Recently, I was interviewed by a friend’s son who was supposed to research a career for his school project. He knew that I was an attorney and that some of my cases involved defending child abuse allegations. He asked me a simple question, that caused me to consider that the most basic of questions deserves a digestible answer. For me, this was explaining to a 14-year-old my answer to: “So, what is DCS?”
I will do my best to capture that answer in the few paragraphs below. This is far from a comprehensive answer to the question, but after I explained it in the interview, I realized I need to write it out. Having represented parties in child abuse and neglect proceedings, I sometimes forget that the underlying principles here are vitally critical and, fortunately, not that complicated.
Here it is:
Parents screw up. Most often, the parenting mistakes they make are never known. Parents get frustrated with toddlers too young to know right from wrong and spank them, parents have a few too many glasses of wine after the kids are asleep, parents forget to log off websites leaving them accessible to prying eyes, etc. Most parenting mistakes go unnoticed and are never reported—the parent realizes their error and corrects it without any further escalation.
Sometimes those mistakes are bad, and sometimes they are horrific. That spank earlier left a bruise, the heavy drinking led to a car accident while taking the child to soccer practice, or the unthinkable, that a parent intentionally harmed a child physically or sexually.
DCS in Arizona has the basic job of protecting children. They are the tentacle of Arizona government that gets involved to make sure kids have a safe home environment. They are not police officers, but they can do things that sometimes make them feel like the police, such as interviewing people and getting warrants to take custody of children. For the most part, DCS workers are wonderfully well-meaning. However, they are also underpaid and overworked.
DCS investigates to see if these parents are “willing and capable” of taking care of their own children. If they do not think there is a competent parent, they can file something called a Dependency Petition, which asks the court to give DCS the authority to act as the parent for the child on a temporary basis in order to ensure the child’s safety.
When DCS becomes the temporary parent, kids often go to foster homes. Foster care is nothing more than the notion that there are safe places that will take the children when DCS does not think it is safe for them to be at home.
When DCS becomes the temporary caregiver, they usually give the parents a chance to fix the problem that caused the situation in the first place. So, if a parent is abusing drugs, DCS will give them a chance to stop using and even provide help in that process, including counseling and drug testing, the idea being that if the parent can fix the problem, they should get to be in charge of their own children again.
On occasion, what a parent has done is so terrible that the children can’t return home. Imagine a situation where a parent abused a child so horrendously to the point that the child was hospitalized. If that happens, DCS needs to look for another home for the child and, through various detailed statutes, may attempt to have the parents’ rights terminated. DCS could ask a court to terminate the parents’ rights so that they cannot parent the child in the future, and the parent may also be criminally charged.
At times, DCS just provides help. If a schoolteacher is worried that a child is showing up to class with lice and not eating enough, DCS might come to investigate and provide assistance to the family in finding resources to make sure that the child is healthy. In these situation, they often do not remove children from the parents and are just checking on things and helping with resources.
Most parents get the chance to show that they can parent. Sometimes they are not successful. Sometimes they cannot correct their behaviors. When parents cannot get their situations under control in about a year, then DCS will look at finding another home for the children because going back to their parents would be unsafe.
Although the underlying principle of the government (DCS) stepping in to make sure children are safe is not that complicated, sometimes the government gets it wrong. Well-intentioned (usually), but sometimes DCS thinks something is child abuse when it is not. Sometimes they fail to recognize that a parent has already fully remedied the concerns. Sometimes the concerns do not comport with science. That is where these cases go from simple to tremendously complicated, and the legal battle that ensues changes lives forever.
Gregg Woodnick is the managing attorney at Woodnick Law, PLLC in Phoenix. The firm frequently provides advocacy for parents and caregivers accused of child abuse and neglect in Maricopa, Pima, and Coconino county, and throughout Arizona.