It's impossible for me to talk about my volunteer work with Prevent Child Abuse NY in public for more than ten minutes without someone telling me some horror story about a CPS investigation gone wrong. I volunteer for an organization that seeks to prevent child abuse from happening in the first place- what's known as Primary Prevention. But, as is so common in our culture, something that works well and painlessly rarely gets noticed or mentioned, while the blood train-wrecks, rare as they are, get all the attention. A huge part of what CPS does is viewed as a bloody train wreck to someone.
Since most of us will, at some point, find ourselves wondering if we should call CPS, I think I'll use a list of the most common misconceptions I hear and questions I'm asked when the topic of CPS comes up.
1) One time I saw someone haul off and hit their little toddler in the grocery store. Should I have called CPS?- No. If a child is being abused in front of your eyes, call the police. They have to respond immediately. CPS usually has 24-48 hours to start an investigation, which isn't going to work if you're watching child abuse in a public place, where the abuser is about to hop into their car and disappear. CPS is part of your county's Department of Social Services, not part of the police, although the two entities can work closely together at times. As for hitting a toddler in the grocery store- corporal punishment is legal, but the line is always drawn at the point where the blow causes lasting pain, damage or injury. Some jurisdictions also prohibit hitting a child anyplace other than their backside, or with anything other than an open hand. So, any kind of hitting that leaves welts is considered abusive. Hitting a very small child anyplace about the head or face is a bad idea. If your insinct is that you are witnessing an act of child abuse, it's probably worth picking up the phone. But remember, if the child is in immediate danger, call the police, not CPS.
2) I called CPS on my neighbor. They didn't do anything. Now what?-
When you call CPS, they need to start in investigation within 24-48 hours (timeframes may varies by state and county). Sometimes that investigation is simply a CPS worker calling the adult the claim is being made against and trying to see if the claim has any veracity at all (for example, did the caller leave the right family and phone address?). At some point, credible claims are investigated in person. What the investigator is looking for is evidence that the report that was called in to the hotline actually happened. They are also going to keep their eyes open for other things that are going on in that household. Unless they have reason to believe the children are in immediate risk of death or serious harm, they are not going to be removed from the house. The caseworker will give the parents a list of things they think the parents need to improve- that might include things like "get some food in this house", "stop leaving your kids unattended",or "go into rehab". Depending on the jurisdiction, CPS may provide the families a varying amount of help solving these problems. There is supposed to be follow-up by CPS, to see how the family is doing, but how much follow-up they can provide varies widely by jurisdiction. If, after the investigation concludes, CPS believes the act that someone called the hotline for was committed, the adult who committed it will be "indicated". This means their name is placed on a list of people who have been indicated of abusing children. It will keep the from doing some things like being able to be foster parents, open a day care, and possibly get other employment with children. But they aren't necessarially going to get arrested, as there is a different standard of proof required. Think of the difference between civil and criminal trials. For most non-sexual abuse, CPS simply won't bother trying to press criminal charges on the family.
4) My neighbor's son's friend's wife is a social worker. Can't I just call them and tell them what's going on?- No. Informing a "social worker", a term that can mean lots of different things, about possible child maltreatment isn't the same as calling your state's reporting hotline. There is a very good chance that information given to a "social worker", and not reported to the central hotline, will never go where it needs to go and an investigation will never happen. Besides, the hotlines exist so that you don't need to go through the trouble of getting the number for your neighbor's son's friend's wife!
5) I want to make a call against someone in my family, but that means I'm saying they're a bad mother, and I can't do that. - In my personal life, I've made calls against people who I think are good parents, but they are willing to ignore all their instincts and all advice by doing one intensly stupid thing. That thing can be spending time with an abusive partner, a sex offender, or going on a drug binge. No, I don't relish the thought of calling CPS on someone I know, like and respect. But I also don't relish the prospect of going to a funeral where a tiny little casket is lowered into the earth. I don't relish living with the guilt that would haunt me. And I am not capable of deluding myself into believing that consiquences that grim cannot befall someone I know.
6) CPS took a child away from a loving home- Unfortunately, most of the time when CPS removes a child, they are taking them away from a loving home. John Lennon got it wrong- love is not all you need, at least when it comes to raising kids. Even the most abusive of parents usually express some love for their children. And even the most abused children usually feel some love for their parents, and are reluctant to leave their care. Children are not removed from custody unless they are at a huge risk for death or serious harm. Removing a child is a bad thing all the way around. Foster care isn't a great system- I blogged a few days ago about a little boy who got killed by his foster-mother's boyfriend. But leaving a child in a home where their life or safety is in real danger isn't acceptable, either. Every time a child dies from abuse, and their family was involved in CPS, as many people call for blood from the CPS worker as from the abusive family.
In this series of blogs, I'm trying to play the role of educator. In this one in particular, I'm trying to stick up for CPS, because it's the system we have, and I think it can work better if more people understand how to make it work better. But let me tell you, I've had some horrible experiences with CPS. They tend to be very understaffed and over worked. As such, their workers tend to burn out, and they tend to be desperate enough that they'll hire anyone. The culture within a particular county's CPS can become absolutely toxic, and the workers who come in full if idealisim don't last. As much as I've laid out an outline for how the system is supposed to work, I know it doesn't always work this way. I also know that when I'm hearing an enraged, grieving parent tell their side of the story, I'm hearing just that- one side of a story. This is why I pour myself into helping the cause of Primary Prevention. The less abuse we have out there, the less we all need to worry about CPS making mistakes.