Why Should You & Your Children NEVER Speak to DCF During a Investigation?
I want to explain to you the surprising and admittedly unlikely reasons why parents and their children should never speak to DCF, the Department of Children and Families, when they are involved in an investigation. We’re all amazed by the frequency with which we see parents who really ought to know better, say “Well, I’ll talk to the DCF investigator. I mean, after all, I’m a senator. I’m an experienced teacher. I’m a trained therapist/doctor/pediatrician. I’ve got a lot of experience recognizing child abuse and I’m definitely not a child abuser.”
An expert on civil law recently told me that estimates of the current size of the body of DCF law vary. That means there are 10,000 different ways parents might unknowingly implicate themselves in a DCF case.
The other day, I received a phone call from a former friend of mine. He told me, “DCF just called me. They want to ask me a couple of questions. They told me they are not accusing me of anything. I have never abused or neglected my children. And I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong in violation of the DCF provisions.” Heaven help us! There’s no man or woman on earth who can honestly say with complete confidence, “I know I’ve never violated any provision of the DCF Code.”
So my friend said, “But they say, I’m not being investigated and I know I’ve done nothing wrong. Can I talk to them?” I said, “No. You tell them you will not talk to them without a lawyer present.” I explained to him why that was true and he never heard from them again.
Let me just spell it out for you. I have 7 main reasons.
Reason #1 to NEVER speak to DCF: It Cannot Help You
Contrary to what parents instinctively naturally suppose, it can not help. Every time you talk to DCF, you will regret it.
We have a couple of recent celebrity examples of why it is that even people who admit nothing always end up regretting it.
This reason really ought to be good enough. There is no way talking to DCF can help you. Plenty of folks think that it can, and they’re always wrong. A parent has never been able to talk themselves out of the Department of Children and Families supporting an allegation or removing their children from their home.
DCF has interviewed thousands of parents. Prior to the interview, the Department had some evidence pointing to the parent’s possible guilt. You cannot talk your way out of having your children taken because of the extraordinary eloquence and persuasiveness with which you articulated your innocence. It just never happens.
I’ve often asked other DCF attorneys about their experience. I ask them if they have ever, even once, had a case where they look back in hindsight and say, “Thank God my client talked to DCF.” They laugh at me. They say, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
You cannot help you.
What if I Just Say Good Things to DCF?
If you think the DCF investigator will say something favorable on your behalf, you are wrong. As the saying goes, everything you tell DCF can and will be used against you…but it will probably not be used for you.
Even if you only tell DCF good things about you, it can hurt you. DCF will write down everything you tell them and try to spin the positives into negatives. If you never studied the rules of evidence, what you tell the Department, even when it‘s in your favor, can not be used to help you with trial, because it’s what we call “hearsay”.
From time to time, I’ve known attorneys who tried to call the DCF investigator to the stand at a DCF Fair Hearing and say, “Mr. DCF investigator, would you tell the judge what my client told you? Because what my client told you was actually good for my client’s case?” The DCF attorney will say “objection, your honor. That is hearsay.” And the Fair Hearing officer will agree.
That ought to be a good enough reason. That ought to be reason enough to keep your mouth shut. But if that doesn’t persuade you, let me talk about a couple of others.
Reason #2 to NEVER speak to DCF: Parents May Accidentally Admit Guilt
Number two, Many of you are thinking to yourself, “Well, only guilty people can admit guilt”. After all, confessing to DCF allegations is good for law enforcement. It’s good for sending child abusers to prison.” Yes. Sure. All those things are true. And like the rest of you, if any child I know is ever the victim of some sort of a serious crime, I hope they get the right guy. I hope they convict him. I hope they put him away. We all feel that way.
Some of you are thinking to yourself, “None of this concerns me because I am not guilty of anything and I never will be.” But even when parents are innocent, they can admit something which makes them look guilty to DCF in some way. Everybody does something that they might get in trouble for.
Is it Possible to Admit Guilt When You’re Innocent?
Even when a parent admits things that DCF already knew, it can still hurt them. Parents make the mistake of thinking, “Well, what harm can it do? All DCF wants me to do is admit I was there during the incident. DCF already knew I was there. So I should just go ahead and tell them.” Well, how can doing that hurt? It might hurt. That confession is freely admissible against the parent. DCF can support allegations of neglect just because the parent was present during the incident.
There is no need to rush, and no need to tell DCF everything. You don’t have to admit to everything the first time they come by to meet with you. You don’t have to over-explain anything.
What’s an Example of an Innocent Parent Accidentally Admitting Guilt?
Let’s assume a dad gives DCF nothing but the truth and he is totally innocent. He will always give DCF some information that could be used to help support allegations against him. Always.
For example, here’s what a parent tells DCF in his denial of guilt. “I did not physically abuse the child. I wasn’t anywhere near the place the child said it happened. I’ve never hit children. I don’t even know why anyone would ever hit children. Well, sometimes that child would make me mad, but I could never hurt them in that way. I would never do that to anyone.” Let’s suppose every word of that is true, 100% of it is true. What will DCF hear? DCF will hear that the parent confessed they get mad at the child.” And then the 51B investigator will put that in their report which will say “it’s pretty clear that this parent physically abused the child. The parent admitted they get mad at the child. The parent has anger management issues. There’s the motive and cause for the abuse.”
Reason #3 to NEVER speak to DCF: It is Easy to Get Carried Away
Parents and caretakers can easily exaggerate and tell some little lie or make some little mistake that will hurt them later. This happens even when a parent is innocent and almost entirely tells the truth. This is human nature during a stressful situation.
Imagine a perfectly innocent parent. DCF say he’s been guilty of child sexual abuse. He’s totally innocent. As good as any one of us. So he goes in there and he meets with DCF. He says, “I was nowhere near that child. I didn’t touch him. I’ve never sexually abused anybody. I am not attracted to children and I never have been. I’ve never touched a child in my life. I’ve been happily married for the past 15 years. I have my own children. I was nowhere near Marina Bay, Quincy the night that child got abused.” That last one was a lie. He went over the top. He got it into this movie and started to say all kinds of things, almost all of them true that he knew would get himself off the hook. Then he got carried away and just said one thing that wasn’t true. Unfortunately for him, DCF can prove that it wasn’t true. The parent may be convicted on that basis alone. DCF can come up with a witness who says they saw the parent at Marina Bay. Is the witness lying? Wrong? Misremembering? Well, at that point, it becomes their word against yours.
Also, a witness must tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. When you make one dubious statement, it calls your whole testimony into question. It’s best to just keep your mouth shut.
What if I Only Tell DCF the Truth?
You may be thinking, “Well, that’s not a problem. I’ll only tell the truth. I won’t lie to DCF and I won’t make any mistakes.” That’s still no guarantee you won’t get into trouble.
There was a United States Supreme Court case, “Ohio versus Reiner”, where a child tragically died because of shaken baby syndrome. Question was who had shaken this baby to death? One possible suspect was a babysitter who spent some time with the child that week. The babysitter’s story was, “I did not kill the child, I did not see it happen, and I don’t know who shook the baby. It was never me. I never did anything of any violent nature to the child.” The Ohio State court said, “Well, you’ve got no Fifth Amendment privilege. You told the investigators yourself that you did nothing wrong. You were not there. So obviously your answers can’t incriminate you.”
The Supreme Court reversed and said, “Well, that’s not true. Even though this babysitter denies shaking the child, seeing the child die, and knowing how the child died, this babysitter apparently admits she was with the child at some point that week during the week prior to the death.” That is enough to convict her.
That is why parents should always seek counsel when involved with DCF. You will not seem guilty for hiring a lawyer. The Department sometimes tricks parents into assuming only guilty people hire lawyers. That’s not true and it never has been. DCF must (but usually doesn’t) give parents a “parents pamphlet” before they start an investigation. That pamphlet clearly states that parents and caretakers are entitled to counsel at any time. That’s just a fancy way of saying parents can hire a lawyer at any stage of their DCF case.
Reason #4 to NEVER speak to DCF: DCF is the Government
As the government, DCF has overreaching powers.
One of my clients has said to me, when you become involved with DCF, you better sleep with one eye open. She let the 51B investigator interview her child alone behind closed doors. When she saw the report, she had buyer’s remorse. She went and asked her child if they had ever said any of the things DCF wrote down. The child denied everything. My client ended up having to fight totally bogus allegations.
DCF can go to the child’s school to speak to the children alone and completely bypass the parents. One investigator told me he always goes to school to interview the kids specifically to avoid the parents. When I confronted him, he said it’s because he just wants to get the investigation over with quickly and the parents never cooperate. Then we get pesky lawyers who demand we uphold parental rights.”
How Can Parents Get Around DCF’s Overreaching Powers?
Want to see DCF get their panties in a bunch? Tell DCF you want to video record the interview. The responses I’ve heard parents get are unbelievable. The Department starts to say things like “that is not in our policy.” Then they leave all upset, saying they’re going to speak to their legal team. Boohoo for them.
If DCF refuses to let you videotape the interview, tell them you do not want to speak to them without a lawyer. When I know a parent is innocent, I call DCF and I tell them they can talk to my client, but only if they videotape the whole thing. I explain that I don’t want there to be any debate between the two of them over what happened.
Reason #5 to NEVER speak to DCF: Parents Accidentally Confirm False Information
You might accidentally confirm false information when you speak to the Department.
For example, suppose DCF tells a parent “We’re investigating a possible child physical abuse case regarding your child.” And the parent says, “Mr. DCF Investigator, with all due respect, it wasn’t me. I’ve never hit or made a child bleed in my life.” How can that help incriminate this parent? How could that possibly be used against this parent? You would think it’s inconceivable, but it’s as easy as pie. All the DCF Investigator has to do is read this statement to the fair hearing officer and then DCF’s own attorney says, “investigator, was there anything about that statement that confused you or surprised you?” “Yes, there was,” is the response. “And what was that?” And then the DCF Investigator turns to the fair hearing officer and says, “I never said anything about a child bleeding. I said, we were investigating a child physical abuse case. He was the one who brought up anything about bleeding.”
Reason #6 to NEVER speak to DCF: DCF makes mistakes
DCF makes mistakes accidentally. Even completely innocent statements could be used to crucify you if DCF does not recall your statements with 100% accuracy. These problems disappear if you just say, “Thank you investigator, but I will only speak to you with a lawyer present.”
This is the case even if a parent is innocent and only tells the investigator the whole truth.
Any sane and competent lawyer will tell a client under all circumstances, “I don’t care if it’s the truth. If it’s the truth, great. There will be enough time to put our cards on the table. But I haven’t seen what the Department has for evidence yet. They may have confused witnesses who will contradict even the truthful things you say. We have no way to know whether the information that you give them, even if truthful and reliable, will end up costing you your children.”
Reason #7 to NEVER speak to DCF: DCF can manipulate parents.
DCF has ways to get around caretakers who try not to talk to them. If you wanted to go say, into a boxing match $100 if you win. You’ve never boxed before and you have to face somebody who’s an Olympic boxer. You’re going to lose. You’re up against somebody who went through training to get people to admit to child abuse during an interview.
During an interview at a DCF office, the DCF investigator might just sit there and wait for the parent to start talking, because they will. They want to talk. People want communicate because they hate silence. They need to fill that void with something. People hate silence. Also, You’re in a little room with just the 51B investigator. You’re being interviewed by an experienced DCF worker. What do you want the most at that point? To get out of that room. Does a DCF investigator want to get out of that room? They are paid to be there. Their job is to develop probable cause and develop a good case. A great case for the Department is a case with a confession because they can prosecute the case with little, if any effort. So they have no motivation to want to leave.
How does DCF Manipulate Parents During Interviews?
Imagine talking to DCF for two, three, or even four hours. DCF can somehow manage to extract something from you that could be used to support the allegations.
You can see how this causes an uneven playing field, even with the most educated parent.
No matter how hard some DCF attorneys try to put parents in suits and have them sit up at the table during an interview. When an interview is very long, the parent falls back to their old ways and they start acting and speaking in a way that’s not very good for their case.
DCF is also allowed to lie to parents.
How does DCF Lie to Parents?
DCF lies to parents in pretty sneaky ways. The social worker might seem very friendly but they are listening to everything you tell them. They can take positive things a parent tells them and spin them into a negative. You must remember that DCF will always err on the side of caution. When they begin an investigation, they are trying to find evidence that works against the parents. With false allegations, DCF may still work against the parents because they may think the parent is lying.
Sometimes, DCF can lie to parents and tell them they will not support the allegations if the parent writes an apology letter or if they sign a safety plan. DCF will say to just write it out in your own words and to just say “I’m sorry for what I did, and I promise never to do the following things…” The parent writes that out and signs it. Then DCF puts the date and the time on that paper and it’s entered as evidence as a written confession in the parent’s own handwriting.
It may feel like your rights went completely out the window as soon as you became involved with DCF. But DCF is just trying to do their job, like everyone else. In DCF’s eyes, they are gambling with a child’s life. The DCF investigator will try to err on the side of caution to make sure the parent is not abusing the child in any way, shape or form. That makes it easy for the Department to support allegations with very little evidence.
You have due process rights to be treated fairly and justly by the government. Those rights have always been there. They’re in the constitution. So keep your mouth shut. Don’t answer any questions. You’ll be glad that you did.
Kevin Seaver is a trusted Massachusetts DCF lawyer specialized in DCF law since 1991.