Juvenile Dependency cases usually begin in two ways. First, the social worker, generally an Emergency Response (ER) worker, becomes aware of the suspected child abuse, which was reported by a third person. California, like most states, has a long list of “mandated reporters” of suspected child abuse. Teachers, doctors, therapists, day care providers, or any other person(s), can call ANONYMOUSLY and report suspected child abuse to a County social worker.
For example, your child attends school, and the teacher notices some sort of bodily injury to the child, or the child tells the teacher s/he has some sort of injury caused by someone in your home. The teacher must report the suspected child abuse, and the County social worker’s investigation begins.
The second way cases generally start is when there is some sort of police involvement, and your children are present. For example, you are pulled over in your car for suspected driving under the influence, and your children are in the car. More than likely, the police will contact the local county social worker hotline; the social worker will come out, and take your child into custody. In this situation, you’d most likely be arrested for driving under the influence, and child endangerment, and your child will most likely be placed in a foster home or with relatives.
You’d then have two cases, a criminal and a Juvenile Dependency case.
During this process, the social worker is supposed to advise you of your right to speak to an attorney; but, this is rarely done. And it seems there is no adequate remedy for this failure. In the criminal court system, if the police don’t advise you of your right to an attorney before you speak to them, your statements could be excluded from evidence.
Not so in the juvenile court system, where your comments can lead to not only losing your children, in some cases forever; but it could also lead to you being criminally prosecuted. Your statements to a social worker can be used against you in juvenile court, AND in criminal court. And in most cases, social workers are all too happy to testify against you in criminal proceedings.
So, my general advice, based on almost 28 years of experience, is – DO NOT talk to social workers without consulting an attorney! And, as you’ve no doubt seen on TV and the movies, don’t talk to a police officer without consulting an attorney. I know this is simple advice, but I see, all too many times, where parents and relatives violate this advice, because the social worker acted as if h/she were trying to assist them, or outright intimidate them. Please don’t be fooled.
Now I have to say, there are good social workers. But it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Recently, a client told me that she spoke to the social worker, because the social worker said something to the effect, “If you don’t talk to me, and answer my questions, it will make you look bad in front of the judge.” And, this might be true, but it might not be. However, I can assure you, if you talk to the social worker, most times you are going to look bad, because you don’t know the law, you don’t know what you should say, nor what you shouldn’t say. So the simple advice is, don’t say anything – until you can speak to a lawyer.
From a lawyer’s perspective, if you don’t talk to the social worker h/she can’t gather information and evidence against you. Most likely, the worker didn’t observe how an injury occurred; so your words become the main evidence against you.
Finally, if a social worker comes to your home, you do not, I repeat you do not have to let them in your home, nor do you have to talk to them. This is America, and a Warrant or Court Order is required for them to gain access into your home. Many times, the social worker will show up at your home with the local police. The same rule applies, you do not have to talk to them, and you do not have to let them in your home, unless they have a warrant or a court order.
In some cases, the worker or police may claim an emergency situation, and demand entry into your home. At this point, it may be prudent to allow them in, but you should not speak to them. Although, they do have the right to speak with your children. If this happens, contact a lawyer immediately.
During this initial investigation, the social worker can do several things. First, the social worker can immediately initiate a court case. There is usually nothing you can do about this but go to court, and consult with an attorney.
Second, the social worker may conduct further investigation, which may take a few days to several weeks. Again, don’t talk to the worker, and do NOT sign any forms agreeing to do anything. This is a way the social worker can gather evidence against you.
Recently, we had a case in San Diego County. The social worker went to the mother’s home and got the mother to agree the children would be removed from her home for 30 days (without going to court). The mother signed various forms, including to have the mother drug tested.
Then the mother called me. I immediately revoked all the releases of information, and advised the worker my client would not be drug testing. The worker informed the mother that, if she followed my advice, she’d file a case against her. The problem was that the social worker did not have enough evidence to start or win a juvenile case; unless my client did what the social worker wanted. In the end, the children were returned, and no case was filed – not enough evidence. Remember, if you talk, that will be evidence against you.