By Guest Author Bradley Pierce
Someone is at your door.
You step toward it and look through the peephole. It’s a stranger, and they look official. You open the door.
“Hello, can I help you?” you ask.
“Hi, I’m from Child Protective Services and I need to speak with you. A report has been made against you concerning the treatment of your children…”
Could This Happen to You?
Hopefully you never find yourself in this situation, but many parents will.
The American Journal of Public Health estimates that “37.4% of all children experience a child protective services investigation by age 18 years.”
That sounds almost too high to be true. However, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), the real number could be even higher.
Compiling numbers reported for 2019 by state child protective services (CPS) agencies from around the country, HHS published a report earlier this year finding that “3,467,000 million [unique] children (national rounded number) received either an investigation or alternative response [i.e. a less formal investigation] at a rate of 47.2 children per 1000 in the population.” That means nearly 5 out of every 100 children in the U.S. were part of a CPS investigation—in just one year. At that rate, a 37.4% likelihood of receiving an investigation over the course of a child’s 18 years as a minor actually seems low. HHS says that the rate is even growing: “The number of children who received a CPS response increased nationally by 3.5% from 2015 to 2019.” For Colorado over that period, the number increased by 19.5%.
You may be thinking, “Wow, those numbers are troubling, but those families are probably all the really bad parents, right?”
In that same report, HHS noted that out of those whose families are investigated, “[a] total of 16.7% of children are classified as victims.” This means that, according to their own records, over 83% of CPS investigations were of essentially innocent families.
So what does that mean for homeschooling parents? Does it mean you should live in fear? Absolutely not. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7 NKJV).
Although we should not live in fear, we do need to be aware and ready if confronted by a social worker at the door. Successfully handling your very first encounter with CPS is vital to keeping your family safe and protecting your children from unnecessary trauma.
What Does It Look Like?
A CPS investigation typically begins at your front door, where the social worker will normally show up unannounced. This gives you little time to think or gain your composure.
In almost every case the social worker will be seeking to: (a) inspect your home, (b) interview your children (often alone), and (c) speak with you and your spouse.
Remember, the social worker is conducting an investigation. Everything you say and everything they see can be misconstrued and used against you.
What Should You Do?
Here are four suggested steps to take if a social worker comes to your front door:
1. Stay calm and be polite. It is critical that you maintain your composure. Showing hostility or fear may be seen as evidence of guilt and result in a social worker becoming combative with you.
2. Do not volunteer any information. Do not answer any questions or share any information about your home or family yet. While you may think you have nothing to hide, now is not the time to defend yourself. You can always say something later once you have had an opportunity to think, talk with your spouse, and speak to an attorney.
3. Protect your home. You are not required to allow a social worker to enter your home or talk with your children unless they have a court order (like a warrant) or there are “exigent circumstances” (i.e. an emergency). Once a social worker is in your home, the door is opened (literally) for misunderstandings and misinterpretations about what they see.
4. Get help. At this point, every CPS investigation is different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Just saying no to CPS may not be the best option. CPS could get a court order or put you on the child abuser registry (which could impact your ability to foster, adopt, or work with children as a job or even as a volunteer). This is why you need to involve an attorney as quickly as possible. Objecting to demands made by CPS is almost always best coming from your attorney.
If you already have an attorney, you can politely inform the social worker that you need to get your attorney on the phone. You can say something like, “Please excuse me one moment while I get my attorney on the phone.” Then step inside, close the door, and call your attorney. If you do not have an attorney, you can get the CPS worker’s business card and let them know you will contact them as soon as you speak with an attorney, then find one as soon as possible.
While it is chilling to think of your family as the object of a CPS investigation, wisely preparing for such an unpleasant possibility may spell the difference between a manageable situation and utter catastrophe.
Knowing what to expect, being ready and maintaining your composure, and letting an experienced attorney advocate for you can all go a long way toward keeping these situations from getting out of control.