After the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) becomes involved with a family due to an abuse or neglect accusation, a Family Team Meeting is often scheduled rather quickly. Handling that meeting properly can have lasting effects upon the situation, going so far as to influence the outcome of DHS reports, juvenile court decisions, and criminal charges. For that reason, it is prudent to consult with an attorney prior to participating in a Family Team Meeting.
DHS workers and the agencies that contract with them to provide services will state that the purpose of a Family Team Meeting (FTM) is to determine a family’s strengths, goals, and to ensure the safety of the children. Participants in an FTM often include the parents, other adults who are involved or filling a caretaker role (e.g. a grandmother), and DHS workers or employees of outside agencies (who are effectively DHS workers). Some FTMs last little more than a dozen minutes, while others may take a few hours. Often, a Safety Plan is created or modified during an FTM.
The process of listing strengths and goals can be useful, but it can also lead to a parent making a statement that harms their case. Often the DHS workers wills begin by asking the parents to state what caused DHS to become involved. Since FTMs are generally not recorded, that can create a situation where a DHS worker may later state in their report (or testify in court) that a parent admitted to some wrongdoing. Since it would be the word of the DHS worker(s) against the word of the parent, the parent is unlikely to prevail. Indeed, I can think of a case from a few years ago where the only real evidence against my client was that client’s alleged own words from a conversation with DHS. Had that client not spoken to DHS, there likely would not have been a court case at all. For that reason, I find it best to avoid rehashing why it is that DHS is involved, as it accomplishes nothing but can lead to harm to the case.
Another possible pitfall of the FTM process deals with how DHS treats its version of the “facts.” For example, in a case where a person is accused of physically or sexually abusing a child, DHS will generally want that person to admit that they committed the abuse – even if that person strongly denies any wrongdoing and plans to appeal any unfavorable report. Similarly, DHS will often want the other parent to admit that the abuse occurred, even when that other parent also believes in the innocence of the accused parent. I have heard many DHS workers say, in a matter-of-fact manner, that the abuse occurred and that the family all needs to accept that in order to be able to move on. Properly handling a DHS worker when they take that position is of importance, so as to not admit to something that was not done, yet to also prevent the DHS worker from attempting to use that situation against either parent later.
Because safety plans can be created or changed during an FTM, the FTM may be one of the most important interactions that a person can have with DHS. That is because an overly-restrictive safety plan can be difficult to modify in a favorable way once it is created, as there is often little incentive for DHS to agree to the modification. For example, if a parent agrees to a safety plan that has the parent never seeing the child, that safety plan may persist for weeks or months despite the parent later wishing to have visitation with the child. Had a safety plan with supervised visitation been negotiated at the beginning, then the problem of not seeing the child could have been prevented. All too often, I see safety plans that have been signed by parents (without an attorney present) that are overly restrictive and serve only to cause problems for the family.
In sum, the best way to handle a Family Team Meeting is often to participate, but to do so very carefully. It is possible to have an FTM that results in a positive outcome for the family, with no harm to the parents’ legal interests. It is also possible to have a FTM that results in a draconian safety plan and great harm to legal interests. For those reasons, I recommend that counsel be sought prior to an FTM.