Having CPS show up on your doorstep is a fear for many. As a former CPS worker investigating allegations of abuse and neglect in two states, I can understand the anxiety that comes from having CPS arrive in your life. No matter if CPS is at your door because of an unfounded claim or real honest-to-goodness concerns, here’s some insight into what happens in an investigation. (You can also visit the state’s website for great info.) It is worth noting that every investigation is different, as is every caseworker, so this isn’t a definitive guide.
When a concern is sent to CPS (by phone or online), it first is reviewed internally. Not every call will turn into a real investigation. Internally, CPS reviews the information and can close the file with no investigation (perhaps it’s a duplicate report or there’s not enough information for an investigation), deem it worthy of an “alternative response” (where they can just provide some services to alleviate underlying stress), or decide to pursue an investigation.
If it’s determined that an investigation is needed, the allegation gets sent to a local unit (a team within the county of the reported family). Some teams specialize in drug allegations or sexual abuse allegations while others are more general. Once a caseworker is assigned, he or she is required to make contact within a certain time frame (24-72 hours, depending on the priority and severity of the allegation). Before even interviewing you or your children, the caseworker has likely run a check on the state system to see if you’ve had prior interactions with CPS and conducted criminal checks on everyone mentioned in the report (assuming there is enough data to do so). In many cases, the caseworker also calls the person who reported the information.
The caseworker’s first priority is to locate and interview the child(ren) included in the report. This means he or she may show up at the child’s school and pull him or her out of class. Or the caseworker might knock on your door, armed with a tape or video recorder (all child interviews are recorded). Caseworkers don’t need permission from the parent to conduct this interview and are only required to attempt a notification that the interview took place within 24 hours of conducting it. While this is upsetting to many parents, from the caseworker’s perspective it’s often one of the best ways to find out what’s happening. Most caseworkers do a great job of keeping the conversation with your kiddo light and non-threatening. They may ask if the child knows a difference between a truth and a lie to establish that the child knows to only tell them what really happened. They may ask off-topic questions or play a game to help your kiddo feel at ease. Every case worker is different.
The caseworker may likely then attempt to make contact with the parents. In my opinion, the best caseworkers will just show up at your door and not attempt a phone call or schedule an appointment. This enables them to see how you live in an authentic way. The caseworker is looking for signs of abuse or neglect — this includes looking for bruises on kiddos, observing the cleanliness and sanitation level of your home, ensuring there’s enough food in your pantry, etc. (I’ve been known to open a fridge or two and actually shake the cereal boxes in a family’s pantry.)
I commonly hear people recommend never letting CPS in your home. Caseworkers do not need a warrant to enter your home. They do need permission from someone at the house. As a parent, I understand the fear of letting such a person in your home. But as a former investigator, I can tell you many allegations are unfounded, and quick interviews likely resolve them with very little further action.
No one but you can make the call as to what’s right for your family; however, not letting a caseworker in your home doesn’t make the allegation go away. If someone didn’t let me in the home, the first thing I did was to start knocking on neighbors’ doors and inquiring about the family. Caseworkers have a job to do, and they’ll obtain the information with or without your help. Even if you talk with them, they may still talk to neighbors, teachers, friends, or family. (And yes, they can find your friends and family.
Caseworkers have extensive background checks available so they can see where you’ve lived and with whom you’ve associated. Also, don’t forget the power of social media. Caseworkers review those, too.)
The good news is, most cases are resolved with little-to-no action needed. Either the kids are safe or the family members are willing to mitigate safety concerns on their own, and the case is closed. Or the children are unsafe and the caseworker either takes the children into custody or (in less severe instances) refers the family to local community resources under the supervision of a family-based safety services caseworker.
Most caseworkers aren’t arrogant hot heads looking to take away your babies. They don’t get commissions for children taken. Most caseworkers are just regular people drawn to the profession to keep kids safe. That’s not to say there isn’t some unethical behavior. If you experience something of that nature, please take action of your own by speaking to the caseworker or to his or her supervisor, or by reporting it to the state.