Your Client's Rights
Your Family and DCS
What happens when the Department of Children’s Services knocks on your door?
This page is for families whose children are at risk of entering foster care, or are in foster care. This information spells out your rights and responsibilities, but also offers a reminder that DCS staff works hard to assist families who are struggling or in crisis.
Helping families heal, achieve wholeness and permanency is the department’s first priority and we strive to always do what is best for the children of Tennessee.
Tennessee child welfare is not just social work procedure, but it is a legal one, too. The department works closely with the courts, and there are specific laws that describe how we do what we do.
We know the DCS process and State laws can be confusing. So, the Client’s Rights Handbook, which every family we work with receives, aims to clarify the process. You can download it, however here are some important highlights from the Handbook.
Abuse and Neglect Investigations: What to Expect
When a report has been received that your child has been, or is being abused or neglected, the Department of Children’s Services is mandated by Tennessee law to investigate the allegations.
The Child Protective Services, or CPS investigator assigned to investigate the referral regarding your child or children, will advise you of your rights and responsibilities, share what they can about the allegations under investigation and how the investigation process works.
Investigation and Assessment
As part of the investigation, your child will be interviewed separately from the person alleged to have abused your child. Your child may be interviewed at school. Parental consent is not required for DCS to interview a child. After the initial interview, DCS may determine that the child might need a more in-depth interview, known as a forensic interview. These interviews are normally completed at Child Advocacy Centers.
You, as the parent, will be interviewed, as will anyone alleged to have abused your child and all other persons who may have witnessed the abuse or neglect or who may have relevant information regarding the circumstances surrounding the allegations.
Your home environment will be observed by the CPS investigator if it was the site where the alleged abuse occurred. If the alleged abuse occurred at some place other than the home, that site will be visited and assessed as well.
If the CPS investigator determines that medical expertise is necessary to assess the medical condition of your child, he or she will obtain a forensic medical examination by a doctor.
If the CPS investigator determines your child is in need of medical treatment, he or she will request that you take your child to the doctor for treatment.
If the CPS investigator determines that a child or parent is in need of mental health counseling, he or she will request that arrangements be made for this to occur.
The CPS investigator will follow-up or accompany you to ensure the child has been treated.
If you object and refuse to cooperate, the CPS investigator, depending on the circumstances, will contact a DCS attorney. This may mean law enforcement officials can be called in to assist or there may be a court order allowing the investigation to proceed.
If your child is at immediate risk of harm, he or she may be taken into DCS custody immediately. If there is no immediate risk, your family could be offered services and your case would remain open for a certain period of time.
If there is no immediate risk your case may be closed.
*** If a child does not enter the custody of DCS, but there is a need for a voluntary safety placement, DCS will enter into an IPA with the family. In addition to the IPA, which lists where the child and/or the parents shall reside and any restrictions on contact between a parent and a child, DCS will complete a Family Permanency Plan. This plan will outline what the parents, the child, and DCS needs to do in order for the DCS case to be closed.
All information created or collected, directly or indirectly, in any medium, which identifies you and/or your child, shall be kept confidential in order to protect your privacy. Child case files and related information are official records which have been designated as confidential by law.
Why a Child Enters Custody
A child can come into legal and physical state custody for three main reasons; or rather something called “committal status.”
- If the child is found to be neglected or abused;
- If the child is found to be delinquent, also referred to as a juvenile justice child who has been found by the Court to have committed an offense which would be considered a crime if it had been committed by an adult; or
- The child is unruly, which refers to a child who is in need of treatment or rehabilitation and who habitually, and without justification, is truant from school; is habitually disobedient to the degree that his or her health and safety is endangered; and/or is a runaway.
Note: Juvenile Court judges make the decision, often in consultation with DCS, to bring children into state custody and also have to rule on whether a child exits custody.
What Happens When a Child Comes into Custody?
The following protocols and procedures apply to all children in DCS custody.
If your child enters the state’s custody, DCS will complete various evaluations to identify the issues the child and the family need to address in order to return the child to your care.
DCS makes every effort to involve parents in the decision-making process involving the care of your child. DCS makes every attempt to use relatives or friends of the family as foster parents in order to reduce the trauma to the child.
You Can Expect the Following to Occur During your Child’s Placement
Intake: Bringing a child into state custody requires a judge’s approval. The intake process usually occurs in Court following the Judge’s decision. Basic information will be gathered such as family information, address and telephone numbers.
You will be asked to sign releases of information to allow DCS to obtain items such as school records, medical records, insurance or TennCare information.
DCS will request that you provide basic health information about your child and provide a copy of your child’s Social Security card and health insurance card.
Home visit: A home visit will be scheduled. The purpose of the home visit is to obtain information to assess the strengths and needs of the child and family. You should allow for at least one hour, maybe longer for this visit. At least one parent or guardian needs to be present.
A Child and Family Team Meeting: We commonly call these “CFTMs” and they will include the parents and/or guardians, DCS staff, the child, attorneys and any others who may have a significant influence in the child’s life. These meetings should be scheduled around the availability of you and your support systems, if at all possible.
Permanency Plan: Within 30 days, an initial permanency planning CFTM will be held. In this meeting, concerns, risks and goals for the child and/or family will be identified and a permanency plan will be created.
Everyone’s responsibilities will be outlined in that document. The responsibilities will be reasonably related to the goal, to remedy the conditions that necessitated foster care and must be in the best interests of the child.
The plan will be sent to the Court for approval and will become a legal document.
Contact with your worker: Your DCS Family Service Worker will maintain contact with you to ensure all your goals and needs are being met. At least one monthly visit will take place in your home or place of residence.
Contact with the court: Either the Court, or a review board, will examine your child’s case at least every six months.
Release from custody: Your child will be released from custody by order of the Court. The release date depends on the circumstances at the home where the child will return and progress of the parents or guardians toward their plan.
Permanency Planning: How it Works
Permanency plans are created to ensure that you and your child’s needs are met while he or she is temporarily in the custody of DCS and that he or she is safely and permanently placed back in the care of a family/relative/kin in a timely manner. The plan shall include all necessary actions to be completed by the parents, child and/or DCS to facilitate the child achieving his or her permanency goal.
Permanency plans will be developed during a CFTM and, to the extent possible, will reflect the consensus of the meeting’s participants while still meeting DCS’ responsibility to ensure safety, permanency and well-being for your child.
Unless parental rights have been terminated, all known parents, including legal, biological, and alleged fathers shall be included in the permanency planning process. You child’s participation will be requested if he or she is 6-years-old and capable and required at age 12 and older.
You may identify and invite outside resources, such as extended family members or other support persons, to help develop the plan and to and support you throughout your involvement with DCS.
If your child will temporarily live in a foster home, or receives residential treatment, this will be discussed and determined at the CFTM. You will be a part of this decision making process.
If your child is on TennCare you have a right to appeal decisions made about TennCare funded services provided by DCS. You will be provided a Notice of Rights and a TennCare Medical Appeal form at the CFTM.
The permanency plan can be revised when new issues that hinder accomplishment of the permanency goal arise, when there is a change in the time frame for meeting the goals, or when there is a need for changes in services or treatment for you or your child, but never less often than annually. The permanency plan can also be revised when accomplishments and successes are occurring that will aid in achieving permanency sooner. A Permanency Plan review Child and Family Team Meeting should occur at least every three months.
The permanency plan must be approved by the Juvenile Court, except in certain cases when a child is placed into custody as a juvenile justice child.
If you do not agree with the plan or the revised plan, you have the right to present your concerns at the Court during the hearing for approval of the plan.
You may voluntarily surrender – or give up -- your parental rights by appearing before the Judge of Chancery, Circuit or Juvenile Court and signing a voluntary surrender form.
If you decide you would like to surrender your rights, you should discuss it with your Family Service Worker.
Birth parents can access counseling and legal assistance if they are considering surrendering their parental rights. Please contact your Family Service Worker for more information.
DCS can refuse to accept the surrender of a child.
Judicial Termination of Parental Rights
You may lose your parental rights involuntarily if the Judge of a Chancery, Circuit or Juvenile Court finds there are legal grounds for termination and that termination is in the child’s best interest. Conditions that can justify termination of parental rights include:
- severe child abuse
- wanton disregard
- lack of concern
- substantial non-compliance with the permanency plan
- conditions that led to removal of the child have not been corrected or other conditions prevent return
- 10-year prison sentence
- mental incompetence of the parent.
What it Means When Parental Rights are Terminated
If a parent’s parental rights have been terminated, either voluntarily or involuntarily, it means the parents are no longer legally responsible for the child.
He and she cannot make medical, educational, or any other type of decisions regarding the care of the child.
The parent will not be notified of any future legal proceedings for the child. Once all parents’ rights are terminated, that child becomes eligible for adoption.
Birth parents have the right to participate in the CFTM until their parental rights have been terminated. These meetings can include discussions regarding DCS plans on filing a petition to terminate a parent’s rights, the termination of parental rights process, the adoption process and adoption placement process, assistance for grief, separation, loss, and the life-long implication of placing a child for adoption counseling, the child’s progress, and any other concerns.
DCS encourages all parents to participate in CFTM’s so they can provide input regarding their child.
“Open adoption” typically refers to an adoption in which the birth parent maintains some legal rights to visit and obtain information about the child after the adoption is finalized.
The State of Tennessee does not have an “open adoption” option. However, there are times when an adoptive parent is willing to work with the birth parent to maintain contact and/or visits.
DCS can facilitate these conversations, but it is the decision of the adoptive parent whether contact with the birth parent is allowed.
Please visit the post-adoption services page to learn more about your rights as a birth parent.
Once an adoption has been finalized, the foster care and adoption record is sealed and cannot be accessed unless contact is agreed upon prior to the adoption. A parent’s confidentiality also is maintained.
Birth parents will be offered a referral for counseling and support to cope with voluntary and involuntary termination of parental rights, grief, separation, loss, and the life-long implication of placing a child for adoption when appropriate.
Resolution of Grievances
If you are dissatisfied with an action taken by DCS you should discuss the situation with your FSW, or their team leader or supervisor.
If the action is one taken by DCS as it follows a court order or one which is the subject of pending judicial proceedings, DCS is obligated to follow the court’s decision and cannot change the decision without going back to court. In such a situation, you should contact your attorney to discuss your concerns.
Grievances should first be addressed through the Child and Family Team Meeting process. If the issue cannot be resolved by through a CFTM, you can contact the DCS Customer Relations Hotline:
By e-mail: DCS.Custsrv@tn.gov
By phone: 1-800-861-1935
Department of Children’s Services
Customer Relations Unit
UBS Tower, 9th Floor
315 Deaderick Street
Nashville, TN 37243
A customer relations representative, who has not been involved in your case, can review your information and help work through grievances.