Dealing with a visit from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) can be a stressful experience for any family.
While the primary goal of DCFS is to ensure the safety and well-being of children, parents need to be prepared and informed about their rights because a report – whether well-meaning or retaliatory – that you are abusing or neglecting your children can have disastrous consequences for your entire family.
DCFS does have the power to remove your children from your home (and even eventually move to terminate your parental rights) if they determine that the environment is unsafe – but they cannot act without justification.
How do DCFS investigations start?
Most DCFS investigations start because someone called the agency’s hotline and made a report that they suspected child abuse or neglect.
In some cases, the report may come from a “mandated reporter,” like a teacher or a physician. Their professional licenses require them to make reports in certain situations, even if they are unsure. In other cases, reports are made by family members or others simply because of interpersonal disputes (especially custody battles).
Can DCFS enter your home without permission?
DCFS caseworkers will generally ask to come into your home. You can generally refuse them permission – but it is important to consider the potential ramifications of doing so. If the allegations are severe and there is enough concern to justify it, the DCFS caseworker may leave just long enough to obtain a court order that gives them the legal right to enter your home over your objections.
What happens at a DCFS home visit?
The DCFS caseworker will typically want to inspect the home where the child is living – and, understandably, you might be anxious about their judgment. DCFS caseworkers are required to use a specific checklist during the evaluation to see if your home and children are safe. Some of the things they look for are:
- Is the house reasonably clean and safe?
- Are weapons locked up?
- Are all the utilities turned on?
- Is there an appropriate adult caretaker around?
The caseworker will also ask to speak to your children. While you can prevent this, they will most likely just go to your children’s school or daycare to accomplish their goals. If you do allow the caseworker to speak with your children, you have the right to make sure that someone you trust is present at the time so that the children’s words are not twisted or misconstrued.
In general, unless DCFS has evidence showing that your children are in immediate danger, they cannot put the children in protective custody. Instead, they may ask you to agree to a safety plan that requires you to correct any “faults” they find as they go through the checklist.
What are your other options?
In general, you always have the right to seek legal guidance when you are faced with a DCFS investigation. It’s usually wisest to act quickly. Legal guidance can mean the difference between a quick resolution and months of stress and difficulty as you seek to protect your parental rights and your relationship with your children.