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Custody


Q:  If DSS/YFS does not give parents anything stating that they are somehow doing anything wrong and or (I can't use the word guilt here) breaking some sort of rules and yet the family then leaves and moves even to better conditions than that of before, and yet DSS/YFS still comes and takes their children even if there was nothing wrong before or you would think there would be some sort of signed paper work by the parents or someone witnessing parents notification of such notice.

A:  Except in emergency situations, DSS does not remove children from a home without a court order. When DSS begins an investigation there is a conversation with the parents surrounding the concerns presented to DSS. Various documents may be used/signed during an investigation to explain what the concern is and how DSS would recommend the problem be addressed. If a family disappears before safety of the child can be assured DSS will have to seek an alternative plan. It is never DSS’ approach to simply remove children. It is DSS’ mandate to ensure children are protected from abuse, neglect and/or dependency. If that can be done safely in the home or within the family structure, DSS will provide services to the family. If it cannot be done in the home, DSS will seek permission from the court to remove the child for the child’s protection. 

A family that moves would not necessarily constitute a reason for a judge to issue a court order for removal, but when combined with other concerns for safety and welfare of the child it could indicate the move to another jurisdiction revealed an unwillingness by the parents to address the concerns for abuse/neglect/dependency, and therefore present sufficient risk to the child to warrant removal.  It is always the safety of the child that governs DSS’ and the court’s actions. 

Once a child is removed from a home, a court hearing must be held within 7 days to address the custody of the child.  All parties in the case participate in the hearing with legal counsel.  If the move to other living conditions addressed the concerns of potential abuse, neglect and/or dependency, and that was the only issue, there would be no reason for the judge to maintain the child in DSS custody.

Q:  What facts could be worst than child sexual abuse?

A: Sex abuse allegations are serious offenses and therefore they are treated as such by DSS.  When DSS receives a referral of sex abuse against a parent, guardian, caretaker, or custodian, DSS will investigate to ensure the protection of the child. It may require out of home placement until the investigation is completed.  If the alleged perpetrator is not a parent, guardian, caretaker or custodian, DSS makes a report to the police for possible criminal investigation. DSS does not investigate alleged criminal activity between juveniles, unless one of the juveniles is a parent or guardian or caretaker or custodian of the child.

Q:  Under what exact circumstances should would/could the DSS take children away from the parents instead of offering help, such as food and clothing?

A:  When a child protective services social worker has exhausted all efforts to keep children safely in their own home, the facts of the case are discussed with a supervisor and presented to DSS/Youth and Family Services (YFS) attorney. A petition outlining the allegations is then presented to a juvenile court judge who makes the decision to authorize removal.  Efforts to keep the child in the home vary from case to case but includes providing services such as Food Stamps, donations of clothing and other help when circumstances indicate the family has a lack of resources.  However, if the parents refuse such assistance from DSS and the child or children remain neglected, DSS is compelled to take alternative action.

Q.When can the DSS remove a child from their home?

A: North Carolina child protective services is a state-supervised and county-administered social services program. Counties in North Carolina do not have unilateral authority to remove children from their parents and their homes and keep them indefinitely. Removal takes place when the juvenile court judge finds conditions legally justify the removal to protect children from harm.  It should be noted that most cases of child abuse and neglect do not require court intervention.
When a child protective services social worker has exhausted all efforts to keep children safely in their own home, the facts of the case are discussed with a supervisor and presented to DSS/YFS attorney. A petition outlining the allegations is then presented to a Juvenile Court Judge who makes the decision to authorize removal.

Q. What happens to a child when he or she is removed from the home?

A:  When children are removed from their home, they are placed with relatives, if appropriate, or in foster care if no suitable relative is available. Within seven days of DSS taking custody of the children, a court hearing is held with all parties present.  The court reviews the matter to determine whether the children should remain in the custody of DSS, or whether they should be returned or otherwise placed. If the child is to remain in DSS custody, as ordered by the court, further court proceedings take place with all parties represented by legal counsel.

Q: Do DSS social workers work with parents to regain custody of their children?

A:  Yes. The primary goal of the YFS division is family reunification. A case plan is developed with the family to help in this effort.
 
Q:  Does the Mecklenburg County DSS have the legal means to go into another county and take children or do they have to pass them off to that county's DSS?

A:  Counties do cooperate in situations where a family has relocated to another county.  In circumstances where the original county has conducted the initial investigation and found evidence of abuse or neglect, it is mandated by law to intercede and begin the process of turning the case over to the courts.  Therefore, another county's investigation would be duplicative.  It is similar to when the police suspect a crime has been committed in its jurisdiction but the suspect has fled to another jurisdiction.  The police in the first jurisdiction are compelled to bring the suspect back for trial, rather than have the second jurisdiction's police department conduct another investigation.


Q:  Can DSS remove children from the home later on the day of their first visit to the home? 

A:  The level of risk for the child dictates how quickly DSS acts regarding a petition to remove a child from the home.  If the conditions pose an imminent threat to the child's safety, DSS social workers can remove a child from a home immediately pending a court hearing within 7 days.  However, this is rare.  In most cases, once it has been determined that removal is necessary, DSS petitions a judge for a court order to remove the child from the home, again pending a court hearing within 7 days.  This can occur the same day as the initial investigation or several days or weeks later, depending on the circumstances.  Once an investigation has begun, the complete assessment should be finalized within 30 days.


Q:  What, if any, liability does Mecklenburg DSS assume when it performs its duties in an adjacent county?

A:  In circumstances where the original county has conducted the initial investigation and found evidence of abuse or neglect, it is mandated by law to intercede and begin the process of turning the case over to the courts. Since Mecklenburg County would be operating under the law, it would have no additional liability in such cases. 

Q:  Why would it take five weeks between the first time DSS visits the home and determines the conditions warrant removing the children, and the time DSS acts to remove the children? 

A:  Child protective investigations can be similar to criminal investigations, requiring numerous interviews with a variety of people who can shed light on the conditions in which the children live and the care they are receiving.  If it is believed that the children are in no immediate danger of death or injury, there may be little need for DSS to move swiftly to petition the court for the removal of the children from the home.  DSS attempts to work with the family to keep the children in the home by developing a case plan with and for the parents to follow.  Sometimes, the parents do not follow the case plan as intended or flee the jurisdiction.  At other times, a situation in the home changes or a new incident occurs that increases the level of risk to the child. In such cases, DSS moves quickly to intervene and seek removal of the children. 

Q:  From the information I have, the environment the Stratton children were in at the first DSS visit was bad, however the Strattons moved to Gastonia and dramatically improved the conditions so that removing the children was not warranted.

A:  State law prohibits the county from revealing information pertaining to any particular case, so the answer to this question will be general in nature. 

The condition of the home is an important but not the sole factor DSS workers must consider when investigating child abuse, neglect and/or dependency.  Usually, there are multiple factors involved.  In a situation where parents flee a jurisdiction when a CPS investigation is underway or when abuse, neglect and/or dependency has been substantiated, this represents a potential threat to the child since the issues/conditions of abuse, neglect and/or dependency have not been resolved.  In such cases, the investigating DSS agency is compelled to intervene. 

Q:  If an infant appears to be underweight, but otherwise perfectly healthy, why would DSS not call in a nurse to help the parents understand how to feed the child before taking the child away? 

A:  DSS cannot unilaterally remove a child from their home unless there is evidence of an extreme emergency where the child is in imminent danger.  Even in such cases, a court hearing must be held within 7 days of the child being removed from the home to determine custody.  In cases other than a dire emergency, DSS only may remove a child from its home by court order.  This means that an investigation has been conducted and that DSS has found sufficient evidence to convince a judge that removal from the home is the best course of action at that time.  Again, once the judge provides this court order and the child is removed by DSS, a court hearing must be held within 7 days with all parties present, including the parents, so a judge can determine custody of the child.  An infant that is underweight would not necessarily constitute sufficient evidence of neglect. In this type of situation, in addition to assessing all other risk indicators in the home, it would be routine practice to gather medical information and a report following a physical examination prior to making a case decision.   

Q:  Could DSS assign an advocate or recommend/provide to the parents and child to help the parents learn to care for the child properly before traumatizing the entire family?

A:  When a child is taken into custody by DSS, the matter becomes one for the courts to decide.  At this point, the child is immediately assigned an advocate called a Guardian Ad Litem, and an attorney who are independent of DSS or the courts.  The Guardian Ad Litem and the attorney represent only the child, not the parents and not DSS.  As part of the court hearings, the Guardian Ad Litem and attorney advocate for the child, including advocating for services that should be provided to the child or to the family as appropriate.

Also, when evidence of abuse, neglect and/or dependency is found, the protocol for DSS case workers includes working with the parents to develop a case plan that could include having parents receiving serves such as parenting classes, as well as other services to improve the conditions for the child's well-being.  This type of case planning is the most common and most successful approach taken when parents recognize the changes that need to occur and are willing to pursue such changes.

Q:  Does the child protective process assume parents are guilty until proven innocent?

A:  Guilt and innocence are not findings made by DSS or the courts in child protective cases.  DSS is responsible for investigating reports of suspected child abuse, neglect and/or dependency.  The courts are responsible for determining custody and retention or revocation of parental rights. 

DSS social workers investigate reports of suspected child abuse, neglect and/or dependency based on criteria established by the State of North Carolina.  DSS social workers must find evidence of abuse, neglect and/or dependency to take any further action.  If evidence is not found, the case is closed.  If evidence is found, DSS is compelled by law to take action, which could include working with the parents to address the pertinent issues collaboratively or petitioning the courts for a court order to remove the child from the home, pending further court action relative to custody and parental rights.  The judge then hears evidence from all parties to determine child custody and under what conditions.

Q:  How could the decision be made to remove children from their parents in one visit if there are no signs of immediate danger, meaning physical abuse?

A:  There are many reasons besides physical abuse that would result in the courts authorizing a child be removed from its home.  Such reasons could include but are not limited to evidence of consistent lack of food, lack of proper shelter or housing conditions, lack of proper clothing, lack of proper supervision, abandonment, lack of necessary medical and remedial care, or a combination of several of these reasons and/or others. Conditions of neglect can present as much or more danger as physical abuse, depending on the specific circumstances. 

Q:  If there is concern about children's health, for instance, due to lack of immunizations, why are the children not examined by a doctor to determine their health before being removed from their home?

A:  If the child's immediate health appears to be a critical issue, this warrants immediate intervention.  If the child has no obvious signs of health problems and the only issue is related to lack of immunizations, this situation would not warrant immediate intervention but would require follow up by the DSS case worker in collaboration with the parents and a physician to address this issue.

Q:  If a family appears to be living in poverty conditions, but there are no signs of abuse, why wouldn't the DSS call a local church and have them come in to help? 

A:  DSS regularly works with the parents and local agencies to provide assistance to families for a variety of child care issues, including poverty-related issues.  However, successfully addressing these issues requires the parents be willing to accept these services and assistance as needed.  This is not always the case.

Q:  If the decision is made to remove children after only one visit and then the family is found a month later in a different (and much better) house and a police officer/guardian ad litem states that there is no reason to remove the children, how can a system allow those children to be removed?

A:  There are many factors that are considered in determining the safety and well being of a child, not just the condition of the house in which they live.  In addition, the judge considers all the testimony and evidence related to a child protective case, not just that of one person.  It is the full volume of evidence that is considered by the judge, including evidence and testimony provided by the parents, the guardian ad litem, DSS social workers and others that may be involved in the case.  Based on the full evidence, the judge makes his or her decision.

Q:  Can one DSS employee make the decision about removing a child from his/her home?  What are the checks and balances in the system to be certain that a removal is necessary?  It clearly seems that the decision to remove children and put them into the system is made with more thought to teaching the parents a lesson or showing the power of a DSS employee, than to what is actually better for the children.

A:  A decision to remove a child from his/her home is not made by one DSS employee, unless the DSS case worker encounters an immediate danger to the child at the time of the visit to the home.  The system uses a series of checks and balances to ensure that one person's opinion is not taken unilaterally, and that laws are followed.  If a DSS case worker believes that the evidence of abuse, neglect or dependency warrants removal, the caseworker confers with his/her supervisor, then a DSS attorney to discuss the facts/evidence of the case and determine if removal is necessary to ensure the child's safety. Once a determination is made at this level, then a judge reviews all allegations outlined in the petition prior to issuing a court order to remove the child. Without this court order, the child cannot be removed from the home.  If the court order is received and the child removed, a court hearing must be held within 7 days to determine the full validity of the case and continued custody. At this hearing all parties are present and represented by legal counsel.  All parties have an opportunity to present their view of the case, including any evidence and testimony.  The judge then determines temporary custody of the child and any additional actions that may be warranted.

Q:  I do not understand how DSS can take anyone's children when a state representative has investigated the case and stated that the conditions were acceptable by their standards.  And another judge has said the family and living conditions were acceptable. 

A:  DSS cannot remove a child from a home without a court order, with the exception of an emergency circumstance when the child is in imminent danger.  Emergency custody can only be maintained without a court order for a limited time.  The only person with the authority to determine custody of a child is the judge presiding in the case where all the evidence is heard and where all the parties, represented by legal counsel, have the opportunity to present their case.  If DSS does not provide sufficient evidence of abuse, neglect and/or dependency or sufficient evidence that removal from the home is in the best interest of the child, the judge does not assign custody to DSS and does not order the child removed from the home.

Q:  Is a court order always required to remove children from a home?  And if so, what is the process to receive one?

A:  The only exception is when a child is believed to be in imminent danger, such as strong evidence of physical abuse or neglect such as abandonment (see emergency custody above).  In all other instances, a court order is required to remove a child from a home.  To obtain a court order, DSS must present evidence to a judge, who would have to concur that the evidence warrants the child being removed from the home.  A follow up court hearing is then held within 7 days to determine custody and any additional actions.

Q:  Are children routinely removed from a home due to poverty?  If so why does Hope Haven exist keeping children together with their mothers?

A:  Children are not removed from the home due to poverty in and of itself.  However, if the parents in a poverty-stricken condition were to refuse all assistance to ensure the children have sufficient food, clothing, shelter, needed medical care and other basic life-supporting necessities, this would constitute neglect according to the standards established by the State of North Carolina.  As a result, DSS would be compelled by law to intercede.

Hope Haven is one of many community services that parents could use to help them in changing their life as a means to reunification with their children or retention of custody.

Q:  What would the justification be for DSS going against an experienced Guardian Ad Litem stating that the children are not in imminent danger?

A:  The Child Protective Services social worker has undergone specific training and uses well-defined risk assessment tools to identify the level of imminent danger to a child.  There are many factors considered in determining the safety and well being of a child, not just the condition of the house in which they live.  In addition, the judge considers all the testimony and evidence related to a child protective case, not just that of one person.  It is the full volume of evidence that is considered by the judge, including evidence and testimony provided by the parents, the guardian ad litem, DSS social workers and others that may be involved in the case.  Based on the full evidence, the judge makes his or her decision.

Q:  Is there a required number of visits to a home before children are removed due to "poor" living conditions (lack of food/clothing, etc)?  Are all children living in these conditions removed from their homes?

A:  After making the first visit, there is no required number of visits to a home before a child could be removed for evidence of abuse, neglect and/or dependency.  The protocol calls for conducting a thorough assessment, which could include multiple visits to the home but does not mandate any particular number. 

Children are not removed from the home due to poverty.  However, if the parents in a poverty-stricken condition were to refuse all assistance to ensure the children have sufficient food, clothing, shelter, needed medical care and other basic life-supporting necessities, this would constitute neglect according to the standards established by the State of North Carolina.  As a result, DSS would be compelled by law to intercede.

Each child's circumstances are considered individually, based on the care provided to each child relative to their individual care needs.  For example, one child may require a higher level of ongoing medical care than another child. 

Q:  How are cases of abuse in foster homes handled?  What is the time frame for protecting a child in this situation? 

A: At Mecklenburg County DSS, reports of abuse/neglect of children in foster homes are responded to within a maximum of 24 hours.  This is a County policy that reflects a quicker response time than what the State of North Carolina has set as a standard.  Depending on the case, the matter may be turned over to the police department for criminal investigation.

Q:  Mrs. Stratton was given custody of the retarded 18-year old son.  If she was unfit as a parent for the other children, why was she found to be fit for this special needs young adult?

A:  State law prohibits the County from revealing any information pertaining to individual child protective cases, to protect the privacy of the children and family.  Therefore, this question will be answered in general terms. 

Once a child who is placed in the custody of the County turns 18 years old, they are deemed a legal adult and therefore "age out" of the child protection system.

Q:  Why is DSS allowed to make demands of the parents that go against the parent's ways of rearing their children (such as making them agree to public schooling, rather than legal home schooling, or making them has their children immunized when they have a legal religious objection to it)?

A:  DSS cannot and does not demand or force parents to send children to public school.  However, DSS can inform the court when it finds evidence that a child's education needs are not being met due to lack of proper supervision of the child or due to some other evidence of neglect.  In the case of home schooling, there must be evidence that the home schooling is being provided according to state law.  Because North Carolina law mandates child immunization, DSS also must inform the court when it finds evidence that children have not been immunized according to the law.  It is the responsibility of the courts to determine if the parents have legal standing to refuse immunization based on religious beliefs.

Q:  Should children be taken from ALL parents who are not currently employed?  (If not, is that a valid reason for keeping children in DSS custody?)

A: No. Parental unemployment, like poverty, is not in and of itself a sufficient reason for removing a child from a home.  However, chronic unemployment that results in a child being denied sufficient food, closing, shelter, needed medical care and/or other life-supporting necessities would constitute neglect.  If the parents were to refuse all assistance to find employment and refuse to address the lack of food, clothing, medical care, etc., then DSS would be compelled by law to intercede on behalf of the child.

Q:  What percentage of children who enter into DSS custody or placement authority for the first time are reunified with their family?  How does this percentage compare with other counties?

A:  Mecklenburg County is the largest county in North Carolina and therefore has the largest number of children entering into the child protective system and the largest number of children being reunified with their parents.  On a percentage basis, from July 1996 to the present, the reunification rate for Mecklenburg County is 25%.  This is lower than the state average of 36% but consistent with the only other county in North Carolina that can compare to Mecklenburg County in size (Wake County), which has a 27% reunification rate during this same time. Below are the reunification rates for some other counties in this region: Cabarrus = 28%; Gaston = 40%; Iredell = 39%; Union = 40%.



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