By Deandra Arena and Isabel Ranney
Suppose five-year-old Lucas tells his Kindergarten teacher that his dad hits him and that is why he has a faint bruise on his leg. As a mandatory reporter under A.R.S. § 13-3620, Lucas’ teacher calls the DCS hotline and reports her “reasonable belief” that Lucas may be abused or neglected. A DCS Specialist is assigned to investigate the allegations. Lucas’s parents may wonder how long DCS has to conduct their investigation. While all situations differ, DCS follows a certain timeline and “Efforts should be made to close the investigation within 60 days of receipt of the report” .
But what happens in those 60 days?
Assuming the police are not actively involved, a DCS Specialist (also known as a Case worker) will go to Lucas’ school to interview him. After meeting with the child (or children) the Specialist will attempt to contact the parents to discuss the matter. If Lucas’ parents are not married, the DCS Specialist will visit both parents’ homes. Often this takes place during work hours and the parent(s) will find out about the investigation by finding a card on their door or receiving a voice message asking the parents to call as soon as possible.
Why do they go to the school?
The DCS Program Policy in Arizona specifically requires interviews to take place in a safe and neutral location, if possible, to help ensure the child is not coached to respond a certain way . For an allegation like Lucas’, DCS may temporarily remove the child from school to speak with him, even before the parents are aware a report has been made.
Are parents interviewed together? Can anyone else be interviewed?
Depending on the severity of the allegations, the DCS Specialist usually interviews both parents separately about the allegations and assesses their protective capacities as parents/caregivers. Parents are separated to ensure the Specialist hears both parents’ perspective on what prompted the investigation.
Additional individuals may also be interviewed, depending on the nature of the allegations and the circumstances of the family. In all cases, the person who made the hotline call will be interviewed first. The identity of the caller is protected by DCS and can only be revealed if the allegation is unsubstantiated, was made in bath faith or with “malicious intent,” and a superior court judge orders the identity be released . In Lucas’ case, Lucas’ teachers are likely to be interviewed. If the parents are separated and re-married, their new spouses’ may also be interviewed.
Can a parent be present during the child interview?
Whether a parent can be present during the child interview has been long subjected to debate. According to the statutes—A.R.S. § 8-802(b) and A.R.S. § 8-471(E)(3)—DCS shall not interview a child without written consent from their parent or guardian unless (1) the child initiates contact with the worker or (2) the child being interviewed is subject of an “abuse or abandonment investigation” under A.R.S. § 8-456. The “abuse or abandonment” portion of the statute does not reference neglect—which means that DCS must get parental consent before a child is interviewed for a neglect investigation (unless the child initiates contact with the worker).
What happens after the investigation concludes?
Upon completion of the interviews and after reviewing any relevant documentation (hospital records, police reports, school records, etc), the Specialist confers with their Supervisor to determine the next steps in the case. DCS will mail the parents a letter that either unsubstantiates the abuse allegation or proposes the matter for substantiation (and for placement on the private Central Registry). It is important to note that a proposal for substantiation does not necessarily mean that action will be taken. Additionally, the letter may also include a list of resources that DCS will provide to the parents and/or child—these resources vary but can include parenting classes, substance abuse services, and special needs programs.
What happens if I don’t hear back from DCS within 60 days?
If 60 or more days have passed since the DCS investigation began and parents have not had any contact with DCS beyond the initial interviews, it is within the parent’s rights to be their own advocate or to have their lawyer advocate on their behalf. DCS has no statutory duty to issue a letter substantiating or unsubstantiating the allegations within a certain time frame. However, A.R.S. § 8-456(E)(3)(a) requires the investigator’s report to be submitted the “department’s case management system” within forty-five days after receiving the hotline report.
Communicating with the DCS Specialist assigned to the case can help ensure that parents are aware of where in the investigative process their case is and if there is anything they can do to assist DCS. It is always possible that delays in the investigation or unforeseen complications have occurred that explain why the case has yet to be closed.
If the investigative process drags on longer than is reasonable—i.e., three months pass and Lucas’ parents have not heard anything from DCS—there are legal options that can be explored.
 A.R.S. § 8-807(M).
Deandra Arena is an attorney at Woodnick Law, PLLC. She previously was an Assistant Attorney General for the Protective Services Section (representing DCS) in Arizona. She is licensed to practice in Arizona and California.
Isabel Ranney is currently working at Woodnick Law as a law clerk and is in her second year of law school at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.