J. Gregory Hatcher | Divorce Attorney
The Department of Social Services (DSS) is tasked with a very difficult job. They receive hundreds if not thousands of tips, complaints and inquiries regarding both real and alleged harm to children. The DSS is understaffed, overworked and underfunded. As a result, they have instituted a process to screen all calls and inquiries as efficiently as possible. Many times these calls take place after hours and on weekends.
In order to comply with their mandate given to them by the governing body, the DSS employs a number of workers in different capacities. Some of those workers strictly take phone calls and other inquiries. Others work after hours and on weekends to attempt to address the issue as quickly as possible before handing the matter over to a full-time case worker or investigator. The case worker/investigator typically does most of the follow-up on any inquiry and suggests whatever plan he or she believes is appropriate to protect the welfare of the child.
Not all complaints, calls and inquiries result in anything other than a screening by DSS. However, if the screener determines that an investigation or further inquiry is merited, another member of DSS will get involved. It is often when DSS makes contact with a party that red flags are raised.
In the context of a domestic matter, the use of DSS as a weapon or tactical advantage is a possibility. That is not to say that many times DSS is contacted during a domestic case because there are real problems with the children involved. However, it is not uncommon for litigants, their family and/or friends to try to gain an advantage in the court system by requesting a DSS investigation.
The first thing to remember when DSS wants to speak with you is to tell the truth. Someone from DSS will probably want to meet with you and/or the children, so, if you have a lawyer, it’s your right to have him/her present during the meeting. The DSS worker should not be upset that you want legal counsel with you. So long as your lawyer does not prevent the investigation from going forward (considering all protections are considered for criminal and other processes), things should go smoothly.
It’s important to cooperate with the DSS representative and to remember that he or she is simply doing his or her job. Be prepared to show this person your home, that your bathroom facilities are operational, that you have a clean and fully stocked kitchen and that there are no dangers awaiting the child in your residence. You also should be prepared to give the names and contact information of third parties who can verify your capabilities as a parent and vouch for your character.
Assuming nothing inappropriate has occurred, it is likely that the DSS worker will close the case without any recommendations. However, should the DSS worker believe it necessary, you could be required to sign a Safety Plan asking you to take certain actions, such as agreeing not to physically discipline your children. There is a large debate in this state and around the country as to whether corporal punishment (e.g., spanking a child) is appropriate. As a matter of course, especially when you are involved in a domestic dispute, you should avoid using this type of punishment whenever possible.
Finally, the greatest reason to cooperate with DSS is because they have the power to take your children away from you. Once they have exercised this power, you will have an uphill battle to convince not only DSS, but also the courts that the children will be safe in your custody. The impact to your domestic matter, should the children be taken away from you, could be catastrophic.
Greg Hatcher has extensive experience as a family law attorney in Charlotte, NC. He represents clients in a variety of domestic matters, including alimony, divorce, child custody and property distribution. Mr. Hatcher is recognized as a Board Certified Specialist in Family Law by the North Carolina State Bar and has been named to the North Carolina Super Lawyers and “Legal Elite” lists for multiple years.