“The Tool We Have”: Why Child Protective Services Investigates So Many Families and How Even Good Intentions Backfire
A briefing paper prepared by Kelley Fong (Georgia Institute of Technology) for the Council on Contemporary Families.
August 11, 2020
In recent months, conversations around the role of the police have drawn mainstream attention to what contemporary policing actually encompasses. Responding to violent crime constitutes only a small share of police work; instead, we often call on armed officers to address homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and other social adversities. Even when these encounters do not lead to arrest or physical violence, ubiquitous policing in marginalized communities, especially Black communities, heightens experiences of exclusion, injustice, and precarity.
In a new study, I trace how another, parallel institution comes to loom large in marginalized communities: Child Protective Services (CPS). Each year, U.S. child protection authorities, tasked with responding to child abuse and neglect, investigate the families of over three million children, disproportionately poor children, Black children, and Native American children. A staggering one in three children can expect a CPS investigation at some point during childhood.
To understand why CPS encounters are so commonplace, especially for marginalized families, I observed CPS investigations in Connecticut and interviewed approximately 100 key participants on these cases: professionals reporting suspected child maltreatment, frontline investigators, and investigated mothers. My research shows how, with the fraying of the social safety net in recent decades, efforts to help families take the form of summoning an agency that can forcibly separate them. As with the police, this expansive reliance on authorities with coercive power fosters fear and mistrust even when CPS does not find sufficient evidence to confirm maltreatment.
Contrary to media coverage focused on a few exceptional cases of horrific maltreatment, CPS’s broad reach does not imply millions of malevolent parents are willfully or seriously abusing their children. The situations drawing CPS’s attention typically involve adversities such as domestic violence, substance misuse, homelessness, and mental health needs, often among families experiencing material hardship and systemic racism. As I learned, the educational, medical, law enforcement, and other professionals who initiate two-thirds of CPS reports usually do not think the children they report are in grave danger. And CPS investigators agree. Nationwide, the vast majority of reports (over 80 percent) are deemed unfounded by CPS.
But nor does widespread CPS reporting represent a deluge of false reports from bureaucrats concerned about liability given legal mandates, or, conversely, eager to see children taken from “bad” parents. Overwhelmingly, teachers, nurses, police officers, and other service professionals say they would have reported their most recent case even if not legally required to do so. But usually, they do not want or expect CPS to remove children from the home. Instead, they call CPS in the hope of resolving a key dilemma they face: They want to help families but have limited time, resources, and roles to do so as they believe necessary. Thus, they turn families over to an agency they hope can intervene with families in ways they cannot. At a women’s services center, a staff member explained that “this is the tool that we have” to ensure children’s needs are met. These purportedly benevolent intentions expand the reach of CPS, as reporting professionals call on CPS not primarily to identify children in need of foster care, but to rehabilitate families broadly.
- Reporting professionals almost always want CPS to provide supportive services, reasoning that CPS has more information about available and appropriate services. For example, in one case, a police officer responded to an incident of domestic violence. “I don’t think that it’s a situation where the kids need to be removed from the house,” he said. Instead, he hoped CPS could assess the family’s needs and perhaps refer them to counseling, interventions he saw as beyond his role and knowledge.
- Yet reporting professionals also call on CPS’s coercive authority, framing the agency’s power as useful in pressuring parents to accept voluntary services or adjust their behavior in ways reporters believe will improve conditions for children. Another case involved a school struggling to manage a child’s behavioral outbursts. The parents had resisted the school’s desired intervention and the child also mentioned his father hitting him on the head. The school social worker hoped the parents would be more receptive to advice and service referrals coming from CPS. As she reasoned, when CPS refers, “parents either hear it differently or out of nervousness and fear of what if I don’t accept this service. Not that that’s the greatest way to get people involved, but if you get them involved, then hopefully the outcome is beneficial.”
- Embracing CPS reporting as a means of rehabilitating families disproportionately channels marginalized families to CPS. Race and class biases shape which families reporting professionals believe need supervision and correction. A daycare director, for example, described “red flags” that might make her more likely to turn to CPS: “Your quick, first red flag would be a lower-income family. Where they live has a lot to do with it too.” Moreover, given underinvestment in communities of color and poor communities, systems serving these families face resource constraints that may increase reliance on CPS. In one case, a major provider of mental health services for low-income Black and Latinx families reported a Latina mother who did not follow through with treatment recommendations after her daughter’s suicide attempt. The therapist said she “didn’t want to throw CPS at” the mother, but with her high caseload, she felt she could not keep following up to ensure the daughter received recommended services. “Because I’m seeing so many families,” she said, “things get lost and they fall through the cracks… [so it’s] gotta go to the big guys.”
But professionals’ wide-ranging concerns about families are often ill-suited to the intervention CPS offers.
- Frontline investigators point out that responding effectively to many of the families coming to their attention does not require the coercive authority that CPS can exert. CPS is uniquely empowered to identify candidates for legal intervention and child removal. But with children’s basic safety typically not at issue, investigators question the need for a child protection-specific response, recognizing that any assistance they might be able to offer could be provided by others instead. As one investigator noted, reporting professionals could make referrals or educate families themselves, but “they just pick up the phone and call us,” straining his caseload and subjecting families to unnecessary surveillance: “Once you call us, it’s a whole different ballgame… We come in and we delve into everything.”
- CPS investigators, like reporting professionals, are often unable to address families’ persistent needs. “I know I’m supposed to be a miracle worker, but sometimes there’s nothing we can do,” lamented another investigator. For example, the agency can refer to therapeutic services, but cannot address the chronic material needs at the root of many reports. On one case, involving a family’s housing conditions, the investigator wondered aloud, “What am I supposed to really do? I don’t see the kids being neglected.” She wanted to help the family, but CPS could not provide ongoing rental assistance. “The sad part is there’s nothing we can do in the sense that we don’t have housing,” she reflected.
Upon receiving reports, CPS investigators conduct multiple home visits and question families on numerous aspects of their personal lives. Investigators try to connect families with social services, but, like police, these efforts are often undermined by the agency’s coercive authority. Faced with the possibility of family separation, parents react with fear, mistrust, or resentment, straining their relationships with critical service providers.
- CPS investigations foster substantial anxiety among investigated families. Although reporting professionals and investigators rarely expect children will be removed, the threat of removal is ever-present even if unstated. “I couldn’t speak. The only thing that crossed my mind was that they were going to take them away,” recalled one mother. “I always thought that their job is to come in and take a child from their family,” another reflected. “Oh my God. You don’t understand. I was so scared.”
- CPS reports can also lead parents to distance themselves from reporting systems, even when parents ultimately view CPS investigators positively. For example, one mother, reported to CPS for using marijuana during pregnancy, hesitated to speak openly with healthcare providers afterwards, potentially precluding her from accessing needed support. After giving birth, she worried she was experiencing postpartum depression. But, she explained, “I don’t tell them any of that because I don’t need them to say, oh, she’s going through postpartum. She’s gonna hurt the baby.”
Thus, in asking CPS—like the police, armed with tools of surveillance and coercion—to take on all manner of social problems, we further traumatize and marginalize families. To work towards a more effective and just response, we can, first, revise mandated reporter trainings and CPS hotline screening to discourage and remove routes for professionals to wield CPS as a tool of disciplinary control. Second, akin to models that replace police with unarmed, support-oriented crisis response teams, we might devise an alternative entity for reporting professionals to obtain assistance for families, perhaps one that can refer families to a range of services based on the needs they identify.
Any alternative must provide truly voluntary assistance and advocacy, offered without threats of punishment. Recent reforms seeking to orient CPS more around service delivery, such as “differential response” systems and child maltreatment prevention services, remain tethered to the agency’s inherent coercive authority. But effectively supporting child and family welfare requires investments outside coercive systems—investments that shift power and resources to affected communities. Research is clear that broad-scale anti-poverty policies, such as minimum wage increases, the Earned Income Tax Credit, childcare subsidies, and child support pass-throughs, reduce child maltreatment risk and CPS intervention. Families navigating the U.S.’s weak labor market supports, stingy welfare state, and persistent and pervasive racism do not need intrusive and apprehension-inducing inquiries into their parenting; they need equitably distributed material resources as well as the political power to ensure public policy responsive to their needs.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT:
Kelley Fong, Assistant Professor, School of History and Sociology, Georgia Institute of Technology; firstname.lastname@example.org.
LINKS AND ABOUT:
Brief report: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/cps-brief-report/
Press release: https://contemporaryfamilies.org/cps-release/
The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Texas-Austin, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.
The Council helps keep journalists informed of notable work on family-related issues via the CCF Network. To join the CCF Network, or for further media assistance, please contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, at email@example.com, cell 360-556-9223.
August 11, 2020