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Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Child Protective Services

Shannon is a social worker, counselor, and Child Protective Services professional. She offers the insider's perspective on how CPS works.

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Full Disclosure

I am a CPS professional and this article is based on my experience in my state and region. CPS practices fall under your state's social services department and can vary state by state, city by city, and county by county. For relevant information, look up CPS in your region. These are my answers to the ten most common questions I've heard while working for CPS. Knowing these answers can give you insight into the reasoning behind the policies and help you navigate the system.

Things Everyone Should Know About CPS

  1. CPS is legally obligated to investigate every report, even false ones. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Below, you'll find a discussion of reasons why a report might go uninvestigated.
  2. CPS can meet with your child without your permission. Although this might alarm you, there are very good reasons for this policy, which I explain below.
  3. You do not have to let CPS in your home—even if they ask nicely.
  4. You have rights. Below, I list the most important to keep in mind.
  5. The investigation process is designed to be thorough. You may be asked some very "nosy" questions, and I explain why below.
  6. CPS can't test you for drugs without your consent, but there are also many great reasons for giving consent.
  7. CPS does not want to remove kids from decent situations, despite what you might believe. There are no bonuses or quotas to fill.
  8. CPS can help you. They have access to a long list of tools and resources to help improve your home situation.
  9. Cooperating with CPS is probably the smartest and most beneficial thing to do in the long run, for you and your kid.
  10. CPS workers are people, too. It's best to remember that their ultimate job is to help, not hurt.

CPS FAQs

In addition to those 10 things, here are other frequently asked questions about CPS that I answer here:

  • How did CPS begin?
  • What are the most common reasons why CPS is called?
  • Does a CPS case go on your background?
  • What happens when CPS is called?
  • How do I get my CPS records?

1. CPS Is Legally Obligated to Investigate Every Report

You may have heard it before, and it is the truth. CPS is legally obligated to investigate every report it receives. However, there are instances where they do not investigate or the case is closed without investigation. This typically happens when there is no real foundation to believe that there is abuse or neglect occurring.

Why a Case Might Not Be Investigated

For instance, a report is made that a 14-year-old boy is being left home alone after school. If the child does not have any special needs and is not causing any damage to property or otherwise putting himself in danger, it would appear that the child is a normal high school freshman with no risk factors. Therefore, this case might be closed at intake because no real neglect is occurring. On the other hand, if that same report states that the child has Down’s Syndrome, the report will likely become an investigation.

Types of Investigations and How Long They Might Take

Investigations might range from one conversation with a parent or foster parent to a full investigation. In any case, if the report makes it to an investigator's desk, they are legally obligated to respond to it. This is not a policy; this is the law. Case response time is 24 to 72 hours, depending on the case. Some factors, such as screening and routing, can take slightly longer. In general though, a case will get a response within 72 hours. Responses 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.

Even if you're being investigated, that 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 person who reports the case to CPS is sometimes contacted prior to action and sometimes not contacted at all except to receive a letter giving the ruling on the case. The letter only states the ruling and gives absolutely no details on anything else.

What About Ridiculous or False Claims?

It does not matter how ridiculous or false a claim may be. When an investigator receives the referral, they are legally obligated to investigate. Even if the child, parents, witnesses, and ten other unrelated persons insist that something did not occur, the case must still be completed. It has to be. That is what an 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 we go out to prove it.” When an investigation is received, they have to look at it, gather evidence, then 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, the best thing for you to do is give the investigator every resource to show that. Tell him or her why you think someone reported and what their motivation might have been. Investigators do consider this and want to hear it.

What About Reports Made Repeatedly by the Same Person?

It does not matter how many times a report has been made by the same person or for the same thing. CPS is still obligated to investigate.

However, there are systems in place to keep you from being harassed by a reporter or by CPS. For example, let’s say that you have been reported for physical abuse of your child and you completed an investigation. If the same reporter calls in with the same allegations a week later, with no new incident to report, the investigation may be closed without you even knowing it was reported. The ruling would be that it had already been investigated. You may only receive a phone call or you may receive nothing.

If there are new alleged incidents, the case may be investigated again. If this occurs, say, four times, and no evidence is found, they can start to close these without investigation. However, it’s important to know that it does not always happen this way, and you may be investigated for the same type of allegation 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 doesn't mean you are guilty. Investigators do not assume you did it when they receive the report.

What About Ulterior Motives of People Who Report Abuse?

Trust me when I say that when a CPS worker receives a large number of reports on the same allegation by the same reporter and it’s clear the motivation is something other than the welfare of the child, we know that there is an ulterior motive. Sometimes we have a long talk with a reporter about making false allegations, the consequences for doing so, and the unnecessary stress they are placing on a child.

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“We go out to disprove an allegation as much as we go out to prove it.”

— Senior CPS Investigator

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 a simple reason for this: Workers want to talk to the child before a parent or foster parent has the chance to tell them what to say (at best) or threaten the child with consequences of disclosing abuse (at worst).

Also, if the child has any bruising or physical evidence of abuse or neglect, the investigator will try to get to that child before the evidence is gone.

What If I'm Falsely Accused?

If you are reading this, you may be upset because you have been falsely accused. It’s understandable to feel upset, but you should also remember that some parents are not falsely accused and it’s important for CPS to reach those children before there can be any intimidation or coaching by abusive parents.

If you consider this an injustice or a violation of your rights as a parent, think of the child who is being abused. That child might disclose the truth to a worker if they are interviewed prior to contact with the parent, but 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? This is why it is likely that CPS will try to see your child at school, 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 online.

What If I Don't Want My Child Interviewed?

If you do not want your child interviewed and an investigator comes to their school, you can tell them no. You can even have something on file at the school stating that no one is allowed to interview your child without you present. Once you have stated to a CPS worker that you do not want your child interviewed, they can not conduct an interview without a court order or “exigent (emergency) circumstances.”

That basically means that if you refuse to allow the child to be interviewed, CPS must obtain 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 that the child must be taken into the investigator's custody and interviewed. If an emergency situation occurs, the investigator must justify that claim in court within 24 hours, obtain the approval of a judge, and notify you about it. It is rare to interview a child by “exigent circumstances” unless the child is also removed at that time (more on removals below).

What If CPS Comes to My House?

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. (There are reasons, however, why you should cooperate—there’s a section about this below).

What If My Child Is Home Alone?

If your child is home alone, CPS can talk to them but it varies by circumstance. A child can't give a worker permission to enter the home, but if the child is home alone and that poses a danger to themselves or to others, 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 CPS in the Door

CPS has no special right to enter your home without your permission, and you can say no to them. Workers do not have a right to obtain search warrants. You can be cooperative with the investigation without letting an investigator walk inside your door.

What If CPS Shows Up at My Front Door?

You can open the door and allow them to look inside and still not allow them to come in. Workers should ask you before coming to your home. If you say no, they cannot and will not enter. If they do enter, you can contact the police.

What If I Let CPS Come Inside?

Once you allow CPS into your home, you can ask them to leave whenever you like and they must comply. They cannot look through your drawers or search your home unless you give them permission to do so. Allowing entry to the home does not entitle the investigator to go through your medicine cabinet. They may look around and see what is visible to the eye, but they must ask permission to open a drawer or the refrigerator.

4. You Have Rights

Parents and alleged perpetrators have rights. Ask your worker about those rights or research them on your own. If you get a surprise visit, you can ask for time to look up your rights. You have more control over the situation than you think. For example, you can say to a worker, “I’d like to talk to you in a few days after I’ve looked over my rights.”

Can I Ask for Time to Review My Rights?

In my particular county in my state, CPS hands over a booklet outlining the parents' rights when they see them for the first time. If you receive any written materials, you can ask for time to review them. You can contact or consult with an attorney. If it makes you feel more comfortable, do it. In most cases, a few days will not harm your case. It is better to cooperate as much as you are comfortable with in the beginning.

5. The Investigation Process Is Designed to Be Thorough

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 children for all types of abuse or neglect, regardless of the actual allegation. Investigators will ask questions about the allegation, but they will also ask broad, general questions about all types of abuse and neglect. The reasons for this should be obvious. If the allegation itself is false, but Mom and Dad are doing drugs in front of the child, the child is still at risk and CPS needs 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 habits, whether they have financial problems or had domestic violence in old relationships. These questions help a CPS worker determine several things. For example, is the family in a position of high stress? Does the mother or father show a pattern of behavior? Is there a long history of violence, sexual abuse, or incest in a family? CPS wants a complete picture so that they can identify if a child is at risk, and also to see if there is anything CPS can do to help that family, since that’s a crucial part of their job, too.

What Happens If They Find Something Else?

There are many times when the original allegation is not what the investigator found to be of the most concern in the family. For example, a physical abuse allegation may lead investigators to discover that no physical abuse is occurring, but that there is domestic violence between the father and his girlfriend. In the end, they may ask the father to attend domestic violence classes even though this was not what he was reported for.

This is a sticky subject. CPS workers can drug test you, but they do need your consent. They cannot force you to take a drug test since they do not have the legal authority to do so. They will not notify you that they are going to drug test and they will arrange for the test in a short period of time. 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 also 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.

It's in Your Best Interest to Take the Drug Test

The way you react to being asked to take a drug test matters. If you refuse, you can be court-ordered to take one. If you are court-ordered, they will take a nail scrape, a hair follicle, or some other type of test that looks further back into your history, and you will be required to take this test. So you can not “fool” a test or change the results by refusing, delaying, and requiring that a court order be gotten to buy you more time.

What Happens If You Refuse the Drug Test?

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 refuse to take a drug test, even though it does happen. In fact, 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 principle. You can refuse on principle, and I've seen it happen. However, it’s not a good idea. Just take the test.

If You're Going to Test Positive

If you are going to test positive on a drug test, tell the investigator before you 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 necessarily mean your children will be put in foster care. 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. CPS Does Not Want to Separate Families

I have heard many things about CPS and removals. I've heard ridiculous things, like they have a quota they must reach for removing children, or they get bonuses for removing a child. I will speak for myself and say I’d rather do anything than remove a child from their family.

First of all, when a child is removed, a CPS worker has just guaranteed themself an extra 50 or so hours of work. There are many things involved in a child’s removal. It is not pleasant and they do not want to do those things. They have enough work and do not want to make more for themselves by removing your child for reasons other that the child’s safety.

Workers do not get bonuses, perks, or anything else for removals, and there is certainly no quota. The policy is to do everything possible to avoid removal. You may not see those policies or notice what's being done to avoid removal, but it's true.

Why Did It Happen So Fast?

It may happen very fast. You may feel that they have walked in and snatched your baby without a moment of thought. While those feelings are understandable, it simply does not work that way.

It doesn't happen that fast for us. Remember that CPS likely began the investigation before approaching you. There are cases where the situation is so dire that an emergency removal is necessary based on very limited but devastating information.

Removal vs. Placement

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 control some different factors.

Removal will involve a court order from a judge either prior to the removal or within 24 hours after. You will be asked to attend court hearings and you will get an attorney. If this is not happening, you have not had your child removed. Plus, if your child has been legally removed, you can still place them in a relative or kin’s home. Foster care is absolutely the very last resort and the ideal is to not have children placed in foster care. Any other viable, safe option is very much preferred. Plus, removal does not mean that you cannot ever have your child returned to your custody. The process for permanent, non-voluntary termination of parental rights is very, very complicated and takes 18 months or more.

8. How CPS Can Help You

CPS can often be demonized. People who are being investigated can feel like CPS is there to harm them, tear their family apart, pry into their lives, and embarrass them. Parents feel harassed and invaded. I get it, and most CPS workers understand that you feel this way. They would feel this way too if it were happening to them. While it’s CPS’s job to investigate claims, they can also help you.

How Can CPS Help Me?

CPS has access to massive amounts of resources and social services and can provide you with tools, materials, and concrete resources that you want or need to help your family work better. Ask your investigator about anything you need, from diapers or food to a new home. They will get you resources if there are any. They may recommend things for you and you can request specific things as well.

CPS is there to help, whether it be getting a child out of a dangerous situation or 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 don’t have limitless resources and they may not be able to fully meet all of your requests. But they will try. Helping families is my favorite part of my job.

Helping families is my favorite part of the work that I do.

9. Why You Should Cooperate With CPS

I said that you should cooperate with CPS, and there is a reason for this. Cooperating almost always works to your benefit. If you don’t allow your child to be interviewed, it is natural for us to wonder why.

Won't the Interview Cause My Child Emotional Distress?

I have heard every reason for why parents do not want their child to be interviewed. The most common is that they fear the interview will cause emotional distress. However, CPS workers are trained in interviewing and screening children. They are professionals at it.

We always make an interview as simple and easy as possible for a child. Most children do not find it remotely stressful and actually enjoy the interview. Workers may provide them with coloring books or other playthings to ease the mood and make the child feel more comfortable. I have spent a full hour of pre-interview with a child doing nothing but putting them at ease before asking them a single question.

CPS is in the business of helping children, not harming them. They do everything they can to make children feel more safe. If a child finds the interview too distressing, the 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.

What Happens If I Don't Let CPS in My Home or Take a Drug Test?

CPS doesn’t always have to come into your home. If you refuse when they've asked to come inside, they may assume you are hiding something. This happens to workers fairly often, so it is not as severe as not allowing a child to be seen or not allowing a drug test.

However, if the allegation is that your house is a hazard to the child and you do not allow entry into the home, CPS will assume you are hiding something. If the allegation involves people who may be living at the home or any concern for the home environment, CPS will assume you are hiding something if you do not let them in.

Not opening the door on principle happens, but it shouldn’t. CPS isn’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. Just looking around can be enough. If it is not, CPS can obtain a court order.

What If I Don't Cooperate at All?

It is possible for you to be completely uncooperative. If they never see your child, your home, you, or anyone you know, then there is very little they can do. This, however, can be a very large red flag that something is really wrong. I suggest that if you do not wish to cooperate in any way, you contact an attorney and have that attorney talk with us.

My experience has been that if there is no cooperation, a lot of things are very wrong. CPS may just go away for now, but when families have problems, CPS tends to get involved more than once. If you’re not hiding anything, it’s better to just cooperate. CPS 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 statement because I stand by it as the number one thing I wish people would consider. CPS workers are just people. They are highly trained and educated people, but they are still just people. They make mistakes. They miss things. They go home to their own lives. They are doing their jobs. They are regulated and well-supervised. They aren’t doing anything as personal vendetta against you and they aren’t judging you in a personal way.

"It Is My Job to Be Hated."

CPS is full of people with thankless jobs that don't pay well and require 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 simply people who have chosen to dedicate their professional lives to helping families and children.

I often say that "it is my job to be hated" because it is incredibly rare for anyone to welcome a CPS investigator into their lives with open arms and loving kindness. Mine is a profession where you have to get used to the idea that most of the families you encounter consider you an enemy. We know this and we can handle it because we know we are doing the right thing.

How Did CPS Begin?

Prior to the CPS, in 1853, The Children's Aid Society was founded in order to respond to the problem of orphaned or abandoned children living in New York City. For the first time, rather than allow these children to become institutionalized or continue to be homeless, the children were placed in “foster” homes, typically with the intent of helping these families work their farms as a kind of slave labor.

In 1874, the first case of child abuse was criminally prosecuted. The case has come to be known as the "case of Mary Ellen." Outrage over the cruel brutality of the case, there was an organized effort against child maltreatment. Finally, in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt convened the White House Conference on Child Dependency. This created a publicly funded volunteer organization to "establish and publicize standards of child care." By 1926, 18 states had some version of county child welfare boards. Their purpose was to coordinate public and private child related work. Issues of abuse and neglect were addressed in the Social Security Act in 1930. This provided funds for intervention on behalf of “neglected and dependent children in danger of becoming delinquent.”

Partly funded by the federal government, Child Protective Services agencies were first established in response to the 1974 CAPTA. This mandated that all states establish procedures to investigate suspected incidents of child maltreatment.

What are the Most Common Reasons Why CPS Is Called?

ReasonDescription

Vindictive family members and ex-partners

Many times a family member or ex-partner is belittling or consistently posing a threat to the health and well-being of the child.

Severe neglect

Some children are left alone without anyone to take care of their needs.

Severe addiction

Sometimes a parent or partner is so addicted to drugs that they neglect or abuse their children.

Severe abuse

Unfortunately, there are still many many cases of verbal and physical abuse against children in the U.S.

Does a CPS Case Go on Your Background?

No, a CPS finding is not a criminal conviction; nor is it available to the general public. Even if you are appealing it, a CPS finding will show up on your DSHS background check. A CPS finding permanently bars you from any work or volunteer position giving you unsupervised access to children or vulnerable adults.

What Happens When CPS Is Called?

When CPS receives a report or tip, it must first determine whether or not an investigation is needed. A caller does not have to be certain or have proof of abuse or neglect, however, reasonable suspicion is required.

What CPS Must Consider Before It Registers a Report

  1. Identity and Location: Can CPS identify and locate the child and family being reported?
  2. Age of Child: Depending on state law, CPS usually only investigates cases of children under 18 years old.
  3. Jurisdiction: Does CPS have jurisdiction? For example, California CPS has jurisdiction over cases where the abuse happened in California. California CPS also has jurisdiction if the abuse happened in another state, but the child now lives in California.
  4. Person Legally Responsible: Is the abuser a parent, legal guardian, foster care provider, or other adult responsible for the child’s care? If not, CPS does not have jurisdiction.
  5. Allegations: Does the alleged conduct constitute abuse? If CPS determines that the alleged conduct is not abuse, then there probably won’t be any investigation.

What If CPS Determines That There's Abuse or Neglect?

If CPS determines that there may be abuse or neglect, a report will be registered, and then CPS will begin an investigation. CPS will most-likely also make a report to the police. After this, the police may conduct their own investigation (the investigation will usually occur within 24 hours of a report).

CPS will take the following steps:

  1. Interviews: The caseworker will either call or visit your home to interview you, the alleged perpetrator, the child, or other members of the family or household. While the caseworker may want to interview your child alone, they are usually required to record the interview.
  2. Examinations: The caseworker may request medical or psychological examinations of your child to determine if abuse or neglect has occurred.
  3. Explanations: Within a reasonable time, usually 24 hours after all interviews, the caseworker will explain to you the allegations against you or another family member, and allow you to explain the circumstances of any injuries or safety concerns.

How Do I Get My CPS Records?

You are able to request your CPS records if you were in foster care or if you had ever had a case open with Child Protective Services about you being abused or neglected. There are no costs for you to request your records. That said, you must still be an adult to request your records.

Steps to Requesting Your CPS Records

1. Write a letter to DFPS

2. Fill out the Request for Case Records

3. Make a copy of your Identification card or Driver’s License

4. Send the letter and Request for Case Records

5. Wait for confirmation letter

6. Request update

7. Review records

Disclaimer

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.