What to Do When the Department of Children and Family Services Comes Knocking
Nine years ago, Rob and I were reported to family services and soon after the accusations were determined to be unsubstantiated, I wrote a website to tell the story.
That we were reported to a government agency is one of the reasons I am so suspicious of liberal people as well as fundamentalists. We found ourselves unwillingly in the middle of their culture war and in our case, it was a war over who would dominate the minds of our children. I hope we learn to pause before involving children so heavily in our own conclusions. Let them explore the world without all of our interpretations and causes and ridiculous standards. Children aren’t tools to be exploited or flaunted and should not be peddled as such.
To the fundamentalists and the liberal people who read this . . . not everyone is involved in your culture war. Some of us just want to live without your worldview being imposed on us at every turn.
Part One of the DCFS saga as was written in my website nine years ago . . .
This website was born from a desire to share with my friends, family and others what my family has experienced in the last year. It is an experience that I want others to hear and contemplate, to consider and share. I realize that it is a minor scrape compared to the wounds others face, a paper cut in the scheme of human tyranny, but it has been a reminder to our family of how precious freedom is. Featured in the above picture, are two of my daughters, who are wading in the lake off our dock behind our house. The water is a little over knee deep and it remains that deep for about 100 feet out. If the water were clear, they could see the bottom. However, the water is not clear and they can’t see the bottom so they don’t know what will happen in the next step. Until they test the area, they will walk with hesitancy. Even after testing the area, they will be cautious because they won’t know what has changed since the last time they stepped in that place. This is different from how they wade in a pool where the bottom is clearly seen. They feel much freer to walk, run, and dive to the bottom. They know what to expect and they tell me that it is more fun to play in a pool than a lake. Before January of last year, as a parent, I was walking as if I were in a swimming pool. I felt confident, free and was enjoying my children’s younger years. But on a Friday afternoon, after a knock on our front door, I realized that I was not in a swimming pool, but a lake where the bottom is not clearly seen and I no longer knew what to expect. This website tells that story.
“A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.” - Ludwig von Mises
On Friday, January 15, 2010, I had just picked up some of my children’s friends to have a game night at my house. The kids settled into playing a game while I started boiling a pot of water for spaghetti. There was a knock at the door and a young man with a thick three-ring binder was standing on the front step. My son had taken a peek and saw that it wasn’t more friends so he went back to his sword fight. I motioned for the young man to wait while I turned the burner off so not to leave the pot unattended. I opened the door, preparing to politely say that I was not interested in what he was selling, when the young man introduced himself as being from family services and that he had come to investigate an accusation of neglect.
Being homeschoolers, we pay for 24/7 attorney services for a situation like this. However, I wasn’t thinking of an attorney, I was wondering who could possibly think I was neglecting my children. My neighbors? We had just moved in nine months prior and with the exception of our immediate neighbors who were close friends, we barely saw our neighbors. I was often outside playing or working alongside my children so I didn’t think any of them would consider me neglectful. The social worker said that the accusations were that my children were unkept, home taught, and played unattended near the lake.
The conversation is a blur to me now. I know that I asked if I could face my accuser and the social worker said no. I knew this would be his answer but I wanted him to have to say it. Anyone can report accusations that would lead to an investigation by family services, but those accused have no right to know who accused them. This is meant to protect children but it often protects those who make false and/or exaggerated accusations simply to get families investigated. This was clearly our situation.
I refused his request to come in and talk to my children. He had already seen my son and noticed that he was not as described in the accusations. So, he had little reason to think that the children were in imminent danger. He was respectful and said that he would call me next week to set up a meeting when my husband was available. He still wanted to interview my children.
It was the weekend of Martin Luther King Day so our attorney’s office as well as the family services office were closed on Monday. Since I didn’t have the detailed accusations, I still wasn’t sure why family services felt the need to investigate. No one had come to me to express a concern of this kind so I had no idea who it could be.
My neighbor was one of the first people I called for comfort. She came over that night with blueberry scones and lemon curd and we played a spontaneous game of Clue. “Was it the speech therapist across the lake spying on us with binoculars? or . . . .“ It was a short-lived game because I could not imagine it being a neighbor. Though it was a fun diversion, I was still heavy with concern. Social workers were quite capable of the kind of drama and distortion that led to this report and I didn’t know what to expect next.
The following Tuesday, the social worker called and the first thing I asked was for a word-for-word dictation of the accusations against us. This is what was faxed into family services on Wednesday, January 13, 2010:
none of the children seem clean in any way - dirty skin, greasy hair, dirty clothes, yellow teeth
children not appropriately dressed for frigid weather
always complaining of ailments - and when asked, they say that their dad is going to get to it
middle daughter has serious speech impediment that seems to be going untreated and other delays as well
community lake and twins left to play outside near lake unaccompanied
They do not seem to be educationally where other children are.
They’re home educated.
Children seem to know nothing of significance unless it is in the Bible.
They moved a year and reporter has seen little improvement.
There should be more care and supervision given to these children.
Just pause for a moment and get a picture in your mind of this family. The person was not describing our family, she was describing a stereotype.
The government came, they saw, invaded our privacy, and then our right to due process was finalized the following week with a letter saying that the accusations were unsubstantiated.
I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. ~James Madison, speech, Virginia Convention, 1788
“In matters of principle, stand like a rock.” -Thomas Jefferson
As you know, freedom is never secure. We have the right to homeschool now, but that does not mean it will be secure in the future. If you homeschool your children, I strongly recommend that you have an attorney that knows your family and knows family law. If you were to have family services at your door, you will want to be able to say, “I will have to speak to my attorney.”
On a more personal level, my experiences have taught me that some adults have no shame in expressing their contempt for your parental choices. Unfortunately, their criticisms of you inevitably hurts your children. One reality of our family’s homeschool experience is that my children are independent learners. Most of their accomplishments have little to do with my direct assistance. They get their assignments, do them, go above and beyond without me forcing them (although I do have to urge them to finish on time). So when I hear Joy Behar say that the children will become “demented” if homeschooled or a panelist on Bill Maher’s Real Time belittling the accomplishment of that year’s geography bee champion as an easy thing to do when that is all he studied (the champion was homeschooled), I realize that some adults have no shame even when it involves children. They think they are criticizing the parent’s choice to homeschool when they are actually criticizing the children’s independent hard work and unique personality. Unfortunately, this is the atmosphere in which many people learn about homeschooling. Be aware of the prejudices, but don’t be dissuaded by them if you are confident that you are giving your children the best education available to them. Be encouraged by education reformers who have been denigrated for their success. An inspiring movie to watch is Stand and Deliver which is the story of Jaime Escalante, a math teacher in California. What is not encouraging is how he was treated by the school administration and other teachers where he was so effective. It is often not about the kids, but the egos of adults. In reading about the treatment of education reformers, you will know that you are in good company.
What do you do if a social worker comes to your door? I can’t tell you what you should do. I’ll tell you what I did. I stood at the door in shock. Racing through my head were the many hours that I have spent caring for, playing, teaching, cuddling, laughing, seeking to understand, and enjoying my children. Being a mother has occupied every second of my life for eleven years and I have enjoyed it even when it has been difficult. At times, I’ve not enjoyed cleaning, washing dishes, grocery shopping, or laundry but I have never had a moment of distaste for building relationships with my children and helping them understand the world. Before being a mom, I was a live-in nanny for a family with three children and I loved being with their children. I have spent my life during and after college thinking about the proper treatment and education of children. I was stunned that I was now the subject of a government investigation into my parenting choices.
But that was now my reality. My husband and I were accused of neglect from an anonymous reporter who faxed in accusations that touched on almost every aspect of our parental choices. So what did we do?
On the initial contact, I asked what we had been accused of. He said three things: children were unkept, children played unattended near lake, and we homeschooled. I didn’t ask for more specificity until the following week and I wish I had done that on the first contact. So, the first thing you should do is ask for a list of specific accusations. I did not allow the social worker to enter the house or to talk to my children, and I asked him if I could face my accuser. Because my head was spinning, I probably talked too much but it was mostly about how I wish I could know who it was so I could understand why they are so concerned. I told him no one had approached me with concerns about my parenting and I let him know that before I spoke with him more, I would need to have my husband present and speak with my attorney. He said that after seeing my son at the door when he arrived and later one of my daughters, he didn’t think my children were unkept and so there was no need for immediate intervention. He told me that he would call the following week.
The most important principle in response to any accusation of a crime is to remember that America is a country where its citizens are protected from unnecessary search and seizure. Though I had nothing to hide and could produce an exhaustive case against the accusations, it was important to me that I not give the government any more information about our family than necessary. There is a difference in voluntarily sharing as I have done on this website, and being forced to discuss your private life with a tax-funded government stranger with the power to break up your family. I kept reminding myself that there is a larger principle to preserve and our interaction with the social worker was not just about defending our family. The freedom to live without the intrusion of an invasive government is very important to me. Specifically, I wanted this social worker to know that as an American citizen, I expect a restrained government especially when the investigation was initiated by an anonymous reporter who faxed in her accusations and in doing so, avoided scrutiny of the credibility of her accusations. The only protection families have from false accusations is that the reporter is questioned when they call in the accusations. This was not done in our case because the reporter used a fax machine rather than a telephone. We had no protection.
I told the social worker that I would prefer to have an attorney present but he said that he would then have to have an attorney as well. That would delay the date of the interview and I wanted it to be over yesterday. So, I told him that I would have my attorney on call and if I felt uncomfortable with any of his questions, I would call my attorney and ask if I should answer the question. I hoped that this would incentivize him to exercise restraint in his questioning. In this context, it was helpful for me to think the worst of the social worker to make it easier to resist the temptation to share more than necessary when he tried to act as though we were friends. He was not my friend, he was not necessarily my enemy, but he was a stranger. I recommend that you regard social workers as professionals who are trained to extract as much information about your private life as they can. Having said that, be respectful, courteous and remember that they have a tough job.
We had approval to homeschool from the county so the social worker could not include our schooling in his investigation. Homeschooling is already regulated by the state so I told him that we would not answer any questions about it. The only accusations left on the list were - cleanliness, appropriate dress, ailments, and playing unattended near the lake. I asked if it was necessary to continue with the investigation when these were the only accusations that remained on the list. He insisted on proceeding.
I offered to have the teachers, friends and families who frequent our home come to the interview as well. They could be there to confirm that what we said was true. He said that that wasn’t necessary because he had an interest in protecting our privacy. I was disappointed because we wanted to preserve our reputation and demonstrate that the reporter was reporting on things she didn’t know. Even though he said it was unnecessary, by offering their presence, it let him know that if he had a proclivity to exaggerate or distort, there are people who know us and who would defend us.
When the social worker opened the conversation at our interview, he mentioned that he did not realize that homeschoolers had to report to the county and submit evaluations/test scores each year. He thanked us for teaching him something that he did not know. Evidently, training in homeschool regulation is not standard for social workers. If the social worker is being pushy, it may be because he doesn’t know the law. So you need to know the law. If you have permission from the county to homeschool, you don’t have to discuss your schooling with a social worker. This makes sense because social workers are not educators so they are not qualified to make judgments on educational achievement. Be mindful that simply because he is not qualified to make a judgment, doesn’t mean he won’t, so it is best not to tempt him by discussing it. So know the law or have an attorney speak to the social worker on initial contact.
During the interview, we addressed the following issues:
Cleanliness: I don’t agree that my children are not clean in any anyway. I will agree that my children may not be as clean at the end of a day as children who spend their time inside or when outside, are told not to get dirty. My children spend almost every day outside in the moderate months. In our yard, we are blessed to have a lake, apple and pear trees, blueberry bushes, a garden with a small pond full of frogs, and a big yard to play sports. If they are not as clean as other children, it is not because I’m neglectful, but because I allow my children to explore, run, dig, and make mud pies when playing outside. I consider that an idyllic childhood, though I understand how that would look neglectful to adults whose idea of good parenting is to keep their children clean. Yellow teeth? We had been to the dentist the month before. He made no comment about conspicuously yellow teeth. He wrote a letter for us to show the social worker. Greasy hair? It is not good for children’s skin or hair to take showers/baths every day, especially in the winter. When the child enters puberty, more is necessary to prevent body odor; but my children had not entered puberty. If this was a problem, the appropriate thing to do in a free country would be to discuss it with me first, not report it to the government.
Appropriate dress: Context is important and it would have been helpful for the social worker to know if the reporter meant that my children spend long periods of time outside without proper attire or thirty-seconds walking from a warm car to a warm building. Since I know the former to be untrue, it was the latter. My children could be wearing no coat outside for that short time and not be harmed. Instead, they either wore a fleece or a coat. We showed the social worker some pictures of our children with full coverage when playing outside for an extended amount of time.
Ailments - On the one hand, she uses the term “always” and then she uses the vague term “ailments.” If they are always complaining about them, why not specify at least one? I couldn’t address this with the social worker because of its exaggerated vagueness and my children are rarely sick. My husband is a family physician, which means he has spent the last twelve years learning when it is necessary to seek medical attention. I wonder what credentials the reporter has that led her to think she knows more than a physician in this area.
Speech impediment - My attorney told me that this falls under education so I would not have to address it. However, since I was not going to share my children’s educational achievements, this was an opportunity to highlight how uninformed the reporter is. My daughter does not have a serious speech impediment. She has problems with her “R” sound and at the time, she was in third grade. This is not unusual or serious. To say that it is a serious speech impediment reflects either the ignorance of the reporter or her willingness to exaggerate reality.
Play unattended near lake - We have a lake in our backyard. We taught them to stay away from the edge unless they were with an adult. What does she mean by “near the lake”? We also showed him a request we made to our homeowner’s association to extend our fence around the perimeter of the backyard. We were led to believe that this was possible by the previous owner because he said that he had one when his children were young. However, this request was refused by the Board because they did not want a visible barrier along the edge of the lake.
Once these accusations were addressed, it was time to interview the children. On initial contact, the social worker had requested to interview the children privately. I said no. When we talked on the phone before the interview, he again said he would like to interview the children privately. I said that I would ask my husband. So, when it was time to interview the children, I called them down and had the children sit on the couch with us and no private interviews were requested. Our passive resistance was successful.
I read a book several years ago titled The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. The opening chapter tells of a girl who allowed a stranger to help with her groceries. Once they got to the door of her apartment, she said that she could handle it from there. The man gently chastised her for being too careful and untrusting. She allowed him into her apartment. He didn’t leave. One of the main points of the book is that the context of relationships is important. If someone starts behaving in a too familiar way when they are a stranger, you will most likely respond with discomfort and possibly fear. This instinctual fear is a gift and it protects you from harm. Heed your fear. With this in mind, I told my children that though the social worker may act like he is a friend, he is a stranger to our family. They should answer only questions he asks. This was a good lesson for them to learn. The interview went well and the kids were fun.
Our social worker was a very nice young man and although I held him with suspicion throughout the interview to prevent myself from letting him pry, we had a pleasant conversation. After telling him that I had considered foster parenting but now had a fear of doing so since it is so easy to get a family investigated, he encouraged us to pursue it and left us a contact number of who to call. I was also concerned that if I ever pursued adopting that this might affect us. He didn’t think it would.
To be continued . . .
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