For many parents, it’s their worst fear: a knock on the door from a state social worker with the power to take their children. With 1 in 3 children nationwide experiencing a Child Protective Services (CPS) investigation during childhood following a report of child maltreatment, this experience is all too common for U.S. families, especially Black and Native American families.
Child maltreatment conjures images of critically injured or severely neglected children. But in reality, these investigations typically aren’t about “rescuing” children in imminent danger. We task CPS with much more.
I spent months embedded with investigating social workers at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, studying how investigations emerge, unfold and affect families. I saw firsthand how calling CPS has become a crutch for well-intentioned teachers, doctors and even police officers who struggle to address challenges like homelessness, domestic violence, mental health needs and substance misuse.
But even when all involved are well-meaning, child welfare agencies are not built to address family adversity writ large. Though CPS may broker social services, the agency is fundamentally oriented around parental wrongdoing, and it is empowered to separate families. Investigations themselves leave powerful marks on families. Even when cases are closed, investigations institutionalize perceptions of parents as risks to their children, generate anxiety and prompt disengagement from the very service providers who should be sources of support for families.
Educational, medical, law enforcement and social services personnel told me they turn to CPS hoping it can help families in ways they – lacking the requisite knowledge, skills, time and resources – cannot. For example, a mother I’ll call Deborah went to the hospital after accidentally ingesting and overdosing on an unknown substance.
The hospital social worker called CPS. “There was just this knot in my stomach and I was more concerned about her mental health,” she told me, adding that given her concerns, she would have reported even if not legally mandated. She did not know what, specifically, the family needed, so she turned to CPS: “That’s what their expertise is … I don’t have enough information, so somebody else needed to see.”
Professionals who file CPS reports, very often school or hospital staff, see themselves as allied with families. Typically, they did not want or expect children to be removed; almost all those I interviewed framed their reports as a way to connect families with social services. Still, these purportedly benevolent aspirations also reflect efforts to regulate families, particularly families marginalized by race and/or class, so that they conform to certain standards. The hospital social worker, for example, felt Deborah’s family could benefit from “oversight – someone checking in” and “making sure that they are going to counseling and they’re getting the supports that they need.”
Adverse experiences can certainly be challenging for children. Yet CPS often cannot do much beyond checking in during the investigation and offering to connect families with therapeutic services. In Deborah’s case, the investigator did not identify any threats to the children’s immediate safety. As in most cases, no allegations of maltreatment were substantiated and CPS closed out. Still, even with the case closed at intake, the report and assessment will remain in the agency’s database for at least five years, informing future assessments of the “risk” she poses to her children.
Because it is empowered to remove children, CPS threatens parenthood no matter how well investigators do their jobs. The mothers I met generally spoke positively about their investigators; Deborah, for example, felt relieved that the CPS investigator understood the situation.
Still, the prospect of family separation is terrifying. Deborah recalled the investigator arriving unannounced at her home: “It was an immediate hit in my gut … My brain just started racing and then froze at the same time,” she said, adding that it was “so scary” because “they hold ultimate power.”
CPS’s child maltreatment focus and child removal authority can work against goals of service provision and engagement. When I asked Deborah if CPS could provide anything to help her family, she replied, “Honestly, it’s so fear-based, it’s like, just please go away. Go help somebody else.” When the investigator offered a referral to voluntary case management services, Deborah declined.
Meanwhile, the CPS report left Deborah frustrated with the hospital social worker who notified CPS and wary of similar service providers going forward. “This social worker who spent four minutes with me in the hospital gets to determine strangers coming in,” she said, adding that she would hesitate to be so open next time: “If a social worker came into my room, I wouldn’t speak to anybody without my mother or somebody like a third party with me … I would, this time, now question a little more. Social worker, for discharge? Why? Why are you here? What purpose are you serving here for me?” This distrust and disengagement distances families from the systems tasked with assisting them.
To address family adversity, we should not rely on an entity that investigates wrongdoing and separates families. Instead, we must develop and strengthen supports outside child protection agencies, both to prevent family adversity and to provide alternative, nonthreatening outlets for helping professionals to get assistance to children and families.
An investigated mother I interviewed shared her vision for redesigning child welfare. First, she said, she would address housing needs, “because you can’t do anything without housing,” then turn to child care. “Just getting the parent on their feet to be able to take care of the kid. Once the parent is taken care of, the kid can be taken care of.”
As this mother recognizes, and as research shows, we protect children by providing for their families and communities. Failing to distribute social and economic resources equitably, we pin our highest hopes on CPS. But it cannot substitute for a robust welfare state, and its coercive authority undermines even the most well-intentioned efforts from service providers and caseworkers.