Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Child Protective Services
The views in the following article are those of the author and do not reflect those of any other person or entity. The advice listed should not substitute that of a legal professional and are not given as legal advice. Any examples are purely fictional. The following is of personal opinion and should be read as such. This should not replace any legal or professional advice obtained. I encourage anyone who is seeking advice on any subject involving Child Protective Services to seek the advice of a legal professional.
1. Legally Obligated to Investigate
You may have heard it before, but it is the truth. CPS is legally obligated to investigate every report that is received through central intake. There are instances where CPS does not investigate or the case is closed without investigation. These are instances where there is no real foundation to believe that there is abuse or neglect occurring. For instance, a report is made that a 14-year-old child is being left home alone after school. If the child does not have any special needs, is not causing any damage to property or otherwise putting himself in danger while they are home alone; the child is a normal freshman in high school with no other risk factors, this case might be closed at intake because no real neglect is occurring. If, for example, that same report states that the child has Down’s Syndrome, the report may become an investigation. There are several types of investigations ranging from one conversation with a parent to a full investigation. In any case, if the report makes it to the desk of an investigator, they are legally obligated to respond to that case. This is not a policy, this is the law. Case response time is 24 to 72 hours depending on the case. There are things, such as screening and routing, that can make this slightly longer, but generally, a case will have some response within 72 hours. A response can range from seeing the entire family to seeing just the child, or speaking with any person on the case. There may also just be unsuccessful attempts to contact someone. It does not mean that a parent will necessarily be contacted within 72 hours. A parent may not be contacted for some time after a case is initiated. The reporter is sometimes contacted prior to any action and sometimes not contacted at all.
It does not matter how ridiculous or false a claim may be. When an investigator receives the referral, they must investigate. If the child, parents, witnesses and ten other unrelated persons tell an investigator that something did not occur, the case is still completed. It has to be. That is what and investigator intends to gain from an investigation, the truth about what happened. One of my favorite quotes from a senior investigator was this: “We go out to disprove an allegation as much as they go out to prove it.” When an investigation is received, they have to look at it and gather evidence. When that evidence is gathered, they make a ruling or determination. They cannot take the word of one single person, even the child. They have to look at all evidence. If an allegation is false, give the investigator every resource to show that. Tell him or her why you think someone reported and what their motivation was. Investigators do consider this.
It does not matter how many times a report has been made by the same person or for the same thing. They still have to investigate. There are things that are in place to avoid you being harassed by a reporter or by us. The best way to show this is by example. Let’s say that you have been reported for physical abuse of your child and you completed an investigation. One week after this investigation was closed, the same reporter called in the same allegations. If there is no new incident, the investigation may be closed without you even knowing it was reporter. You may only receive a phone call. You may receive nothing. The case is closed with a ruling that it has already been investigated. If there are new alleged incidents, the case may be investigated again. If this occurs, say, four times in a row, they can start to close these without investigation. It DOES NOT always happen this way. You may be investigated for the same type of allegations from the same reporter many times. It all depends on whether new information is given in each new report. Good investigators will speak to the reporter and attempt to determine if they are doing this for reasons other than concerns for the safety of the child. Just because you are being reported, that doesn’t mean you are guilty. Investigators do not assume you did it when they receive the report.
2. Can CPS see my child without my permission?
The simple answer is yes. The longer answer is:
CPS will usually attempt to see your child before they talk to you. There is one very simple reason for this. Workers want to talk to the child before any parent has a chance to at best, tell them what to say or at worst, warn them of consequences of disclosing abuse. Also, if the child has some sort of bruising or physical showing of abuse or neglect, the worker will try to get to that child before that evidence is gone. If you are reading this, you may be upset because you’ve been falsely accused. Some parents are not falsely accused and it’s important for CPS to catch those children before there can be any intimidation or coaching. If you consider this an injustice or a violation of your rights as a parent, just think of the child who is being sexually abused by a parent. The child may disclose this to a worker if they interview them prior to contact with the parent. If a parent is made aware first, are they not going to intimidate, threaten, or further harm the child in order to ensure the child does not disclose this abuse? CPS will try to see your child at school or daycare or another setting before notifying you. The rules for this may vary in some states, so check your rights in your own state. In many states, you can look up the laws and policies of your child welfare agency on the internet and read them right there.
Now, if you do not want your child interviewed and a worker comes to your school, you can tell them no. Once you have stated to a CPS worker that you do not want your child interviewed, they will not be interviewed without a court order or “exigent circumstances.” That basically means that if you refuse to allow the child to be interviewed, CPS must obtain a a court order from a judge stating that you must allow the interview or that the situation must be of such an emergency or risk to the child that the child must be taken into custody of the worker and interviewed. If the emergency situation occurs, the worker must justify that in a court within 24 hours and obtain the approval of a judge. They must also tell you. Rarely will a child be interviewed by “exigent circumstances” unless the child is removed at that time. See Removals below.
If a CPS worker wants to interview your child at your home, they must ask your permission. They cannot speak with your child at your home with you present without your consent. If you say no, they will not conduct the interview. (See below for Why you should cooperate.) Of special note: If your child is home alone, they can be talked with, but this varies in circumstance. They can’t give a worker permission to enter the home. But, if the child is home alone and that is a danger, the police department will be contacted and all parties may enter your home. This is an extreme circumstance. If an older child is home alone, they generally won’t be fully interviewed at that time. If they are, it will be outside of your home.
3. You do not have to let them in the door-
CPS has no special right to enter your home without your permission and you can say no. Workers do not have a right to obtain search warrants.You can still be cooperative in the investigation without ever letting a worker walk inside your door. You can open the door and allow them to look inside and still not allow them to come inside the home. Workers should ask you before coming in your home. If you say no, they cannot enter. They will not enter. If they do enter, you can contact the police. Once you do consent to allow CPS into your home, you can ask them to leave whenever you like and they must leave. For the purposes of your home and property, CPS worker are just like any other person. CPS worker cannot look through your drawers or search your home unless you give permission. Allowing entry does not entitle the worker to be able to go through your medicine cabinet. They can look around and see what is visible to their eye, but must ask permission to open a drawer or the refrigerator. (See below on why you should cooperate)
4. You have rights –
Parents or alleged perpetrators have rights. Ask your worker about those rights or research them on your own. If you get surprise visit, you can ask for time to look up your rights. You’re in more control than you think. You can say to a worker, “I’d like to talk to you in a few days after I’ve looked over my rights.” In my particular county in my state, they give out a booklet outlining the parent’s rights when they see them for the first time. Ask for time to review them if you want it. You can contact an attorney or consult with one. If it makes you feel more comfortable, do it. In most cases, a few days will not harm your case. In some cases, it may. It is better to cooperate as much as you are comfortable with in the beginning. (See why you should cooperate).
5. Screening and Risk –
So you have been accused of not supervising your child and now workers are asking you questions about drugs, alcohol, pornography, and whether you’ve ever had an abortion. They asked your child if anyone had ever attempted to touch them inappropriately and if they have food to eat every day. You feel like CPS is investigating your life from the inside out. What is going on here?
In a sense, they are investigating your life from the inside out. Workers screen all children for all types of abuse or neglect regardless of the actual allegation. They will be asked questions about the allegation, but they will also be asked broad, general questions about all types of abuse and neglect. The reasons for this should be obvious. If the allegation is false, but Mom and Dad are doing drugs in front of the child, the child is still at risk. They need to know that.
Mom and Dad are going to be asked some general screening questions as well. They’ll be asked about their own childhoods and their own habits. They’ll be asked about whether they have financial problems or domestic violence in their old relationships. These types of questions help a CPS worker determine several things. For example, is the family in a position of high stresses or does the mother or father show a pattern of behavior? Is there a long history of violence or a long history of sexual abuse or incest in a family? They want a complete picture. They want this so that they can identify if a child is at risk, but also to see if there is anything CPS can do to help that family. (See helping).
There are many times when the original allegation is not what the investigator found to be of the most concern in the family. A physical abuse allegation may lead investigators to discover that no physical abuse is occurring, but that domestic violence between Dad and his girlfriend is. They may ask you to attend some domestic violence classes even though this was not what you were reported for.
6. Drug tests
This is a sticky subject. CPS worker can drug test you. They do need your consent. They cannot force you to take it. They do not have legal authority to do that. They will not tell you that they are going to do it first and they will arrange for that test within a very short period. There are certain counties or states that will drug test every person in every case. You can be drug tested no matter your age and your children can be drug tested. There are a million rules that govern this and all kinds of different rules for each situation. You should know what those rules are and know what your rights are.
That said: The way you react to being asked to take a drug test matters. I won’t save this for the last section. If you refuse to take a drug test, you can be court ordered to take one. If you are court ordered, they will give you a nail scrape, hair follicle, or some other type that tests farther back into your history. You will then be required to take this test. This will not be long into the future and you will not “fool” a test by refusing and requiring that a court order be gotten.
If you refuse a drug test, the investigator WILL assume that you are using and act accordingly. This is important to know. People who are clean RARELY (though it does happen) refuse to take a drug test. They are more likely to demand a drug test to be cleared of the allegation of drug use than to refuse to take one on principal. You can refuse on principal and I have had it happen. It is not a good idea. Take the test.
If you are going to be positive on a drug test, tell the investigator before your take it and discuss what will happen. Positive drug tests do not mean automatic removal of your children. It may mean that they have to stay with someone else for a while, but it does not mean your children will be put in foster care. It CAN mean that, it does not always mean that. Every situation is different. Be honest and talk to your investigator. They will not be shocked. They will not overreact. They deal with it every single day.
7. Removal – a very short discussion
I have heard many things about CPS and removals. I have heard things as ridiculous as they have a “quota” they must reach for removing children or that they get “bonuses” for removing a child. I will speak only for myself when I say, I’d rather do anything than remove a child from their family. First of all, when a child is removed, they have just guaranteed ourselves an extra 50 or so hours of extra work. There are many things involved in a child’s removal that only the worker deals with. It is not pleasant and they do not want to do those things. They have enough work and they do not want to make more by removing your child for reasons other that that child’s safety.
Worker do not get bonuses, perks, meet quotas, or anything else for removals. The policy of CPS is to do everything possible to avoid removal. You may not see any of those things or think that any of those things are being done. It may happen very fast for you and you may feel that they have walked in without knowing you at all and “snatched” your baby without a moment of thought. It simply does not work that way. It doesn’t happen that fast for us and they gain information prior to coming to you. There are cases where the situation is so dire that an emergency removal is necessary based on very limited information. That information will be as reliable as possible and devastating information.
Removal is different from placement. If you have been asked to place your child with family or other types of kin, your child has not been removed. You have voluntarily placed your child in another home while you work some type of service or factors become controlled. Removal will involve a court order from a judge either prior to the removal or within 24 hours after the removal. You will be asked to attend court hearings. You will get an attorney. If this is not happening, you have not had your child removed. If your child has been legally removed, you can still place them in a relative or kin’s home.
8. Helping –
CPS can often be demonized. People, who are being investigated, understandably feel like CPS is there to harm them and tear their family apart, pry into their lives and embarrass them. People feel harassed and invaded. I get it. CPS does investigate, but they also can help you. CPS has access to massive amounts of resources and services to provide you with tools, resources, and concrete things that you want or need to help your family work better. As your investigator about anything you need, from diapers to a new home. They will get your resources if there are any. They may recommend things for you and you may recommend things for yourself. CPS is there to help whether it be to help a child from being abuse to helping a parent gain skills or resources. The goal of any investigator is not to harm your family, but to improve it. That being said, they only have the resources they have. They may not be able to fully meet all of the requests that YOU have. They will try.
9. Why Cooperating matters –
I’ve referenced this section several times. There is a reason. Cooperating with CPS is almost always to your benefit. If you don’t allow your child to be interviewed, it is natural for us to wonder why. They will ask you why. They want to know why. Why? Because they will assume you are hiding something.
I have heard every reason for why a parent does not want a child to be interviewed. The most common is that they fear that it will cause that child emotional distress. CPS workers are trained in interviewing children and trained in screening without causing emotional stress to a child. If you do your part to make the child feel less afraid or stressed, they do our part to make any interview as simple and easy as possible for a child. Most children do not find it remotely stressful and enjoy the interview. Workers may provide them with coloring books or other play things to ease the mood and make the child feel more comfortable. I have spent a full hour of pre-interview with a child in the past doing nothing but putting that child at ease before ever asking them a single question other than what their favorite color or school subject is. CPS is in the business of helping children, not harming them. They do everything they can to make children feel more safe and at ease. If a child finds the interview too distressing, they CPS worker may end the interview for that child’s sake. Most of the time, though, children have very little emotional reaction to an interview and express no distress at all.
CPS doesn’t always have to come into your home. If you do not allow us to come into your home when we’ve asked to come inside, they can assume you are hiding something. This happens to worker quite a bit more often than you’d probably expect so it is not as severe as not allowing a child to be seen or not allowing a drug test. But, if the allegation is that your house is a hazard to the child and you do not allow entry into the home, they will assume you are hiding something. If your allegation has any type of concern for people who may be living at the home or any concern for the home environment, they will assume you are hiding something. Not opening the door on principal happens, but it shouldn’t. They aren’t interested in going through your underwear drawer. They want to make sure the home is safe. As I said before, open the door and allow us to look inside and see that you don’t have trash piled to your ceiling or dog feces all over the carpet where your baby crawls around. This CAN be enough. If it is not, they can obtain a court order.
It is possible for you to be completely uncooperative with CPS. If they never see your child, your home, you, or anyone you know there is very little they can do. This, though, can be a very large red flag that something is really wrong. I, personally, suggest that if you do not wish to cooperate in any way, you contact an attorney. Have that attorney talk with us. My personal experience has been that if there is no cooperation, there are a lot of things wrong. They may just go away eventually on one case, but when families have problems, they tend to get involved more than once. If you’re hiding nothing, it’s better to just cooperate. They can close your case a lot quicker and easier if you show us that nothing is wrong.
10. Workers are people, too.
I add this last because I stand by it as the number one thing I wish people would consider. Worker are just people. They are highly trained and educated people, but they are people. They make mistakes. They miss things. They go home to their own lives. They are doing their job. They aren’t doing anything as personal vendetta against you. They aren’t judging you in a personal way. They are regulated and well supervised. They are people with a thankless job that doesn’t pay well and that requires a massive commitment. They have hobbies and dreams and goals. They have feelings. They often have their own children, their own problems, and their own pasts. They are just people.