When it comes to DCF, lawyers warn parents to 'know their rights'

Torrington — Speakers at a "Know Your Rights" child protection forum Thursday at Torrington Public Library warned parents not to allow the Department of Children and Families to intimidate them and infringe on their rights.

Yvonne Adamow, who worked from 2007 until 2013 as a probation officer for women, told the audience she often worked alongside social workers visiting clients for DCF. Adamow visited eight to 10 homes per week with DCF social workers during her last two years with the judicial department, she said in a follow-up interview.

She said social workers would get into homes by making threatening statements like, "I'm going to write down that you were difficult today" or "this is counting against you," and once inside, would open cabinets, refrigerators and search through mail and paperwork left out.

"It was every single time. I don't think I ever witnessed, I never had an experience where I could say that I felt that a woman was being treated respectfully or with any sort of acknowledging her basic rights," said Adamow, who now runs an advocacy business for women out of her home in Hartford.

On behalf of DCF, spokesman Gary Kleeblatt provided this statement in response: "Our workers try very hard to engage families voluntarily in our work, and we believe that is the most effective way to provide services. However, when families don't allow us access to children and therefore make it impossible to determine whether the children are safe, then we have to try other means to convince families that they and their children are best off by cooperating with our efforts."

"Our social workers have very challenging jobs; we expect them to be respectful to families at all times, but we also expect them to take all necessary steps to ensure children are safe as best they can," he said.

Attorney Lisa Vincent of Torrington, who spoke at the forum, said DCF sometimes uses the police to intimidate parents. Cynthea Motschmann, also a lawyer, said the agency calls meetings with parents to discuss potential removal of their children, but refers to the meeting by different names, which confuses parents. 

On Friday, a co-chair of the Connecticut state legislature’s Committee on Children said he wants to hear more about parental rights' issues in child protection cases before determining what, if any, changes should be made in the law.

State Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, met Wednesday with attorney Michael Agranoff, who has said the state needs open courts to prevent abuses in the child welfare system. Agranoff suggested three bills at the meeting with Suzio and Attorney Michael Cronin, the Senate Republican lawyer.

The first would strengthen the mini Miranda rule, which requires DCF to notify parents of their rights during their first face-to-face meeting. The proposed change would specify when this occurs, by requiring the agency to notify parents of their rights before it discusses allegations against the parents or asks them to sign releases of information. It would prohibit the agency from using information it obtained at the meeting if it failed to follow the law.

The second proposed change would require DCF to include in affidavits information that's favorable to parents, similar to requirements placed on criminal prosecutors. In criminal cases, prosecutors must disclose to the defense what's called "exculpatory information," or evidence they're aware of that raises questions about someone's guilt or can be seen as favorable to the defense. 

A third bill deals with instances in which DCF takes custody of a child without a court order. The agency has authority to take custody of a child for up to 96 hours, or four days, without a court order if it deems the child is at risk of immediate physical harm. The department then must obtain an order of temporary custody or return the child.

Agranoff said the law should be more specific about what happens later.

He cited an instance in which DCF took a child from a custodial parent on an emergency hold, and then placed the child with the noncustodial parent, effectively acting as a family court judge.

"It is clearly unconstitutional for DCF to take a child from a custodial parent without allowing immediate review of the matter by a judge," he said.

Suzio said he's not convinced the bills are necessary. But he said Agranoff made a thoughtful argument based on experience, and Suzio will ask the Children's Committee co-chairs about scheduling hearings to publicly discuss the issue when the session opens.

"I think it's worth raising it as a public issue and having some hearings on it, and then we'll see if we want to make changes or not," Suzio said. However, he said his priority is protecting children and he would err on the side of child safety.

Kevin Hall, New England director of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, said Connecticut needs open courts in child protection cases. He supports increasing the burden of proof required to remove children from their homes and terminate parental rights.

The burden of proof in temporary custody cases is "preponderance of the evidence" the lowest legal burden, attorneys said. It means the state must prove it's more likely than not that allegations against a parent are true. The state must show "clear and convincing evidence," a higher burden of proof, before terminating parental rights.

Hall said both burdens should be greater, with the criminal "beyond a reasonable doubt" applying to terminating parental rights, and with the option for a jury trial if a parent asks for one.

The New Hampshire state legislature voted this year to replace "clear and convincing evidence" with "beyond a reasonable doubt" before terminating parental rights in that state, Hall said. The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2018.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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