Child Abuse Investigations

Florida Department of Children and Families

Being accused of harming a child or a vulnerable adult, especially a loved one, can be among the most emotionally devastating experiences imaginable. If you think you may be the subject of an abuse investigation now is not the time to wait and hope the matter works itself out on its own. Instead, it is time to be proactive and learn about your rights, your options and what to expect.

The Florida Department of Children and Families ( DCF) is the state agency charged with protecting vulnerable adults and children against abuse, neglect and harm. DCF’s authority in proceedings related to children is governed by Chapter 39 of the Florida Statues. DCF employees are often under political pressure to err on the side of caution, are overworked and underpaid. DCF and its investigators and attorneys are given an enormous amount of discretion and control over who to investigate, who to report to law enforcement and prosecuting authorities, and whether or not to prosecute a parent in shelter and dependency action.

For this and many other reasons, child abuse investigations are very serious and should not be taken lightly, even if you know you did nothing wrong. Once you are suspected it can be difficult to counter the allegations of DCF if you do not take immediate action. DCF workers receive very little training - much less than police officers and detectives, in legal matters and are often ignorant of a person's constitutional rights to not be a witness against themselves and the right to a lawyer.

'We're from the government and we're here to help.'

President Ronald Reagan famously described these words as the most terrifying in the English language.

When you realize that DCF can take your children away from you on the basis of a mere allegation and no other evidence, Reagan's words begin to come into focus.

If you or a loved one learns that the Department of Children and Families (DCF) wants to talk to you, it is extremely important to understand that you may be considered a suspect in a child abuse or child endangerment investigation, even if they say you're not. You should also know that you have the right to consult with a lawyer and have the lawyer present before or during any DCF investigation, even if they say you don't. DCF investigation are quasi-criminal investigations, and information is shared freely with law enforcement; DCF investigators almost always act in concert with or even at the direction of law enforcement. Very often DCF investigators will show up at your home or place of work, unannounced. This is by design - they do not want you to consult with a lawyer, because they view that as a barrier to obtaining information they need to do their job which is to protect children and vulnerable adults. It's important to understand that while DCF workers and police officers are not inherently bad people out to get you, they are not necessarily your friend either. They consider themselves "well-meaning" agents of the government.

We are reminded of Justice Brandeis's words in 1925:

“Experience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding." —United States v. Olmstead, 277 U.S. 438, 479 (1925) (Brandeis, J., dissenting)

Although DCF workers are trained to be non-confrontational so that you will feel comfortable in talking with them, sometimes their mere presence can be pressure enough. They will tell you that you are not being investigated for any crime or wrongdoing, but they just want your side of the story. The reason they say this is to get you to open up and start talking. Even if you are 100% innocent, there will be time to tell your story after you consult with a lawyer. Law enforcement officers and officials acting as agents of law enforcement (child welfare workers) are legally permitted to lie to you to obtain information. Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731 (1969).

Resist the invitation until you speak to anyone about an abuse allegation until you are able to consult with an attorney experienced in these types of investigations. Also remember, the first rule of any encounter with a DCF worker or member of law enforcement is to be polite. There is nothing to gain and a lot to lose by acting rudely or violently towards a child welfare investigator or law enforcement officer. If a treat a DCF worker poorly they may interpret your behavior as evidence of a guilty mind and write their report accordingly. Do not give them the opportunity.

Often a DCF worker will express surprise and even suspicion that you would want to speak with a lawyer before speaking with them. Do not let their reaction pressure you into asserting your rights.

The key point to understand is this: The Fifth Amendment was designed to protect innocent peoplewho might otherwise become ensnared by ambiguous circumstances. Ohio v. Reiner, 532 U.S. 17 (2001). Do not feel like having to consult with a lawyer means people will think you're guilty of anything. The fact that you ask to speak with a lawyer or that you consulted with a lawyer cannot be used against you later in court and cannot be considered evidence of a guilty mind.

"Maywe come in just to have a look around?"

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." - Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution

If a child welfare investigator or law enforcement officer shows up at your door, unless they have a search warrant, they may not enter your home without your consent or the consent of one authorized to give it. (There are exceptions, such as what the courts call "exigent circumstances" that, for example, allow police to enter a home if they have reasonable suspicion that a human life may be in imminent danger).

The reason the DCF worker wants to enter your home is that he or she will be writing down in a report how messy or clean your home is, how many beds there are, where the children are sleeping, what is in the refrigerator, who else is living in the home, whether there are any unsafe hazards in the home, and whether there is alcohol or any drugs in the home. All of these observations will be made without telling you. Remember, you do not have to let anyone from the government, DCF workers or police to enter your home without a warrant. You may politely decline to let such a person enter your home before you call an attorney.

False accusations often used to gain leverege in custody battles

Very often parents in a custody battle over children or in the midst of a nasty divorce will attempt to gain leverage in family court by falsely accusing the other parent of abuse and calling the DCF hotline to initiate a bogus investigation. The consequences for filing a false report can themselves result in criminal charges.

Suggestive child interviewing techniques can lead children to make false accusations

Suggestive child interviewing techiniques can lead children into affirming false accusations. Many people wrongly assume a child cannot or would not lie to investigators about being abused, but we know through experience that this is a false assumption. Nevertheless, a child accusing a caretaker or parent of abuse, whether the accusations are true or not, can result in serious consequences for the accused. The government can charge you and convict you of a crime you never committed solely on the basis of a child's allegation, without any other corroborating evidence.

There are many examples of improper suggestive interviewing techniques by untrained or poorly trained child welfare workers employing unscientific methodologies to build a child abuse case. One high-profile example is the Tonya Craft case.

Everything you say to a DCF worker or law enforcement officer will appear in a report and will likely be used against you later on, whether it's in a criminal investigation or prosecution or in a custody battle in family court. Sometimes investigators make mistakes, by writing their report an omitting certain things you might have said or including things you didn't say. Sometimes investigators and detectives decide on their own they think you're guilty of some wrongdoing, they will let their bias influence their report and their recommendations to prosecuting authorities.

The best chance you have in defending yourself against accusations by DCF or police is to contact an experienced lawyer before answering any questions.