When Removing Children from the Home, DCFS Officials Must Follow State and Federal Guidelines
Many government agencies have multiple missions to handle and for most those missions grow year by year, if not by shear numbers, then by added legislative mandates.
Changes in how agencies operate also occur when laws passed by legislative bodies, are interpreted by courts or when federal regulations mandating certain statutes kick in, particularly when those mandates are backed up by funding options.
Utah's Division of Child and Family Services faces all these changes, often yearly.
First of all their mission continues to grow as larger and larger numbers of individuals rely on their services.
New legislation, that comes down the pike almost yearly, changes how the service operates and court cases related to the issues they deal with also skews the social service horizon.
Finally, federally dictated regulations and mandates affect the operation.
The stated mission of the service agency is to protect children at risk of abuse, neglect or dependency.
However, to the public the words that describe that mission, are often confused with one another. What is abuse, neglect and dependency?
According to Beverly Hart, the regional director for the DCFS in the eastern region of the state, abuse and neglect can mean many things, and it can be very complicated.
"There are a lot of different kinds of abuse," she states. "We deal with all of them."
According to a DCFS report published in 2002, the agency looks at 11 kinds of problems that affect children.
A major kind of abuse the service facility investigates are issues tied in with domestic violence.
Over 21 percent of the cases they investigate are related to domestic violence. Anyone who has listened to the news would expect that.
But the biggest area, statistically, is sexual abuse, with 26 percent of the agencies cases coming from that area.
Other types or abuse or neglect include physical neglect (12 percent), physical abuse (16 percent), emotional maltreatment (10 percent), cases of non-supervision (5 percent), failure to protect and dependency, (3 percent each), fetal addiction or exposure (2 percent) and educational neglect and medical neglect (1 percent each).
Each of these categories have their own definition and each, as well, have statutes in the law that pertain to them.
The definition of physical abuse is obvious. The child is being beat or has otherwise pain from direct contact with the parent, guardian or other household member.
"When we look into this it isn't about simple discipline," stated Michelle Ardohain, a case worker for the family and child service agency.
"It isn't about light physical contact because of discipline, it's about abuse, hurting the child."
Sexual abuse is also has a fairly obvious definition. Sexual abuse can be perpetrated by parents or other household members, related to the child or not.
Many cases of sexual abuse happen in homes where drugs are a problem, particularly with individuals who hang around a home because of that type of culture; often they are not related to the child.
Sexual abuse is when an individual does anything in a sexual nature with a minor child or has that child do something sexual to them.
Domestic violence and physical abuse are often confused with each other. While physical abuse of a child can take place in a domestic violence situation, that is not the only reason DCFS may get involved.
"Often the situation is not that the child is being physically hurt, but is present during an altercation between a husband and wife or family members," explained Hart.
"Even the fact that the child might hear the violence going on and not see it is a reason for us being involved."
Studies show that children who are exposed to domestic violence situations often have many other problems later in life.
Another area many people don't understand is verbal and emotional abuse. This is not simply yelling at a child for something they have done wrong.
Most parents raise their voice at one time or another, but that is not verbal abuse.
Verbal abuse falls into a number of areas which are concerned with certain patterns and the duration of the abuse.
Verbal abuse consists of name-calling, belittling, swearing at or insulting a child; rejecting a child or threatening them with abandonment; threatening them with bodily harm; scapegoating or blaming them for situations that are not under their control; using sarcasm in a continual way; and even berating a spouse in front of a child. Abuse occurs when these behaviors are constant and follow a pattern.
Physical neglect is also another area that DCFS is concerned with.
If a child is without or has a lack of clothing, food or housing, action must be taken immediately.
Closely related to this is both environmental neglect and child endangerment. Environmental neglect is when an environment is unhealthy for a child.
For instance a baby crawling on the floor where dog or cat feces are present and have not been cleaned up or prescription drugs left out on a table where a child could get into them.
Child endangerment is a situation where children are in direct danger of being harmed by people or things.
"State and federal statutes demand action in these situations," states Hart.
Many of the referrals on these situations come from people outside of a family including friends, neighbors or even complete strangers who notice something is wrong.
Child protective services is bound to investigate every complaint.
"It's one of the hardest things in the world to walk up to the door of a house, knock on that door and tell people why we are there," stated Boni Seals, the CPS supervisor at the Price office. "We are just there to ask questions."
The agency keeps track of the total referrals they get and also of the ones that are substantiated. For instance in July of 2002, the eastern Utah division sion had 60 referrals from various sources, but only 16 of those were substantiated as having a problem.
In December of 2002 there were 51 referrals with 29 being substantiated.
The process of taking a referral is very set. When a complainant calls into the DCFS department, they are transferred to a specialist called an intake case worker.
The intake worker then takes down the information and meets with a CPS team to determine if the complaint has the weight to warrant an investigation of a specific individual. That is when a case worker approaches the home.
Referrals also have priorities set on them. If a child is in immediate risk, the CPS must go out as soon as possible.
In the case of some kinds of abuse they must see the child within 24 hours.
The amount of time the CPS has is based on a mandate set by regulations concerning the safety of the child.
A report on the situation also goes to the proper law enforcement agency.
Sometimes reports, such as in drug busts, come from authorities too.
"We are very lucky here in our area," notes Hart, "We have a good relationship with all the law enforcement agencies. That isn't true for agencies everywhere."
Referrals are often anonymous and even when they are not, they cannot be revealed to anyone or called to any kind of court to testify unless they agree to do so voluntarily.
Rumors are also a big problem for the agency. Some officials have heard reports that workers and the agency gets extra money for every child removed from a home.
"There are a lot rumors running around that we can take kids out of homes for any reason or to benefit us personally. That is just not true. We have to have evidence of some type of abuse and we always have to have a warrant from a judge to do so. We have to follow due process to remove a child from their home. It's really the last thing we want to do," concluded Hart.