As most people know, DHS has been in the news a lot lately—and not for good reasons. Following the starvation deaths of Natalie Finn last fall and Sabrina Ray more recently, Iowans—and their representatives—have been outraged (against the parents, DHS, and pretty much everyone involved; unfortunately, they don’t always have their facts right). While the death of these girls is horrific, of course, it is important to know the facts and how they might (or might not) apply in your case.
First, both girls had been adopted out of foster care. Once a child is adopted, there is no oversight by DHS, the courts, or anyone else. In the eyes of the law, those parents have the same legal rights (including the right not to have the government looking over their shoulders) as biological parents. That lack of oversight is not true when a child is in foster care, either during a CINA case or pre-adoption. If your child has been removed and placed in foster care, there is pretty significant oversight. DHS, FSRP, and (if one is appointed) CASA are doing regular visits, as is the guardian ad litem. The court is involved, there may be family team meetings, and in most cases, the biological parents (you) have visitation. And remember—the child can only be adopted if your parental rights are terminated. If you do what the courts and DHS are asking you to do, it is highly unlikely anyone would be suggesting termination.
Second, while politicians do care about what happens to kids, they also often have their own agenda—reelection. This means that things sometimes get exaggerated, often to catch the media’s attention. Again, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about your kids—it just means they have a parallel motive. But just because they are publicly calling for resignations and criticizing DHS in very strong terms doesn’t mean you should be fighting with your DHS worker. Keep in mind that the politicians are criticizing the organization; if they criticize individuals, they are criticizing those in positions of power and authority with DHS—not, by and large, individual workers, which is who you will have contact with.
Third, although you have the greatest control over the outcome of your case, DHS obviously plays a significant role. You are in control of complying with what DHS and the Court ask you to do, but it is DHS who makes recommendations (that may or may not be approved by the court) as to what those services will be. They also recommend, based upon your actions, whether to reunify your family or terminate parental rights. Knowing that, it makes more sense to work with DHS than fight with them.
So here are 10 tips for successfully working with your DHS worker:
- Do your very best to comply with what they are asking you to do. If they “recommend” that you go to therapy, go to therapy. Exercise visitation (without creating problems at the visitation). Don’t use drugs. Don’t violate no-contact orders (in cases with domestic violence). If you think DHS is making an unreasonable request, talk to your attorney. If your attorney agrees with you, she can raise that issue. But in most cases, you will be required to follow the case plan.
- Make sure your DHS worker (and everyone else on your team, including your lawyer) has your current contact information. If you move or change your phone number, let them know. It’s very important that they be able to contact you.
- Attend all hearings and family team meetings. Put them on the calendar, on a big piece of paper stuck to the refrigerator, or ask your attorney. Don’t guess, and don’t skip it. If a conflict arises, contact your attorney right away and ask her to help you resolve the issue.
- If your DHS worker is recommending (or suggesting without saying it outright) that you do something that contradicts what your attorney or a medical professional advises, talk to your attorney immediately about that. For example, I’ve heard reports recently that DHS is leading parents to believe that they will not recommend reunification if the parent is taking methadone or Suboxone. Their doctors, however, are stating that they need to be taking it for at least a year in order for it to work. While there may be reasons for doing that, it puts you (the parent) in a difficult position. Sometimes parents try to stop the methadone or Suboxone and end up relapsing—and this can be very dangerous. Clearly, that’s not good. Talk to your attorney if you find yourself in this position, and never simply stop taking your medication without talking to your doctor first. There is a lot of misinformation out there about MAT (Medication Assisted Treatment), so it’s important to get your attorney involved so you can stay on your doctor’s plan without repercussions.
- DHS workers often have very heavy caseloads. This means that they cannot always get back to you right away. If it’s urgent, call your lawyer, and tell him what the problem or question is and that you have tried to call DHS, but haven’t heard back. Your attorney is there to advocate for you, so don’t hesitate to call him when necessary. That doesn’t mean call him for every little thing, but it does mean that it’s better to call than to simply not comply.
- Don’t verbally (or physically, of course) abuse your worker. Saying things to them like, “my child is going to be starved or abused in foster care” (at removal, for example) will not help you. Remember—while the CINA case is going on, there will be significant oversight and DHS/FSRP/ CASA/Court contact with your child. Being respectful and civil goes a long ways towards a good working relationship with your DHS worker.
- Related to that—if you know of relatives who might be suitable placements for your child(ren), share that with DHS. A non-custodial parent, grandparents, aunts/uncles, and even, on occasion, adult siblings might be a good choice. And if there are no relatives, there may be an adult with whom the child has a good relationship that would be suitable. This might be a coach, Big Brother/ Big Sister volunteer, or someone from church. Not everyone will be able or willing to do this, and DHS may or may not approve them, but it doesn’t hurt to make the suggestion.
- Treat your worker with respect. I understand that you are or may be afraid, angry, or feeling many other “high emotions,” but giving (loud) voice to those emotions does not usually help you. Keep your focus on what is best for the kids. If you have an attorney (which you may not have at the time of removal, which is also the time when emotions are running highest), let her fight those battles.
- If you are asked to do a drug test, DHS may require you to test even if you tell them it will be “dirty.” There’s really no point in arguing with them about it—just do the test. If there’s a scheduling problem, talk to them about that, but it’s generally not a good idea to flat out refuse. Sometimes DHS will require you to do a drug test because they need to know what you are taking. For example, some parents will say they will test positive for marijuana (which may or may not be true), but they will actually test for something much more problematic, like heroin or cocaine.
- Be honest. If DHS asks whether a drug test will be positive, don’t say you’re clean if you know you’re not. This just harms your credibility when the drug test comes back positive. Don’t say you’re clean in the hopes that the drug you took won’t show up. It probably will. In the case of relapse, it’s better to admit it and then go on to emphasize what you have done to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Whether it’s about substances or something else, the truth will usually come out; if you have been less than honest, that will only hurt you.
DHS workers are not bad people whose goal is to take your kids away from you. They are people who became social workers in order to help people. They care about your kids and want what is best for them. They also want you to succeed, because reunification is usually (though not always) best for everyone involved. Like any profession, some workers are better than others. But I have yet to meet a worker who doesn’t want what is best for your kids (even if I disagree with her assessment of what that means).
But DHS workers also have heavy caseloads and a lot of paperwork. They don’t have much control over either of those things, so they do the best they can. I’m not saying that’s ok—I’m saying that’s the reality right now. There are people (including politicians) who are working very hard to make changes that will have a positive impact, but this will not happen overnight. Your case might be over before they make any changes. But if you follow the tips above, your experience with DHS will be much more positive, and you will be more likely to have a good outcome.
And isn’t that the goal?