This requirement is found in Circuit Court of Cook County Order 1.6.
Sexual abuse investigations are often difficult investigations because there may be no physical evidence and the only witnesses may be the perpetrator (alleged abuser) and the victim. When allegations are made against a non-family member, an individual having no legal rights to have contact with the child, DCFS can minimize a child’s safety risk merely by prohibiting contact between the child and the alleged abuser.
When allegations of abuse are against a parent, the issues are more complicated. The risk of harm caused by a bad decision increases because a wrongly indicated report may mean that a child’s relationship with a parent is compromised or destroyed, and a wrongly unfounded report may mean that the child may remain at risk of harm.
When allegations of abuse are against a parent during or after a divorce, the issues are further complicated. A complex and antagonistic relationship may exist between the parents, and the motivation of a parent who is an outcry witness may be subject to question. Moreover, the naturally close relationship between the child and the parent who reported the allegations (often the parent with whom the child lives) may influence the child in subtle ways. To complicate matters further, the cases may begin in divorce court and be transferred to the Child Protection Division of the juvenile court where the rules, procedures, and legal standards are very different. (For more information about the juvenile court process, go to the “Juvenile Division” section of this site.)
What action should a parent take when he or she is concerned that his or her child has been abused? First, if the child is verbal, the parent should talk calmly to the child and allow the child to express in his or her own words what happened. If a doctor or hospital examination is necessary, the doctor or hospital staff will decide whether to notify DCFS. Multiple interviews or interrogations of the child should be avoided. Let the child abuse experts try to find out what actually happened. The parent’s role is to be calm and emotionally supportive. Parents should also be aware that DCFS may ask the State Attorney’s Office to bring Class 4 Felony charges against a parent who knowingly brings false allegations against the other parent, as a parent who knowingly brings false allegations against the other parent can be convicted of a crime. More information.
In the Domestic Relations Division, the court will not order that visits be stopped or supervised unless the court finds, after a hearing, that unrestricted visitation would seriously endanger the child’s physical, mental, moral or emotional health. If a DCFS worker advises a parent to prevent contact between a child and the other parent, the first parent’s attorney should bring this information to court so that the judge can evaluate and rule on the Department’s recommendation.
Visitation supervisors can be family members, non-relatives or professionals. Professional visitation supervisors can furnish reports to the court if ordered to do so by the judge. Professional supervisors can be expensive, but may be an appropriate choice if there is no suitable relative or non-relative agreeable to both sides or if the court determines that family members or other non-professional supervisors cannot adequately keep the children physically and emotionally safe. If at least one parent resides in the city of Chicago, there are agencies that can provide supervised visitation or supervised visitation exchanges free of charge. However, as these resources are limited, there may be a waiting list for qualification for the service.
Professional and non-professional supervisors may be subpoenaed to testify in court or at a deposition about what they have observed during visitation. Normally non-professionals are not asked to submit written reports to the court.
In summary, in domestic relations cases, the Department of Children and Family Services may become involved through calls to the Child Abuse Hotline placed by a parent, other family members, a professional “mandated” reporter or, pursuant to 705 ILCS 608 (b), by the court. The Department conducts an initial investigation into the allegation of abuse and determines whether the allegation is indicated. It is rare that the Department will take a domestic relations case to the State’s Attorney to begin proceedings in the juvenile court. Most indicated cases remain in the Domestic Relations Division and DCFS will not be involved, beyond their initial report, in further proceedings there.
In some cases, however, the law authorizes the court to order the Department to remain involved for a time, “to assure that the custodial or visitation terms of the judgment are carried out. Supervision shall be carried out under the provisions of Section 5 of the Children and Family Services Act.”