While it is chilling to think of one’s family as the object of a social services investigation, wise preparation for such an unpleasant possibility may spell the difference between a manageable situation and a catastrophe. The first few moments of such an encounter usually have profound effect upon both the course and outcome of the investigation; however, a wise response can prove difficult because the investigator’s initial contact is often designed to disarm, surprise, intimidate, confuse or even mislead the targeted family. A thoughtful plan, which reflects a sober understanding of the strategies often employed by social workers, is invaluable in defending against such tactics.
While many social workers are undoubtedly fair, honest, kind and honorable (and while we presume that the great majority of social workers are well-intentioned in their efforts), the fact remains that we all view the world through our own filters and according to different biases. Social workers are no different; therefore, it is important to understand the perspective which a typical social worker may bring to a given situation. Unfortunately, many social workers and social service agencies disagree with biblical methods of child training and view Christians and homeschoolers with deep suspicion. The history of modern social work reflects far too many examples of gross abuse of power and tragic injustice. Accordingly, wisdom dictates that the danger of inappropriate and unlawful intrusion into the jurisdiction of the home in the course of a social services investigation be taken seriously.
Social workers are trained to employ a variety of tactics when seeking to ascertain facts about a family against whom a complaint has been filed. Sometimes, the approach is a friendly, disarming, nonthreatening effort to put parents at ease. Assurances may be given that, “Everything can be cleared right up if you’ll just let me come in and speak with your children.” At other times, a more intimidating approach may be employed, perhaps demonstrated in a threat to return and take children from a family if immediate cooperation is not forthcoming. Social workers often prefer to keep a family in the dark concerning facts relating to the investigation, which may result in reluctance or refusal by the social worker to disclose facts concerning the investigation or allegations of abuse. The element of surprise is another tactic of choice, resulting in visits without prior notice and resistance to a family’s desire to obtain legal counsel or other advice before making critical decisions relating to the investigation. While tactics vary, they are generally driven by the social worker’s objective to gain maximum information from the family in a fashion calculated to facilitate interpretation of such information according to the social worker’s experience, expectations and assumptions.
The investigation normally begins at the family’s front door, where the social worker will most often show up unannounced. This gives parents little time to think or regain their composure. Naturally, the unexpected appearance of a social worker at the door can be very alarming. Parents are generally uncertain about the nature and extent of their legal protections, and the very presence of a social worker causes many parents to feel as if their homes are about to be invaded and their children taken. At the same time, parents can be frightened, intimidated and offended by the inherently intrusive nature of a social service investigation and by the fact that false, unwarranted, or sometimes malicious allegations have been made against them. It is under the pressure of this initial encounter with a social worker that critical mistakes are most likely to occur. Such mistakes are much more likely if a family does not immediately seek legal counsel.
Listed below are a few things a family should do to help protect themselves during the initial stages of a social service investigation.
1. Stay calm and be polite. By law, social service agencies are required to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect and the social worker is making the visit at the direction of a supervisor. Although parents experience the most fear, anxiety, and indignation in the opening moments of an investigation, remaining calm and being polite will allow a parent to think more clearly and will often prevent a social worker from becoming overly aggressive or combative.
2. Ask some questions and get some answers. Early in the conversation, you might say something like, “I know you are just doing your job, but my primary concern is protecting my family from any unnecessary distress, so I would like to ask a few questions first.” You should ask at least three questions before continuing.
First, ask if the person has a business card or some other identification. Otherwise, you cannot even be certain of the identity of this stranger on your doorstep. If the person is able to adequately identify herself as a social worker, you should also ask her to provide the name and contact information of her supervisor.
Second, ask what allegations have been made. Federal law requires that social workers inform a family of the allegations which have been made at the initial stage of the investigation. Some social workers might attempt to use this as a bargaining tool to get access to your children or gain entrance into your home. Remember, you are legally entitled to this information without any condition whatsoever.
Third, if the social worker is requesting or demanding access to your home and your children (which she generally will be), ask to see a warrant. You are not required to allow entrance to your home or access to your children without a proper warrant. If the social worker does not present a warrant, do not allow the social worker into your home. Many Christian families have unwisely invited social workers into their homes out of a misplaced sense of hospitality or some other obligation. Do not make this mistake. Once a social worker is in your home, the door is opened for unlimited interpretations and even misrepresentations about what is observed. It simply is too great a danger to a family to risk permitting an unknown person access to the sanctity of the home so that the investigator can then interpret all that is observed at her own discretion and then use such interpretations against that family.
If the social worker does present a warrant, ask for a copy and read it. The warrant must specifically state the places to be searched and the things to be seized. Furthermore, a warrant may be challenged.
Finally, ask the social worker to wait while you contact your attorney. You have the right to an attorney and it is crucial that you seek legal counsel immediately. The social worker must allow you an opportunity to contact your attorney.
3. Call Heritage Defense. Heritage Defense attorneys are available around the clock and are trained to protect your family’s interests. We are ready to put you in touch with an attorney immediately. Many families fear that seeking the help of an attorney may raise a red flag with the social worker, but do not allow this possibility to dissuade you from seeking legal assistance—the alternative is far worse. If the social worker balks at you contacting an attorney, you may reaffirm that your primary concern is protecting your family from unnecessary distress. An attorney will seek to safely bring the investigation to a swift conclusion.
4. Do not be intimidated. Be firm and sober minded. Social workers are trained to be aggressive with parents during an investigation. Hold your ground. Do not give the social worker access to your children or allow them to enter your home without first contacting Heritage Defense. If the social worker becomes threatening, it may be wise to record the remainder of the conversation after advising the social worker of your intention to do so.1
5. Do not volunteer any information. Do not surrender any information or communicate further with a social worker without seeking counsel from an attorney. While you have nothing to hide, you have everything to lose. The right to remain silent is important, and should be exercised carefully. What you say is unlikely to be used in your favor, but will certainly be used against you.
Genuine disaster may be averted if you wisely follow the steps above. Remain calm, polite, yet firm with the social worker, and contact Heritage Defense immediately.
If you have any questions regarding how you might prepare your family for a social service investigation, please be sure to review the information we have provided on our web site. You may also email or call Heritage Defense. Our legal staff is eager to provide you information to tear down fears, build up confidence, and prepare you to help protect your family.
1 If the audio recorder or video camera is not in plain view, the following twelve states presently require you to obtain the consent of all parties to the face-to-face conversation: California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington.