North Carolina has some of the toughest domestic violence laws in the nation, with many of the protections aimed specifically toward the safety of children. Each county in North Carolina has a State-funded agency known as the Department of Health & Human Services (hereafter “DHS” and frequently referred as “Department of Social Services”). One of the primary functions of DHS is to prevent the neglect and abuse of children, including investigations of acts of domestic violence in the child’s home.
In many counties in North Carolina, if a law enforcement officer responds to an alleged act of domestic violence where children were present during the incident, the officer forwards a copy of the incident report to DHS for investigation and follow-up. This requirement of DHS review and involvement applies even if the children were not the intended victims of the physical violence, threatened or actual, but were present in the vicinity where the violence occurred. Many counties in North Carolina also have evidence-based prosecution for acts of domestic violence, meaning that the State of North Carolina can and will prosecute an offender for domestic violence even if the victim does not want to “press charges” and does not participate in the prosecution. Therefore, DHS could receive a report of domestic violence involving a child and therefore have a duty to investigate, even if the victim of the abuse does not want involvement by law enforcement or DHS. Studies have shown that children who witness domestic violence in any form are more at risk to abuse or become abused as adults; therefore, DHS takes such reports very seriously.
Once DHS is involved, they have a duty to investigate and assess the situation, including interviewing parents and witnesses. They will talk to the child if possible, and the DHS worker has the right to talk with the child without a parent’s permission if the worker deems the child’s safety warrants such action. Depending on the specifics of the violence or threatened violence, DHS can restrict either parent’s access to their children contingent upon the completion of certain requirements, sometimes contained in a DHS “Safety Plan.”
DHS representatives may attend any court appearances involving the alleged violence, whether in criminal or civil court, and the Court may incorporate any DHS recommendations into its order or judgment. Frequently, DHS will recommend that the victim-parent’s custody of his/her child(ren) is conditioned upon ceasing contact with the aggressor-parent. It is important for victims of domestic violence to understand that DHS has the authority to take custody of their children if they do not adhere to the Safety Plan, for instance by having contact with the abuser, even if the abuser is a parent of the children.
DHS will investigate whether the act of domestic violence constitutes “abuse” or “neglect” of the child. “Abuse” is the intentional maltreatment of a child and can be physical, sexual, or emotional in nature. Neglect, on the other hand, is the failure to give children the necessary care they need. Failure to protect one’s child from direct physical contact at the hand of an abuser or failing to remove a child from a home where he/she is exposed to domestic violence, even second-hand, can constitute abuse or neglect by DHS standards.
If an abuse victim does not heed the advice of DHS, the consequences can be severe. DHS can order the child be placed in foster care or with a relative, or recommend a lesser consequence such as counseling for the victim and/or the child. DHS could even recommend that the abusive parent be charged criminally and/or civilly with child abuse for continuing to allow the child to experience or witness acts of domestic violence. Abuse victims need to understand the risk they take by not removing their children from an abusive situation even if the children are not the victims of the physical abuse.
Prior to removing children from their parents, however, DHS will frequently recommend services that will keep the family together or provide for a plan of reunification. According to the NC DSS: Child Protective Services website, the program “strives to ensure safe, permanent, nurturing families for children by protecting them from abuse and neglect while attempting to preserve the family unit.” DHS may recommend and/or provide in-home and other supportive counseling services, substance abuse treatment, parenting classes and inspection of the child’s home environment on a scheduled or unannounced basis. DHS can perform random screening for drugs or alcohol and require that parents show proof of housing and employment. The power of DHS is great, as is their duty to the children as victims of domestic violence.