What is Child Protective Services?
Child Protective Services (CPS) is a government agency, also known as the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) or Department of Social Services (DSS), built to protect children who are believed to be abused or neglected by their parents or guardians.
CPS has the goal of protecting the child in question, assisting parents (or guardians) in providing proper care to the child, decreasing the risk of continued abuse or neglect, and providing alternative care if the parents are unable.
Read more about child abuse.
Read more on how to prevent child abuse.
CPS is not equipped to handle dysfunctional family issues, nor do they handle common parent/child issues that are not considered abuse or neglect.
This page will use "CPS" in reference to all forms of the child social services organizations, and will use the term "parent" or "guardian" in reference to the caretaker of the child.
The History of Child Protective Services:
Child Protective Services dates back as far as the mid-to-late 1600's. The first known documented criminal court cases involving child abuse and neglect are dated from that time.
However, it wasn't until the early 1800's that different states enacted laws providing social welfare agencies the ability to remove an abused child from the parent's home. The children would then be placed in orphanages, which would later branch into the foster care system.
In 1835, the Humane Society formed the National Federation of Child Rescue, an agency built to investigate maltreatment of children in the home. In the late 1800's private agencies for child protection formed, which were modeled closely after the animal protection agencies already in existence. These private agencies would investigate reports of child abuse and neglect, present the cases in court, and advocate on behalf of the child's welfare.
The early 1900's brought about the federal Children's Bureau, which managed the federal child welfare acts including abuse, neglect, and maltreatment. Several amendments were added to help fund child protection efforts, as well as to help regulate the state laws.
In 1974, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) would help mandate that all states must establish procedures regarding the investigation of suspected incidents of child abuse or neglect.
What Are The Child Protection Laws?
Since the child protections laws were first introduced, there have been several updated laws and amendments to help standardize the protection of children who are suspected of suffering abuse or neglect. The most common laws include:
Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) - the primary Federal legislation that addresses and defines child abuse or neglect.
The Affordable Care Act - put in place to protect consumers regarding their health and to enhance the quality of health care available.
Keeping Children and Families Safe Act - an act based on improving practices and also a basic state grant program which works to improve child protective services system infrastructures.
Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) - a Federal law governing jurisdiction over the act of removing a Native American (Indian) child from the family. This act allows the tribal government a say in child custody proceedings involving Indian children on a reservation, or when the child is a ward of the tribe.
Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) - an act which prohibits placement agencies from discriminating against adoptive placements based on race, color, or national origin, for the child or foster parent.
Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) - an act built to correct problems in the foster care system that discouraged the adoption of children with special needs care.
In addition to federal child protection laws each state may have additional laws specific to that state. You can find a listing of contact information by state at the Administration for Children and Families site.
Standards for Reporting Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect:
There are laws surrounding how one can make a report to Social Services. A report is made when there is reasonable cause to suspect a child may be in danger of neglect or abuse. The standards are set in place to help authorities decide when a case must be reported to Social Services.
The definition of child abuse or neglect, according to the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) is:
- Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse of exploitation; or
- An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm
Generally, a parent or guardian can be reported against for abuse or neglect of a child in their care. However, in some states the law includes adults who have a regular relationship or responsibility of the child. This would include parents, guardians, or close relatives with regular contact.
CPS Has Been Called. What Happens Now?
Child Protective Services receives an average of 2.5 million reports of child mistreatment a year, of which only about 70 percent receive an investigation. It's estimated that there are approximately 400,000 children in the foster care system in the US - many of those children are in the foster care system due to abuse or neglect.
So what does that mean if CPS has been called for your child, or a child you have contact with?
It's important to note that each state will have specific local laws regarding what happens during a CPS investigation. Check your state laws regarding child abuse for specifics.
Here are a few basics of what could happen after CPS is called:
First of all, take a deep breath. A report of abuse or neglect is NOT an accusation against you. CPS is there to help sort out the situation and offer help that a family might not otherwise seek.
Whether the report is true or false, CPS is required by law to take action which may include a thorough investigation. In some states, that will mean an immediate investigation, but in other states it means that a review board will consider the evidence presented to determine if an investigation is required. A state listing of CPS contact information including state websites can be found here.
A CPS Investigation will look into the nature of the abuse reported, the identity of the individual responsible for the accusation of abuse, the identity and age of every other child in the household, and additional information that may affect the case.
If the court system is involved - which will always be the case if the child is removed from the home - the parents will be assigned their own attorney who is in no way affiliated with CPS and will advocate only for them.
When situations allow and a child can be safely kept in the home, CPS will attempt to keep a child in the home and to work with the parent or guardian to remedy the situation. This is ideal in comparison to placing the child in the foster care system, as that can be very disruptive to the child's routine.
The Parent's Role In A CPS Investigation:
During the course of a CPS investigation, there will be meetings with the CPS team. Regardless of whether you are at fault, this can be a scary time as a parent.
It is important that you stay composed and know your rights.
Insist on having someone present to help take notes and document everything said. This can be a family member, close friend, or a lawyer.
Provide information about what is asked of you and no more. There is no reason to accidentally present yourself in a negative way because you are flustered and not speaking clearly. At the same time, an attempt to hide information could be construed as an admission of guilt.
Listen carefully, and answer carefully.
This will be a stressful time in your life, regardless of whether or not you are guilty.
If you've done nothing wrong, present facts that confirm your innocence.
If you are at fault, work with the social worker to correct the situation and begin to move in a positive direction. Remember, CPS is intended to help fix situations rather than put more kids into the foster care system.
Review the information and resources presented to you, ask questions for clarity, and find a plan that works for your family to right the situation.
Prevention Services are the primary focus before removing a child from a home. These services may include parenting classes, home visits, drug and alcohol referrals for treatment, support groups, employment services, early childhood assessments, and respite care.
Wraparound Care is the practice of getting all the people involved in a child's case together so they can form a service plan and then delegate the responsibilities. The group may include family members, community members such as church clergy, staff from a treatment center where the family is seeking care, counselors, case workers, or legal advocates.
What Is A Social Worker?
Social workers are advocates for their clients. They educate their clients and provide resources based on individual client needs. Social workers have their clients best interests in mind and work to protect them while offering much needed support.
Social workers can assist clients with issues ranging from overcoming substance addictions and abuse, ending child abuse or neglect, and assisting with life-threatening problems.
Child Protective Services Terminology:
Child abandonment: a form of neglect, when the parent's whereabouts are unknown and the child has been left on their own for a period of time in circumstances where the child may suffer from harm.
Read more about abandonment.
Child neglect: the failure of a parent or guardian to provide basic needs for a child including: food, shelter, proper supervision, needed medical health treatments, proper education, or allowing a child to partake in illegal activities such as underage drinking or illegal drug use.
Read more about child neglect.
Child emotional abuse: interfering with a child's emotional development or sense of self-worth including: repeated criticism, threats, withholding love or support, or rejection of the child.
Read more about emotional abuse.
Child physical abuse: a physical injury, which is not found to be accidental, as a result of punching, beating, biting, kicking, shaking, throwing, choking, burning, or any other harming of a child inflicted by the responsible caregiver.
Child sexual abuse: as defined by CAPTA is "the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct; of the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children".
Read more about child sexual abuse.
Child Substance Abuse: a form of child abuse in some state laws in which there is prenatal exposure to a child in the womb due to the mother's illegal drug or alcohol use, manufacturing meth in the home where a child lives, selling or distributing illegal drugs or alcohol to a child, or using a controlled substance while caring for a child that results in the caregiver's inability to properly care for the child.
Read more about addicted newborns.
Social Worker: a professional employed to provide social services to those in need including individuals, groups, or communities.
Wraparound care, or wraparound services: community-based intervention which emphasizes the needs of the child utilizing all community members directly involved in the child's life.
Recividism: the act of repeating an undesirable behavior after having already received negative consequences for the same behavior. Also known as a relapse.
Additional CPS Resources:
Children's Defense Fund is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting children from abuse and neglect, and helping to ensure all children have access to health care and education.
National Association of Counsel for Children is a non-profit child advocacy organization dedicated to providing legal representation for children.
Children's Aid Society provides information and resources to help children in poverty succeed and thrive. Based out of NY, this organization provides resources on adoption and foster care, after school activities, legal advocacy, and family support.
National Association of Social Workers includes information on social workers, code of ethics, governance, and includes resources for locating a social worker.