Child Protective Services

social worker writes notes while a girl sits with her doll

Child Protective Services (CPS) is an umbrella term for government agencies designed to ensure the welfare of children. Each state has its own agency and hotline. In Georgia, for example, the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is charged with investigating child abuse. In Texas, CPS is called the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS).

Child abuse laws, investigative protocols, and civil procedures vary from state to state. Therapists concerned about their ethical duties should consult their state licensing board or an attorney for advice. Parents facing CPS involvement in their family may wish to get expert insight from a therapist. A lawyer with experience in CPS matters is also a critical part of the support team, since only a lawyer is equipped to advise about the law, your specific rights, and how various actions might affect the outcome of a case.

Child Protective Services Investigation Process

The CPS process varies from state to state, and it can change depending on the allegation. For example, if there is an allegation of physical abuse, a child may need to undergo medical exams. In other scenarios, medical professionals might have only limited involvement or not be involved at all.

The general process proceeds as follows:

  1. Someone complains to CPS. This can be anyone, but it is often a mandated reporter, such as a doctor or mental health professional. Mandated reporters are required to report any suspected child abuse or neglect—not just abuse that they know happened.
  2. CPS determines whether the reported or suspected conduct constitutes child abuse. For example, someone may report a parent for letting their children walk home from school, but the CPS is unlikely to classify that as abuse. If the alleged conduct does not qualify as child abuse, it will close the file without an investigation.
  3. CPS investigates the abuse. This process can be relatively short, especially when a claim is easily disputed. For example, if a child tells a doctor that a person who does not exist abused them and there is no reason to believe anyone else abused the child, CPS may close the file. In other scenarios, the investigation can take months. An investigation may include interviews with numerous people, consultations with experts, legal procedures, and a review of complex evidence.
  4. CPS determines the least intrusive way to ensure the child’s safety. If there is evidence of abuse, they may work with the family to develop a safety plan. For instance, say a parent’s substance abuse has created an unhealthy environment for their child. The family and CPS may make a safety plan that encourages the addicted parent go to rehab while the other parent takes care of the child. In extreme cases, CPS may remove the child and place them with a relative or into foster care.
  5. CPS gets the court system involved if necessary. If there is evidence of criminal child abuse, CPS may refer the case to the district attorney’s office. The DA must then decide whether to indict the parents. If there is an indictment, the parents will face criminal charges and a trial.

Parents’ Rights During Investigation

Being investigated by CPS does not remove a parent’s basic rights under state and federal law or the Constitution. However, laws around parental rights can be complex. Parents should seek legal counsel and should not rely on general principles or online advice.

In general, parents have the right to:

  • Privacy and freedom from warrantless searches. A parent does not have to allow a police officer or CPS worker to search their home or car without a warrant (unless officials believe there is imminent threat to the child).
  • Know what they are being investigated for. For example, if a person is being accused of abuse, they have a right to know that someone reported them for allegedly hitting their child.
  • Retain custody of their children. CPS must have a court order to remove a parent’s child. You do not have to hand your child over to a CPS worker without a court order. (In extreme situations, hospitals or police can temporarily remove children without a court order.)
  • Make reasonable decisions about their child’s well-being. The definition of “reasonable” is often the subject of debate. For example, some parents believe the decision to forego vaccines is a reasonable one, while some states have attempted to remove this right.
  • Refuse to answer any questions. This can’t be used against you in a criminal setting. However, sometimes the better option is to cooperate and answer questions. Only a lawyer can offer advice about which strategy is best.

When CPS gets involved, most parents’ biggest fear is losing custody. If CPS removes the child from the home, they usually try to place the child with a relative. Have a relative in mind in case this happens. It’s important also to know that this removal may be temporary. If CPS threatens to remove the child or takes custody of the child, hiring a lawyer can help parents get the child back more quickly.

Removing the child is usually a method of last resort, when CPS believes the child is unsafe in the home. In other situations, CPS may:

  • Work with the family to develop a safety plan.
  • Require that the parents seek treatment or follow other guidelines to keep custody of the child.
  • Make no specific recommendations but follow up in a few weeks.
  • Close the case if there is no evidence of abuse or neglect.

It’s important to keep in mind that CPS involvement in a family’s life does not necessarily mean the family is abusive or that the child will be removed from the home. False allegations can and do happen. If there is no evidence of abuse, CPS may close the case.

Parents can more effectively navigate the process by:

  • Demonstrating that they are loving, caring parents. Don’t defend abusive, violent behavior or vocally endorse parenting practices that are far outside of the norm.
  • Ensuring children get adequate medical care. If a child is not getting treatment for their health problems, you may be charged with medical neglect.
  • Being calm and respectful, even if you choose not to answer questions. Being rude or aggressive may get you labeled as “uncooperative”.
  • Documenting everything. Communicate in writing as much as possible. Provide evidence of any claims you make. For example, if CPS alleges that a recent injury was because of abuse and you have evidence that the injury was because of an accident, be sure to offer this evidence.
  • Keeping unsafe people away from children. Sometimes CPS gets involved when a parent dates a sexual predator, remains in an abusive relationship, or otherwise exposes a child to potentially dangerous people.
  • Hiring a lawyer. Some people think that being innocent means they will automatically be cleared. Hiring a lawyer is the single most important thing you can do to protect your rights and your child.
  • Working with a mental health professional. A licensed therapist can help your family resolve conflict more effectively. They may also be an ally as you navigate the CPS process because they can help you manage stress and cultivate excellent parenting skills.

Mandated Reporting in Therapy

Therapists are mandated reporters. This means they must report any suspected child abuse. They do not have to prove that the abuse happened or investigate the abuse. That is CPS’s job.

Some examples of when a therapist might report abuse include:

  • The therapist witnesses a parent abusing the child.
  • The child has unexplained injuries consistent with abuse, and the parent and child do not have a good alternative explanation.
  • The child discloses abuse.
  • The parent discloses that they abused the child or that they saw someone else abuse the child.

A therapist does not have to report every mention of abuse in therapy. For example, if a toddler jokingly says that someone hit them or tells fantastical stories about abuse by monsters, the therapist does not have to report this. If an adult has angry or intrusive thoughts about a child, the therapist does not have to report this unless the therapist believes the adult has acted or might act on these thoughts.

Parenting that is not ideal—such as letting a child watch 8 hours of TV a day—but not abusive does not warrant a report to CPS. Reporting non-abusive behavior to CPS can damage a therapist’s credibility and erode the therapeutic alliance.

Reporting abuse can be challenging, and the core of the therapeutic relationship hangs in the balance. Therapists must have a good understanding of state laws and their ethical duties. Therapists who do not report abuse could be held civilly or criminally liable. They might also lose their license to practice.

Informed consent is a cornerstone of the therapeutic relationship. Clients must consent to treatment, but they do not have to consent to reporting abuse. Instead, therapists must inform clients of their ethical duties, ideally at the beginning of the therapeutic relationship. This ensures clients understand which behaviors might warrant disclosure to a third party.

References:

  1. CPS and your family. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://michiganlegalhelp.org/self-help-tools/family/cps-and-your-family
  2. DePanfilis, D. (2018). Child protective services: A guide for caseworkers [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/cps2018.pdf#page=10&view=Chapter%201:%20Purpose%20and%20Overview
  3. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://training.cfsrportal.acf.hhs.gov/section-2-understanding-child-welfare-system/3012
  4. Mandated reporters. (2015, July 1). Retrieved from https://policy.usc.edu/mandated-reporters
  5. Rosenblum, M. S. (2016, January 18). 5 tips if CPS knocks on your door. Retrieved from https://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/5-tips-if-cps-knocks-on-your-door
  6. Your rights during an investigation—and how to use them. (2017, January 18). Rise Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.risemagazine.org/2017/01/your-rights-during-an-investigation
  7. What happens after abuse is reported? (n.d.). Child Abuse Network. Retrieved from https://www.childabusenetwork.org/get-help/what-happens-after-abuse-is-reported
  8. What is child protective services? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.stopitnow.org/ohc-content/what-is-child-protective-services
  9. What might happen after a report is filed? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.stopitnow.org/ohc-content/what-might-happen-after-a-report-is-filed

Last Updated: 05-7-2019

  • 2 comments
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  • Steph G

    Steph G

    November 19th, 2017 at 11:11 AM

    I have a question-what does one do if the child has become co-dependant upon their case worker? I mean, to the point that you know thye are close to aging out of the system, and you give them a timeline that they can stay in the system until they turn 21 or sign out at 18 and their answer is “I want to stay with you”, as in the caseworker-personally. Shouldn’t it be ethical-at that point-that a different case worker take over the case? Especially if one knows there is an adoptive resource trying to work and one knows the child is nervous because they do not want to leave the case worker?

  • sahana

    sahana

    December 27th, 2018 at 2:00 AM

    Good Helpful

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