This guide is the first in a series about what happens when DHHS gets involved with families. This guide covers the very first steps in the Maine Child Protection process - our other guides cover later parts of this process. If you are in a situation where DHHS is becoming involved with your family, start here.
Why has DHHS contacted me?
DHHS has gotten a report about possible abuse or neglect to your child.
Maine law defines child abuse and neglect. Abuse can include physical harm to a child, and also emotional harm or sexual abuse. Neglect means that a child is not getting essential needs met by a parent, or that parent is not protecting that child from harm. This can include actual harm to a child or threat of harm.
You have rights!
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has broad powers to get involved with families. When DHHS believes that a child is in danger, it must investigate to make sure the child is safe. But you have rights as a parent. Read this guide, and our other guides about Child Protection and DHHS in Maine to learn more about your rights during this process.
Who reported me to the state?
As much as you would like to know, DHHS can refuse to tell you this. Many professionals including doctors, counselors, teachers, social workers, and the police are required by law to report suspected abuse or neglect to DHHS. A relative, friend or neighbor can also make a report, even though they're not required to. DHHS can keep the names of reporters secret. They can also withhold information if they decide that it’s necessary to protect the child or another person.
You can ask to review your DHHS file. If DHHS won't give you information from your file, you can write them to ask for a fair hearing. If they still won't give you the information after the hearing, you have 30 days to take DHHS to court about this. But remember, DHHS can always legally keep the names of other people listed in your records a secret, as well as make decisions to protect the child.
What does DHHS do when they get a complaint?
DHHS gets all complaints about children through a hotline number. When they get the information, they will take one of three steps:
- DHHS can decide that the complaint is “inappropriate.” They won't do anything except document the phone call. DHHS does this when they believe there is no truth in the complaint. For example, if a family member is upset, and just trying to get back at someone.
- DHHS can decide that the likely risk of harm to the child is low to moderate. In these situations DHHS usually refers the case to an Alternative Response Program (ARP) Community Intervention Agency. These programs offer voluntary services to parents like counseling, substance use treatment, and parenting education. Parents do not have to use these services, but the ARP can tell DHHS when that happens.
- DHHS can decide to start an investigation. They will assign a caseworker to the family who will do a “safety assessment.”
Do I have to talk to DHHS, or let them into my home before I talk to a lawyer?
The legal answer is no, unless the DHHS worker:
1. Has a court order to enter your home, or
2. Is with a police officer who determines that the child is at “immediate risk,” based on something he sees or hears
But there is more to it than that. If DHHS believes you are being hostile or un-cooperative, this could trigger a negative reaction from the case worker. It is a good general rule to be respectful of any DHHS person you talk to.
It is best to talk with a lawyer as early in the process as you can. If you feel uncomfortable talking to DHHS before you talk to a lawyer, explain that to the DHHS worker. Move quickly long delays could frustrate the case worker, who is mandated to do their job.
NOTE:To get a lawyer at this early stage, you will probably have to find one on your own and pay the fee. The court will appoint a free lawyer for you later on, if DHHS files a court case and you cannot afford to pay.
If you can’t get a lawyer right away, you can refuse to let DHHS in. Or you can cooperate with DHHS and still set out some rules to protect yourself. For example, if you have a mental health worker, insist that they are there during any talks with DHHS. You can politely refuse to see the DHHS worker without someone else there. It doesn't have to be a casework, you could have someone with you like:
- a friend who can stay calm and take notes
- a religious leader
- a relative
- a service provider
- anyone who can reliably report on what happened in the interview
It is important to present yourself as calm and organized, not hostile and un-cooperative. If you ask for support from others — to be there and take notes, for example — this shows DHHS that you can handle difficult situations.
Can DHHS talk to my child without my permission?
It depends. If they believe that telling you ahead of time will put your child at a higher risk of harm, they can interview your child without telling you first. The interview can happen at school, a police station, hospital or other place where your child is. The interview should be tape-recorded.
What happens next?
If DHHS has started an investigation, you should read the next part of this guide: Maine Child Protection: What happens when DHHS investigates a household?
More information for parents from the Maine Court:
Handbook for Parents & Legal Guardians in Child Protection Cases