I recently asked thousands of parents what their biggest fear was. By far, the answer was “Child Protective Services.” There was a time when I would have thought you were on the verge of conspiracy theorist if you had told me that these fears were even remotely legitimate for anyone outside of an abusive or neglectful parent. (Really? I should worry about the entity in charge of protecting kids from bad parents and finding homes for the ones who don’t have them?)
Alas, I stand corrected.
If you’ve followed my blog for longer than five minutes, then you know I’ve had the privilege of fighting the Department of “Family” Services (DFS) in court for the past 15 months. I’ve experienced the infamous false hotline, the exhausting adoption process, have since helped parents get resources for their children and/or navigate their own interactions with Child Protective Services, and have experiences with this agency (both good and bad) in multiple states and in various capacities.
I know first-hand what it is like to be targeted and retaliated against. I have witnessed the corruption, statutory violations, deceptive practices and tactics used against parents, the manipulation of children, false testimony, parental alienation, conflicts of interests, and lack of accountability within this agency to a level I would only wish on my worst enemy. (Kidding, but it sure is tempting.)
You might be wondering whether or not YOU need to worry about Child Protective Services. Leave it to me to provide you with a list of people who should have a healthy concern for this agency:
If you’re a good parent, a single parent, a minority, a Christian, a parent who homeschools or doesn’t vaccinate, a parent of a special needs or adopted child, someone who is homeless, lives in poverty, or needs resources, someone who lives in an area with a CPS agency that is notoriously corrupt, someone involved in a custody case with a high conflict narcissist, a foster parent, a parent who lives a healthy lifestyle, a mother who feeds her children vegetables and opts for a smoothie over a box of roundup ready garbage, someone who stole a piece of gum 13 years ago and/or occasionally wears mismatched socks, someone who shops at Aldi, someone who shops at Whole Foods, or someone who just so happens to be on the bad side of a caseworker, counselor, or a corrupt guardian ad litem, you should absolutely be concerned about Child “Protective” Services.
This is the first post in a series of posts derived from my personal experience and knowledge of Child Protective Services — how to protect yourself, how to respond if somebody false hotlines you, how to ensure they’re following their own policies, when you need to get a lawyer, what to do if you’re targeted, how to conduct yourself, and what to do if CPS actually initiates a case against you and/or unlawfully withholds or takes your child.
Read this post. Share it. Print it out. Start a little folder and put everything I’m about to tell you in it.
#1. Understand What Child Protective Services is (and Isn’t)
First, you need to understand what Child Protective Services actually is (and isn’t). Child Protective Services goes by many different names depending on the state you’re in. “Child Protective Services” (CPS) is the most popular, but there is also the Department of Family Services (DFS), Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), Department of Human Services (DHS), and so on.
Despite what you may have heard, these agencies may not target you, kidnap your child, unlawfully withhold your child, traffic your child, circumvent the requirements of the law by trying to adopt out your child, alienate you from your child, bypass the statutes and policies they are required to adhere to, violate your due process rights, or treat any parent with disrespect … though they often do all of these things.
The role of Child Protective Services is to conduct investigations into reports of abuse and neglect and to provide resources to families in order to keep them together and/or reunify them as quickly as possible. It is really that simple.
#2. Understand How the System Works
Generally speaking, CPS/DFS can’t just show up at your house and take your child. (If this happens to you, skip the following steps and immediately get a lawyer.) What triggers CPS involvement is some sort of hotline for abuse/neglect or a referral that gives them the authorization to conduct an investigation. This hotline could come from a court mandated reporter like a teacher or doctor, or a non-mandated reporter like an evil ex-spouse or online troll.
After a report is made, an investigation will be opened. An investigation involves meeting your chid, talking with you, and depending on the hotline, may involve interviewing teachers, doctors and other medical providers, a home assessment, and a family assessment to understand the resources that may be needed to keep a family together or reunify a family. (Many of your CPS/DFS cases actually don’t involve abuse or neglect. They center around a need for resources.)
A good investigator will inform you of the hotline or referral, will ask you questions, inform you of the policies they’re supposed to follow, tell you what the investigation will entail, get your version of events, see what resources you might need and/or they can provide you with, should be objective, should visit with you and your children, should make a home visit, should inform you of any court proceedings, should not threaten, harass, or interrogate you, and should definitely not be running with a false narrative because they just so happen to be friends with a caseworker who’s friends with the person who called in.
Sometimes investigations are quick and people can work together to resolve a situation. Sometimes a child may need to be removed (especially if a parent is on drugs or is placing their child in a dangerous situation). Other times, people just forget to do their jobs and there’s no assessment whatsoever (at least not a proper one).
After an investigation is conducted, a report will be generated. If they find reason to believe the abuse/neglect hotline was valid, they may open up a case against you. They might also open up a case in order to provide you with services in the instance where the encounter doesn’t involve abuse/neglect. If they find that the report was “unfounded,” they will send you a letter, at which point you can choose to have the state erase your file or you can have them hold onto it. (I’m a fan of keeping unfounded reports on file for reasons stated below.)
#3. Look up the CPS Policy Manual
Every child welfare agency has policies that it must follow and these policies are based on state statutes and constitutional law. When someone finds themselves on the receiving end of anything DFS, the first thing I tell them is to look up a copy of the policy manual for the child welfare agency in their state. (For example: “DFS policy manual in Missouri.”)
If you’re working with an investigator who actually cares about their job and the integrity of it, they’ll provide you with this manual upon meeting with you (or upon your request). If you’re dealing with an agency that is notorious for not following their own policies, you’ll have to look it up for yourself and educate them on their own policies.
Make sure that you get a copy of the manual that is in place during the time of your interaction with CPS/DFS, as they have been known to change the policy manual to circumvent the “violations” they make in cases that are being appealed (like mine).
Next, read the manual so that you understand their investigative process — what they look for, what your rights are, how long the process takes, and what you can expect. Make note of any policies that are not followed, like the failure to inform you of a hearing, their attempts to adopt out your child or place your children with a family they’ve strategically selected over relatives, the failure to provide a service plan, the failure to stick with the service plan, the failure to include you in required meetings regarding your child, the failure to provide visitation or services, etc.
If a case is opened up against you and/or your child is unlawfully taken or being withheld from you, you’re going to be glad you have this manual.
#4. How to Handle a False Hotline
One of the biggest things a parent fears most is a false hotline. If you’re plugged into anything natural on social media, then you’ve probably heard of someone getting hotlined by a random troll on Facebook for something they posted inside a private group. If you practice natural health, live in a state like New York (that just abolished the religious exemption), are in a minority demographic, or you’re in a monster of a custody battle with a malignant narcissist, allow me to bless you with this little piece of information:
You can’t just false hotline someone for funzies, because you feel like it, or because you’re mad. Many states impose penalties on a person who knowingly or intentionally makes a false report of child abuse or neglect.
- In New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, false reports are illegal.
- Nineteen States classify false reporting as a misdemeanor.
- In Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, and Texas, false reporting is a felony.
- In Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, and Virginia, second or subsequent offenses are upgraded to felonies.
- In Michigan, false reporting can be either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the seriousness of the alleged abuse in the report.
If you are false hotlined, my best (non-legal) advice from my own personal experience is to cooperate with the investigator. Don’t freak out. Don’t argue with them. Don’t be disrespectful. Don’t drag them into your mess. Just cooperate, keep answers brief and specific, and document what you can in writing.
Give them copies of your children’s’ medical records, a letter from your doctor, school records, etc. (This is one of the reasons I think that everyone should be established with a mainstream medical doctor.) Let them see your home and let them talk to your kids with you present. If you’re worried, have someone you trust there with you to observe the interaction. Ask them if there is anything else you can do or provide them with.
If you’ve recently adopted, make sure you do a post-placement adoption home study and if you’re divorced and your ex-spouse is a high conflict crazy person, it’s not a bad idea to consider a home study also. Finally, if you anticipate a false hotline, let your children’s’ healthcare providers, teachers, school, counselors, and social workers know in advance, or at the very least, keep those lines of communication open.
Once you receive your report that the report was unfounded, opt to keep it on record and request a minimally redacted copy of the file. This will come in handy should you find yourself false hotlined again and/or are a victim of litigation abuse.
#5. Establish with a Physician
I get it … you don’t see the point in establishing with a doctor because you don’t vaccinate, you take your children to a chiropractor, or your kids are perfectly healthy, but when it comes to the terrain of our current society that thinks it can hotline a parent for no valid reason or adopt a child out on a whim, you better believe you should have a physician on deck.
Establish with a physician, preferably a family practice doctor, and take your children in for regular check-ups/physicals even if you don’t vaccinate and your children are healthy so that you have the medical documentation necessary to refute whatever comes your way and will have an established relationship with a medical provider.
In light of the recent increase in medical kidnappings, make sure you research both the doctor and their hospital affiliations prior to establishing with them. Call the office in advance and make sure they accept patients with your beliefs on nutrition, vaccinations, or whatever else is important to you. Read reviews online (preferably from a search engine that’s actually going to show them to you).
If you’re dealing with an obstetrician, discuss your birth plan in advance and make sure they are on board with it before you get to month number nine. Being established with a good family practice doctor will also help you should you find yourself in the middle of a medical crisis with your child and want to seek a second opinion.
#6. When to Get a Lawyer
Whether you need a lawyer and when depends on your circumstances. If you already have one you’re working with in your child custody matters, definitely consult them. If not, it’s okay to wait and see how things play out before you invest the retainer and gear up for war. Does it look like your report will be unfounded? Have your children been taken? Is everyone following the policies laid out in the manual you looked up? Are you being treated with respect?
If you feel like you need to get an attorney, look for one one who specializes in juvenile law and/or child custody disputes and doesn’t represent employees of Child Protective Services. Avoid lawyers or public defenders who serve as both guardian ad litems for children in CPS custody and represent CPS caseworkers. (It’s laughable to think that any parent is going to get competent representation if their public defender also represents employees of CPS in other cases.)
#7. Document (Almost) Everything
To the best of your ability, put your interactions down on paper and your communications with CPS in writing. If you have a home visit, be sure to record your house before and after with a date and time stamp, and if possible, have someone else present with you during the home visit.
#8 Watch Your Mouth, but Tell Your Story
People usually have one of two responses when dealing with Child Protective Services: They either go off-grid and give the world the silent treatment, or they give the world the finger and blast out profanities that would knock a preacher over. (In case you’re wondering, that’s a bad idea.)
Might I suggest taking neither of these approaches? Silence encourages corruption and profanity just reinforces whatever it is they’ve been told about you and really isn’t going to get you anywhere. Express yourself. Share your beliefs. Be bold. Have courage. Expose what’s corrupt. Praise what isn’t, and tell your story — just don’t post during your brief periods of insanity. Catch your breath and allow yourself to shift into the other area of your brain before you let the world into it.
#9. Build a Community
This is going to seem stupid, but I can’t tell you how many times having a community of people surrounding and supporting me has helped me navigate the waters with CPS. When I went through my divorce and became a single parent to my then five very small children, everyone witnessed me walk through it. I went to church, I continued to go to my small group, I had people over, I met with teachers, I did extensive counseling with my children, I built an online presence, and I plugged into the community and invested in those around me in a positive way. I lived and continue to live my life in a transparent manner.
When I found myself in an epic battle with DFS in Missouri and I was retaliated against in my state with a false hotline here, you better believe my community was there. All of the people I had built relationships with (both in this country and in Congo) were willing to advocate for me and dispel the lies. They are still standing there, should I need them. This matters. How you pour into other people and the contributions you make to your community matter because these are the people who are going to be the ones who step in and support you and your kids should you find yourself in a similar position.
#10. Safeguards for Adoptive Parents
There are hundreds (if not thousands) of good parents who find themselves dealing with CPS because they’ve adopted and their child has made some sort of false accusation. Parents who have adopted internationally from third world countries or have children with trauma backgrounds and reactive attachment disorder know what I’m talking about. Assume that whoever you’re dealing with, whether it’s a caseworker, investigator, guardian ad litem, or even a counselor, has no understanding of where your children came from, the behaviors you’re dealing with, or the resources you need.
With that being said, take the opportunity to educate whomever it is you’re dealing with on the exhausting requirements of international adoption and the learned behaviors children pick up in their orphanages in an effort to survive that don’t necessarily get left at the door when they come to this country. If you have a counselor you trust, offer to allow the counselor to speak with the investigator about these behaviors and what you’re working through in therapy (though be very selective on what information you disclose).
In the name of being preemptive, it’s a good idea to educate both the school (principal, guidance counselor, special aid, etc.) and your child’s teacher prior to enrollment so that they understand where your child came from, any behaviors you’re working through, and can openly communicate with you about them. Consider keeping a notebook in your child’s book bag where you and your teacher can write daily notes to each other about your child’s struggles and progress. This will help your teacher understand what’s going on at home, what triggered behaviors at school that day, and can prevent unnecessary CPS involvement.
#11. Stand Your Ground
Dealing with Child Protective Services is one of the most stressful events a parent can possibly experience. Although you want to cooperate and walk in integrity, I would absolutely encourage you to stand your ground and ask them to proffer their statutory authority, especially if they’re in the wrong.
Do not assume that what you’re told is true. Do not assume that they are going to see a situation the way that you see it or that you are dealing with someone who has the same moral compass as you. Also don’t assume that all agencies or investigators and caseworkers within that agency are equally corrupt. (I know from first-hand experience that some aren’t.) Know that you can (and sometimes should) get an attorney if you feel confused or threatened.
Do your research, consciously prepare, and make a list of your local representatives should you need to contact their offices. Should you find yourself in a situation where you have to deal with Child Protective Services, take a deep breath. You’ll be ready.
(Note: I am not your attorney and this is not legal advice. This post was crafted from my own first-hand experience with the Department of “Family” Services and is for informational purposes only.)