Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Child Protective Services
I am a CPS professional and am writing this article based on my experience in my state and region. CPS practices vary state by state, city by city, and county by county. To get more information, look up CPS in your region.
Important: 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 article 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. CPS Is Legally Obligated to Investigate Every Report
You may have heard it before, but it is the truth. CPS is legally obligated to investigate every report it receives. There are, however, instances where CPS does 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 child 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 freshman in high school with no other 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 may become an investigation.
Types of Investigation and How Long They Might Take
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. Some factors, such as screening and routing, can make this slightly longer. In general though, 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.
An investigation 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 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 must investigate, as they are legally obligated to. Even if the child, parents, witnesses, and ten other unrelated persons tell an investigator 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 and gather evidence. After 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, 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. There are systems in place to keep you from being harassed by a reporter or by us.
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 one week after the investigation with no new incident, 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 in a row, 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 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 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 amount 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 do have a long talk with a reporter regarding making false allegations, the consequences for doing so, and the unnecessary stress they are placing on a child.
“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 one very simple reason for this. Workers want to talk to the child before any parent has the chance to tell them what to say (at best) or warn them of consequences of disclosing abuse (at worst).
Also, if the child has some sort of bruising or physical evidence of abuse or neglect, the worker 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 by a parent. The child may disclose this to a worker if they interview them 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? 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 a worker comes to your 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 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 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 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 and they must also tell 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).
Can CPS Interview My Child at My Home?
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 is 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 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 in. Workers should ask you before coming in 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 leave. For the purposes of your home and property, CPS workers are just like any other person. They cannot look through your drawers or search your home unless you give them permission to do so. 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 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’re in more control 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 gives out a booklet outlining the parent’s rights when they see them for the first time. If you receive any materials, you can ask for time to review them if you want. 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. 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?
Why Are They Asking Questions that Aren't Related to the Allegation?
Well 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. 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 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. They’ll be asked about whether they have financial problems or had domestic violence in old relationships. These types of 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 both 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 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. A physical abuse allegation may lead investigators to discover that no physical abuse is occurring, but that there is domestic violence between Dad and his girlfriend. In the end, they may ask you to attend some domestic violence classes even though this was not what you were reported for.
6. CPS Needs Your Consent to Test You for Drugs
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 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 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 to take a drug test, you can be court ordered to take one. If you are court ordered to take a drug test, they will give you a nail scrape, a hair follicle, or some other type of test that tests farther back into your history, and you will be required to take this test. You will not “fool” a test by refusing and requiring that a court order be gotten to buy more time.
What Happens if You Refuse the Drug Test
If you refuse a drug test, the reality is that 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 principal. 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 be 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. A Very Short Discussion on Removals
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, CPS workers have just guaranteed themselves an extra 50 or so hours of 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 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 of CPS is to do everything possible to avoid removal. You may not see those policies or think any of those things are being done, but they are.
Why Did It Happen So Fast?
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. 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 the removal. 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. 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 for children and the goal is to not have them placed in foster care. Any other viable, safe option is very much preferred. And 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 long and takes 18 months or more.
8. How the 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. People feel harassed and invaded. I get it. They get it. CPS workers understand that you feel this way. They would feel this way too if it were happening to them. While it’s the CPS’ job to investigate claims, they can also can help you.
How Can CPS Help Me?
CPS has access to massive amounts of resources and can provide you with tools, materials, and concrete things that you want or need to help your family work better. Ask your investigator about anything you need, from diapers and 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 the requests you have. But they will try. Helping families is my favorite part of the work that I do.
Helping families is my favorite part of the work that I do.
9. Why You Should Cooperate with CPS
I mentioned above that you should cooperate with CPS, and there is a reason for this. 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.
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 any 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 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 asking them a single question related to CPS.
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 do not allow CPS to come in when they've asked to come inside, they can 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 with CPS. 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 personally 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 eventually on one case, but when families have problems, they tend 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 last 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 job. They aren’t doing anything as personal vendetta against you and they aren’t judging you in a personal way. They are regulated and well supervised.
"It Is My Job to Be Hated."
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 simply people who have chosen to dedicate a significant amount of their time 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.
Instead, 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. At the end of the day, we are just people doing our jobs.