Child Welfare System Reform-Part Two

CPS (Child Protective Services) is addressed first since this is where one’s entry in the system generally occurs today.

Imagine an unsuspecting parent answers a knock at the door to find an agent of the government who wants to obtain answers to allegations (which may not be shared with the “suspect”) made by a shadowy, anonymous source, without even so much as a “Miranda warning” being offered.

The unexpected and uninvited government visitor may wander throughout the home — without any presentation of a search warrant! — officiously opening cupboard and refrigerator doors or may demand that any children present be stripped naked so they might be “examined for possible injury.” (The agent may even intend to take photographs of any alleged “injuries.”)

Throughout this Kafkaesque ordeal there is the implicit (or perhaps explicit!) threat that any refusal to “cooperate” may result in the sudden removal of any and all of the children into the care and custody of Big Brother.

I’m not at all sure that “the system” recognizes just how traumatic a CPS investigation may be for a family.

Sure, there are families that are “wise to the system” (perhaps because of frequent contact with it), but that’s not true of everyone. Quite honestly, ANY FAMILY may suddenly be subjected to an encounter like the one described above.

There does NOT have to be any actual abuse or neglect, only a “credible allegation” (as deemed by often arcane bureaucratic standards) that such problems MAY exist. “Grudge referrals” — false allegations which are intentionally made for various malicious purposes, such as to hurt one parent during a custody dispute — do occur.

For sake of comparison, how many “suspected terrorists” or other “suspicious individuals” might be locked up if the forces of Homeland Security were allowed to play by the same rules? Quite a few, I suspect!

The above is a reality not a myth of today’s CPS system. Today (in 2007) one can become involved with CPS based on anonymous phone calls.

The definitions of “abuse and neglect” have become so broadly defined that almost anybody could have such a charge made against them.

At first CPS contact, a parent enters a distorted mirror image of what our legal system is supposed to be. Everything is backwards. There are no Miranda warnings, yet everything one says will be used against them, and perhaps even some that one hasn’t.

The accused have little or no rights where people charged with crimes are given the full spectrum of rights under our legal system. Parents must be given the opportunity to defend themselves under the same conditions an alleged criminal is allowed. If they cannot afford an attorney, one should be provided them.

One of the other criticisms, of which I have many, I have of the CPS system is the all-too-frequent dearth of information that parents are given as to how “the system” operates.

I think the resulting ignorance (which I think is not deliberate; CPS doesn’t intend to run roughshod over the parents, it just can’t be bothered to consistently explain to them what is happening and WHY) causes a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and fear. (I also think such an approach is stupid and shortsighted, because it needlessly alienates the parents, making the experience even more difficult for all involved.)

I believe, before a CPS worker makes that first knock on the door, a document stating the reason for the investigation, rights of the parent(s) completely stated (including the right not to allow CPS agents into their homes) along with detailing the procedures CPS will follow through the investigation and disposition process. This would include services available to the parent(s) if said allegation is proved. A declaration of understanding the document and one’s rights should also be a part of the document.

This document should be presented and explained before entry into the home, if the parent(s) chooses to allow entry. If entry is allowed, the document must be signed by both parties. A copy given to the parent(s) and a copy also becomes a part of the permanent record.

The accuser can choose to remain anonymous, which makes little difference, as one has no right to know who is accusing them. The confidentiality of the reporter is guaranteed by law. The parent is presumed guilty and must prove innocence.

Anonymous reporting should be abandoned. A reporter should be required to give a signed statement of their charges. They need to be advised that the accused have the right to face their accusers. They also need to be advised that intentionally false or unsubstantiated reports could result in perjury charges brought against them.

This would be extremely helpful where there is domestic violence or disputed divorce custody issues involved.

The case worker has up to three days after the removal to get what is often a rubber- stamped court order for an emergency removal – yet another subjective concept -from a busy and overburdened system that doesn’t devote much time to a real consideration of individual circumstances. In addition to the purely arbitrary nature of that initial removal, the CPS worker pays no consequences for a wrongful removal, not even if a child is hurt or killed while in state care.

There are no uniform codes or guidelines used across the country for determining removal of a child from their home. Each locality, county and state defines in their own fashion when CPS should be called, how CPS determines if removal is necessary. There appears to be no enforcement mechanism in place to see that CPS follows the guidelines of their specific area.

Once a child becomes a part of the foster care merry-go-round via CPS; it is extremely difficult to get off, in some cases it never happens.

Far too many children become just a pawn within a system they do not understand. They are moved at will, they are lost, subject to abuse far worse than may have occurred within their own homes…a number of them tragically get off the merry-go- round only through death, painfully suffered through the system that was to protect them!

Yes, children are dying while within the system. The circumstances surrounding a child’s death become more wrenching with examination. But dwelling on them misses the larger point: the children abused by CPS are not merely the fault of “bad” caseworkers. They are not restricted to one state. The bodies of dead children demand we ask: is CPS harming…not helping…children?

Some would suggest the abolishment of CPS. I believe this is unrealistic and not necessary. Critical reform however is direly needed in order to not only protect the children but also many innocent parents as well.

We need to first give a clear and concise definition of abuse and/or neglect (maltreatment) to be standardized across the country.

Maltreatment/Neglect definition: An act or failure to act by a parent, caretaker, or other person which can result in physical abuse, neglect, medical neglect, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm to a child.

Poverty, low income, lack of formal education or other things that may fall in this definition does not automatically define neglect and warrant the child being placed at risk and removed from their home.

Many times when there is a dirty home, little food in the home, or children dirty may just mean the parents need knowledge of programs that may be available to them or assistance in helping them be better parents. This can be accomplished while children remain within the home.

Neglect should be charged only when an extended period of time neglect is proved and no attempt to improve the situation has been made by the parent(s).

Beneficial services should be provided or arranged by the child protective services agency, social services agency, and/or the child welfare agency for the child/family as a result of needs discovered during the course of the investigation.

These services should be home based with the child remaining in the home.

Home-Based Services: In-home activities provided to individuals or families to assist with household or personal care and improve or maintain adequate family well- being. May include homemaker chores, home maintenance, nutrition and meal planning, and household management services.

Many communities also have Family Support Services which the family should be referred to for assistance. These are community-based preventative activities designed to alleviate stress and promote parental competencies and behaviors that will increase the ability of families to successfully nurture their children, enable families to use other resources and opportunities available in the community, and create supportive networks to enhance child-rearing abilities of parents.

Any issues that may be having an affect on the parents being able to capably care for their children need to be addressed. That means, medical, mental etc. It is not good to just supply training, food etc. if the parent has problems that need to be resolved.

Children, due to allegations made against parents are interviewed. This occurs whether the allegation is neglect or abuse in one fashion or another. All interviews should be conducted by appropriately trained individuals, independent from CPS or foster care and accompanied by an independent witness. ALL interviews MUST be taped (both audio and video). The purpose of the witness is to verify the interview has been fully taped; that is the tape started at the beginning and at no time during it course was it shut off until its conclusion.

When a determination of neglect has been made, after fully complying with all laws, policies and procedures, a plan of action for both the parents and appropriate agencies assisting the parents in fulfillment of the plan, should be written and agreed to by the family and responsible agency.

Parents need more input into the services they are offered and these need to be scheduled around work schedules not the other way around as they are now in a very arbitrary manner.

The family should be closely monitored for a period of time (90 days) to see if they are taking advantage of services being offered. If they are; reviews then might be conducted once every 90 days for a period of one year. If the family continues to progress during this period their case then may be closed.

If a family does not take advantage of programs and services offered anytime during this process, then a case of willful neglect should be filed.

We, as a society, must be extremely careful when we say we are “saving” the children. If “saving” the child is going to do more harm to that child then removal should not occur.

For instance, in neglect cases where supervision might not be optimal, removing the child doesn’t always have to be the only answer.

The psychological damage a child suffers in being ripped from the only family he’s known, his home, his/her siblings with no contact allowed, his community, his school, his pets, his friends…is a CERTAIN damage. It WILL happen…do what degree might vary but there WILL be damage.

The borderline neglect situation he would be “saved” from however, is uncertain.

Yes, there is a risk…but to remove the child because of a risk only to inflict certain damage to that child would be like amputating a limb for a wound that MIGHT cause a fatal infection.

More time, money and effort needs to go into in-home services, and children should be placed in foster care only as a last resort.

Investigators seem to remove children so quickly sometimes that foster/adopt parent have even felt guilty, like they are ‘trafficking’ in orphans-of-the-living.

I’m not sure that the trauma caused by the removal is really in the best interest of the children, some of the time.

I also believe that there are some subtle prejudices that influence the removal of children from their homes. Most of the social workers are middle-class college graduates.

Underlying some of the removal decisions is the unexpressed belief that they are “saving” this child from a life of lower-class poverty, by placing the child in a “good” home, one that more resembles what they themselves think of as a good family.

What they need to realize is that poverty and lack of education or job prospects are not indicators in and of themselves that the parent cannot provide the love and meet the child’s basic needs and teach her right-from-wrong.

CPS or other workers involved in a case also MUST be held accountable for their investigations and disposition of cases. If they perjure themselves at any point of a case, been negligent in their responsibilities or their actions result in harm or death to a child; they must be held accountable up to and including criminal charges.

Physical abuse needs to be defined as an attack on a child resulting in physical damage to the child. It should not include reasonable discipline. When a charge of physical abuse is made it should be turned over to the police as is every other crime.

They, not CPS, should investigate and determine if there is enough evidence to come to the reasonable conclusion that abuse may have occurred. If they determine this, then the alleged abuser should be charged and given the rights accorded an accused criminal.

Drug and or alcohol abuse should be considered as possible physical abuse activities to the child. If the accused is involved in drug use or sales criminal charges should be placed against them.

Alcohol abuse is considered an illness and if determined to be a problem; services should be offered to the person involved. Refusal of services can be used as grounds for putting a child’s welfare at risk.

If the physical abuse jeopardizes the health and welfare of the child or puts the child at further risk of abuse by remaining in the home, then and only then should a child be removed at least temporarily from the home.

Sexual Abuse: A type of maltreatment that refers to the involvement of the child in sexual activity to provide sexual gratification or financial benefit to the perpetrator, including contacts for sexual purposes, molestation, statutory rape, prostitution, pornography, exposure, incest, or other sexually exploitative activities. The same rules as applied to physical abuse also apply to sexual abuse.

If one is alleged to have physically or sexually abused a child, they, not the child should be removed from the home. If it is a single parent home, then the child will need to be removed for their safety.

If it is determined a child must be temporarily removed from the home the first option of placement to be considered must be kinship care. The child or family should NOT be allowed to suffer damage due to the actions of one member of the family. The alleged abuser may have done wrong…not the child or rest of the family.

Only after the option of kinship care has been fully explored and found lacking should a child be placed with a foster family. ALL attempts for kinship care MUST be fully documented under threat of perjury charges before going before a judge to decide removal of a child from their home.

NO child can be removed from their home, school etc. without a documented report going before a judge with potential perjury charges if proved false. A judge should be available twenty-four/seven to make these determinations as potential cases can occur at anytime of day or night.

In the next day or so I will specifically address Foster Care Reform as Part three of this series of entries. 


4 Responses

  1. Response to Part Two – I don’t have a lot of time to respond… But….

    When you are being negative about CPS you have many misconceptions and inaccurate statements. When you are being thoughtful and suggesting action you will find that what you describe is, in fact, what we are supposed to do. We don’t do it perfectly but we offer more social work services than you are giving us credit for.

    Finally, the balance between rights and comprehensive services delivery is a never ending dilemma. The dilemma has to do with our requirements to respect the parents’ wishes and the lack of financial resources most agencies have to complete this work most effectively. E.G. we know what we should do but we can’t afford it.

    Please become fully informed because if you’re this thoughtful already, you could really influence the whole system if you attack the problems from a base of more knowledge.

  2. My experience with CPS and the rest of DCFS is that they don’t want any suggestions on how to improve their system. The workers that I’ve dealt with, as a foster parent and child advocate, have a sense of entitlement and empowerment that no one dare to challenge. Although we are told in training that we are part of the TEAM, we are never included and when we do find out when meetings and court hearings are, we are often asked to leave the meeting, as THEY don’t need us. Even though WE are the ones who know the kids and families best. I’m tired of being treated like a nothing, just because I don’t earn a paycheck from DCFS.

  3. While reading this I found myself not only nodding in agreement but shouting YES! EXACTLY! I COULDN’T AGREE MORE!!!

    These are things that I have said numerous times. ESPECIALLY the part about removing a limb to prevent a POSSIBLE wound. EXCELLENT analogy!

    I have been a foster parent for 6 years. In those 6 years I have had a total of 17 foster children. OF those 17 foster children…3 have had a happy ending to their story. One of those is my son. One is my first placement that went to a relative in 3 months. And the other went through hell from ages 4-10, but was finally adopted and I THINK he is in a happy home.

    3/17 There are better odds in Vegas…and these are just the cases I had in MY care.

    I can honestly say that 7 of those 17 would have been better off staying with their birth family than coming into foster care to be “saved”.

  4. Brilliant, but the system can never get things right. Either it’s too extreme, removing children that do not need to be removed, or it’s not extreme enough.
    I think there are cases where a parent’s rights should be taken away without question, such as in the case of sexual abuse, especially if one parent failed to protect the child from KNOWN abuse.
    Or cases of drug abuse when the parent has been giving ample opportunity to quit using drugs and refuses to get help.

    There’s no easy answers and every situation should be looked at individually. There are some people who may think they are reasonably disciplining a child, but they are using impliments that don’t leave a mark over normal child behavior, or they advocate “spanking” babies starting at 4 months.
    Social workers should be trained to be flexible. Perhaps in some cases, multiple visits are necessary, perhaps in others, seeing if there is a grudge against the person accused, in other cases, immediate removal might be necessary.
    And how does one know that the social worker’s biases don’t work their way into things?
    A social worker could be against co-sleeping or spanking (with an open hand, not objects) and react on the basis of that.
    It’s hard to know what to do..

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