Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

When CPS Investigates: A Primer

There are lots of things that might rank as a parent's worst nightmare, and fortunately I've never had to deal with any of those. I won't list them off; even if you don't have children, you know what they are. Then there are the things are below worst nightmare territory, but are still unhappy things you don't want to happen to you. High up in that order is having an anonymous busybody call Child Protective Services on your family. That is what happened to us this afternoon.

The actual incident was the most innocent thing one could be reported for. The older girls took my niece for a walk in the stroller, and the baby fell asleep. In the chaos of getting the stroller back into house without waking the sleeping baby, the screen door (an antique variety which does not latch itself) was not locked with the hook and eye, and my 2 1/2 year old son, who acts exactly like a 2 1/2 boy, took the opportunity to get out and go stand on the sidewalk. In the short time before he was missed, someone drove by and saw him, brought him up to the house, and then called both the police and CPS.
Added for your amusement: this is the shirt the guy was wearing when he got out.
I was in the shower when the incident happened, as seemed a safe thing to do with a grandmother and an aunt and two teenagers and two preteens in the house. The police officer, when he came, was satisfied with our explanation and said he would not file a report with CPS. Unfortunately, CPS had already been called, and once they are called, a case is filed, and once a case is filed it has to be investigated and signed off on before it can be closed out.

The case worker who knocked on our door was very nice and professional. I have no complaints to make about her. But a CPS investigation is not about the incident that triggered it -- an incident that could be explained in sixty seconds to the satisfaction of anyone in the world. (She even told us a story of how she got out of the house as a little girl, although it's not quite the same because no one called CPS on her mother.) CPS's investigation is about whether a particular home is a safe environment for children, and even if a complaint is manifestly false or unfounded, they still are required to assess whether the home environment is a safe place for a child to live.

This is just information in the abstract. In the particular, it's quite traumatic. You see, it doesn't matter whether it's completely obvious that we have a loving, close-knit family and that my baby is unharmed and well-adjusted. Questions must be asked as to whether my home -- my home -- is an adequate environment for a child to be raised. These questions are not about whether we cover our electrical outlets or have screens on our windows or have lead-based paint or uncovered wells on the property. Here are some of the questions CPS asks parents:
  • Do you have any criminal history?
  • Do you have a history of abuse as a child?
  • Do you have a history of drug abuse or alcoholism?
  • What is your relationship like with your spouse?
  • What does it look like when you and your spouse argue?
  • Has he ever hit you or threatened you?
  • Do you feel safe in your house?
  • How do you punish your children when they get in trouble?
  • What are your outlets when you feel stressed?
  • Where do you turn for emotional support?
CPS must also speak to every child who resides in the house, and ask them questions. Here are some of the questions CPS will ask your child:
  • How old are you?
  • Where do you go to school?
  • What grade are you in?
  • Have you ever seen your parents fight?
  • What happens when you get in trouble? How do your parents punish you?
  • Do you know where your private parts are? Can you point to them?
  • Has anyone ever touched your private parts?
  • Has anyone ever hurt you or hit you?
  • If someone hurt you, who would you tell?
  • Do you have chores?
  • Does anyone in your house use drugs or alcohol?
  • Does anything in your house scare you or make you feel afraid?
CPS will check if you qualify for financial aid programs based on the number of people living in your house. They will provide you with a brochure about the various kinds of social support to be found in your area. They will give you a paper explaining your rights as your case works through the system. They will ask to see where your children sleep. They will check to see that you have food in your house.

When these questions are all answered to the satisfaction of the case worker, the case is not closed. The other parent must be interviewed if they are not home. Then the case worker must meet with her supervisor. Then? I don't know. I don't know if it's closed at that point, or if CPS can drag it out for whatever reasons they see fit. I don't know when they decide that my home is a safe environment for children. I don't know what the steps are to being declared to meet the legal minimum for sufficient parenting. 

Doubtless our readers are not the sort of people who need to hear this, but: please, please don't call CPS as a form of feel-good slacktivism. Please don't treat calling CPS as the equivalent of hitting share on that outrageous story on Facebook as a way to show that you care. All actions have consequences, but some people bear the consequences more than others. May God forgive the lady who felt she needed to report us to both the police and CPS, and may no one ever do the same to her.

ADDENDUM: I must clarify that whoever called CPS was not one of my neighbors. My street is a wonderful place for kids to live, and we know everyone within several houses of us on either side. The neighbors would know who the baby was and just bring him back with no hoopla. Whoever drove by our house was someone unknown to us, who didn't stop long enough to hear an explanation or ask any questions. 


Eva said...

Oh, my gosh! How horrifying for your children! How terrifying and humiliating for you!

Pro Ecclesia said...

Been there, done that. It IS a humiliating experience. It sucks. All because busybodies won't mind their own damned business.

Pro Ecclesia said...
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Maria said...

I think about this often because it could easily happen to me. We live on a fairly busy residential street and all of my kids (including the 2 year old) are in and out of the house all day long. The 2 year old is never alone, but it can appear that she is depending if she is playing separate from the other kids. I hope this is resolved quickly for you. :(

Mary said...
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Mary said...

Oh my dear. Take a deep breath. The hardest thing about CPS is that, because of what they have to deal with day in and day out, and because their liability is so high on the results of their determinations, when CPS is called, you are guilty until it is determined that you are not guilty. It truly stinks. Good thoughts and prayers coming your way. Hang in there.

Anonymous said...

The irony of this is that in poorer neighborhoods this would never have happened. Actual neglect and abuse goes unrecorded, and no one would ever consider calling CPS. But it seems as if many middle and upper middle class folks are determined to "do their good deed" and report things that never should be reported. Very strange.


Gail Finke said...

Gosh I'm so sorry this happened to you. I have heard stories from people who have mentally ill children who behave strangely, or wanter, or have long and very loud tantrums, that you would not believe. Everyone wants to help children whose parents are cruel or neglectful or incompetent. Very few people know what you found out -- what happens to people who are not but who somehow get "in the system." It's a very imperfect system. I once had a neighbor who had CPS called on he, she had a mental problem but it was not obvious at the time and the person who called was wrong. The case was eventually closed. However, years later CPS probably should have been called but no one who knew her realized how bad the situation had gotten -- her mental state had deteriorated and she had refused or driven away all the help she had had with the kids. So "the system" was no help. It's a very imperfect system.

Unknown said...

Sounds like you have Gladys Kravitz living in your neighborhood. I feel badly for the kids - awful questions to be asked by a stranger! Good grief!

mrsdarwin said...

I do have to defend my neighbors, who are all wonderful and know us well, and would simply bring the little guy back if he got out. The caller was a random person driving down our street, unknown to us, who didn't even stay long enough to find out what was going on. I'm told (since I was in the shower at the time) that the person knocked on the door, was sharp with my mom (who thanked her profusely), and left without listening to an explanation.

Bill Hoog said...

CPS helps the people they should hurt and hurt the people they should help! You and your kids provided a high target of opportunity... St. Michael and St. Anthony protect you!

Brandon said...

I can't even imagine having to go through something like this; I get sick feeling in the pit of my stomach just from hearing about it.

Anonymous said...

I was worried about our next door neighbor who's two toddlers were coming into my back yard and deck. I would find their items on our swings. I kept a log in case it was ever needed and returned the kids to their mom and aunt. It stopped when my husband returned the items to the father, making it clear what was happening. So I think the best thing to do is keep a log until it is clear that there is a real problem.

Jamie said...

So much sympathy. I was pregnant during our 2008 CPS run-in and it really threw me for a loop. Here's hoping the situation is resolved in the speediest, lowest-stress way possible.

jen said...

It happened to us about 3 years ago. I'm still dealing with the fear.

Donald R. McClarey said...

Happened to us 21 years ago. I still seethe at the memory. Anonymous accusations are the tools of cowards. I have nothing but contempt for them.

Julia said...

This happened to us last year when one of my girls texted a friend saying her brother kept hitting her. The friend assumed that she meant her 18yo brother instead of the 10yo, and her father (who knows us and could have called!) called CPS.

Now add a history of mental illness in the 18yo and a (different) child on the brink of death (which is why the 10yo was so ornery) to the picture, and it was a nightmare indeed.

As I recall, they have 60 days to close the file.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to hear you're going through this--so stressful! We recently went through a rough time when our pre-teen daughter was misdiagnosed with an STD by an over-confident ER doctor. The doctor went so far as to say that she didn't even really need to order the lab tests to know what it was (the tests came back negative a week later). My poor daughter had to be asked some very uncomfortable (though necessary) questions by several doctors and nurses as we were sent back to our pediatrician and then to a specialist as the week went on. I hardly slept all week, imagining that someone had managed to abuse her without our even suspecting it, or that CPS would be knocking on our door at any moment. It was truly awful, but I was so thankful when those negative test results came back! I hope that everything goes smoothly for your family, so you can put this behind you.

mrsdarwin said...

Julia, Anonymous, I'm speechless at your stories. We really have gotten off very easy here. I'm so sorry for the trials you went through, and I'll keep your families in my prayers.

Alex said...

How awful and stressful. I am so sorry you're dealing with this--you of all people, who are such thoughtful, committed, loving, sensible parents. I'll keep you and your family in my prayers.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry that you had to go through this. For me, a sense of anxiety lasted for months after the cases closed.

Our story was a mentally ill family member, who has done similar things before and since that prove she needs mental help, which she has never received. She took an odd assortment of facts twisted and embellished into practically unrecognizable tales of parental abuse and neglect, and complete fabrications with no truth in them at all, and presented her novella to CPS.

I turned the caseworker away at the door. HSLDA made themselves useless. We waited for a month to finally have our investigation, and it went well. We requested a transcript of the report made on us, which helped us to immediately pinpoint the culprit. I sobbed and wept, and our kids spread Lincoln Logs from one end of the house to the other with wild abandon while we spoke with the caseworker. She asked us all the same questions, it sounds like, that you got asked. With a third party of our choice present, she interviewed our children, passing over our 3 year old with the assumption that he wasn't yet verbal, which we were very pleased to not correct. The day before, he had informed my mother that his Daddy had cut up all his Duplos with a chainsaw. Who knows what he would have said. The case was closed, the culprit who started it found out, and called again the next day, telling them that none of our children owned or wore coats or shoes (it was January). Imagine the stomach flip-flop feeling I got when a different caseworker showed up at the door during breakfast the very next morning after the initial investigation.Take II was short-she just had to take photos of all the coats and shoes.

The whole thing was very upsetting. Such an invasion of our home, our lives, our sacred and private family life. And the knowledge that our case is kept on file for 5 years, and that they have portraits they took of each of our children in their possession.

And now, a year later, family members expect us to forgive (we did a long time ago) but also to forget, and invite that person back into our home and lives. Not happening. I almost think in a way, not knowing who did it might be easier.