5 Questions Answered About DCF and CHINS Cases in Vermont

Being involved with DCF and/or a CHINS court case can be extremely stressful for families. Those involved should absolutely speak with a defense attorney as soon as possible. Here are some common questions answered about DCF and CHINS cases.

1. What Is a DCF / CHINS Court Case?

The Department for Children and Families (“DCF”) is the state agency responsible for investigating allegations of harm or risk of harm to children in Vermont. There are times where DCF investigators and law enforcement officers jointly investigate allegations of harm to Children.

However, DCF does handle investigations without law enforcement involvement. During an investigation, DCF is allowed to talk to anyone that may be involved. This includes you, your spouse/significant other, neighbors, friends, school employees, medical providers, and in some cases, even your children.

For more information on CHINS cases in Vermont, here is a guide for parents from the Vermont Judiciary.

2. What Should I Do If I Learn That DCF Is Investigating My Family or Myself?

dcf investigators sitting at a table
dcf investigators sitting at a table

If you learn that DCF is investigating you or a family member, it is best to speak with a lawyer to understand your rights and options. For instance, you have the right to not engage at all with DCF.

However, you should know that refusing to engage with DCF could result in a CHINS (child in need of care or supervision) petition being filed with the Family Court in your county.

3. Is There a Way to Avoid Court Involvement with Vermont DCF?

After consulting with an attorney, you may decide that it benefits you or your family to engage and work with DCF to avoid court involvement. This work can take many shapes, including but not limited to:

  • Agreeing to seek individual counseling
  • Agreeing to a safety plan that keeps certain individuals away from your children
  • Agreeing to enroll your child in individual counseling.
  • Agreeing to enroll in parenting classes 

This out-of-court engagement with DCF tends to be time limited – less than 6 months. DCF could always decide that your and your family’s engagement is not enough, and file a petition with the Family Court in your county.

A DCF petition filed with the Family Court in your county is called a CHINS case. CHINS is known as ‘child in need of care or supervision,’ and is the specific category of cases that DCF petitions involve.

4. What Are the Four Types of CHINS Cases?

Type of CHINS Case
Nature of Case
Child Abuse (physical & sexual)
‘Catch all’ including neglect, emotional harm, educational/medical neglect, etc.
Children beyond the control of their parents
Truancy from school

CHINS A is specifically in reference to allegations or concerns of physical and/or sexual abuse of children, or child abandonment. These types of investigations are usually conducted by DCF and law enforcement, and can result in criminal charges as well as a Family Court CHINS petition. (33 VSA 5102(3)(A))

CHINS B is the catch-all option. A CHINS B petition includes concerns about a child being without “proper parental care or subsistence, education, medical, or other care necessary for” the child’s well-being. CHINS B cases range from allegations that a child has missed most medical and/or dental appointments, to concerns related to the parent not getting the child to school, and more. (33 VSA 5102(3)(B))

CHINS C cases are typically focused on those youth that are “without or beyond the control of his or her parent, guardian, or custodian.” These cases include allegations that no matter what the parent or guardian has tried, the youth is unmanageable. (33 VSA 5102(3)(C))

CHINS D cases are only about the youth being “habitually and without justification truant” from school. This includes repeatedly showing up late to school and/or not going to school at all. (33 VSA 5102(3)(D))

Typically, a DCF investigator will write up an affidavit and submit it to the State’s Attorney for review. The State’s Attorney’s Office will then file it with the Family Court and a CHINS Petition is created. The Family Court will then notify all parties involved – each parent or guardian, and the juveniles involved.

The Family Court will automatically appoint public defenders to represent each party. Even if a couple is married, the Family Court will appoint separate attorneys for each parent. The Court will then schedule a preliminary hearing on the CHINS Petition. Of course, you have the right to hire an attorney to represent you in this process.

5. What Is an Emergency Care Order?

parent holding child
parent holding child

Sometimes DCF and the State’s Attorney’s Office request emergency hearings with the Court. This is usually due to the allegations being of a serious nature, and from the State’s perspective requires a court order to remove the child/children from the home and parent/guardian.

At that first, preliminary hearing, the Court will have to decide where the child/children will live while the case is proceeding. After that is decided, the Court will schedule a pre-trial hearing, and further hearings related to addressing the original allegations in the petition (called Merits) and, if possible, decide how to reunify the family (called Disposition).

The Vermont Judiciary has provided a comprehensive Guide for Parents in CHINS Cases. You should consult an attorney upon first learning that DCF is investigating your family.

lawyer typing at desk next to gavil

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