At a Connecticut childcare center one morning, staff sat on brightly colored, toddler-sized plastic chairs, crowded around a small table, for the center’s annual mandated reporter training. A longtime caseworker and then supervisor for the state’s child protection agency, whom I’ll call Annie, had come to train the staff on their legal responsibilities to report suspected child abuse and neglect to Child Protective Services (CPS).
Annie began by acknowledging that people often worry about whether calling CPS will make things worse rather than better. But she told the group that the hotline would not accept reports that did not meet statutory definitions of maltreatment. “And that’s it. Nothing bad happens.” She assured the group that “no harm is going to come” from making a call that turned out to be unwarranted—except that they might have to wait on hold for a while.
With this mindset, CPS intervention has ballooned in recent decades, such that state and county CPS agencies now investigate the families of more than three million U.S. children each year. In some communities, the investigation is almost a rite of passage—half of Black children can expect a CPS investigation at some point during childhood. Most of these cases bear little resemblance to the child abuse cases that make news headlines. Instead, they usually involve families dealing with challenges such as addiction, domestic violence, and homelessness, or families deemed “challenging” by the systems working with them. As such, CPS has become a first-line response to family adversity.
Is Annie right that “no harm” comes from this wide net cast by CPS and those who file reports?
As it turns out, CPS investigations carry profound costs for the families subject to them, even in cases when the agency promptly closes out after investigating, as is typical.
After ten-year-old Michael, a slim Black boy with big eyes and a bigger grin, said something at school about his parents letting him smoke marijuana, CPS showed up at the family’s apartment to investigate. I sat with Michael and his mother April as the investigator questioned them on their front porch (both names are pseudonyms to protect their privacy).
From the start, the investigator conveyed to April that she wasn’t particularly concerned about the allegations of maltreatment, recognizing Michael’s penchant for saying things he knew would get him attention. But with the agency’s power to separate families, the experience generated immense anxiety for April—“automatic worry and panic,” she said. Even as April knew Michael wasn’t using marijuana, she understood that the investigator could make things up or blow things out of proportion. “All night long, barely being able to sleep,” April told me when I first interviewed her, the day after CPS came by. “Did I say something wrong? What did I say? Oh, God. I am 31, and it made me nervous. It made me wanna throw up all night long.” “Nervewracking” was the word April kept returning to in describing the experience.
Investigations can be stressful for children as well, with a stranger entering their home to question them and their parents. During that first interview with April, she received a phone call from the school, telling her that Michael “had a bad day.” CPS’s visit “was heavy on him,” April shared, relaying what she’d just heard from the school. Apparently, Michael had some words with another student, landing him in the principal’s office. Once he arrived at the principal’s office, “he’s sobbing because he’s all turned up about the CPS situation.” The principal had Michael speak with the social worker. “They said that the whole time, he’s just crying… [With] CPS, yeah, it’s a lot. It’s a lot.” We ended the interview so that April could leave to pick her son up early from school.
For mothers like April, generally the primary focus of CPS’s intervention, investigations also undermine their sense of privacy and autonomy, reinforcing their powerlessness by bringing an outsider in to scrutinize their parenting. “Now,” April reflected, “I have eyes looking at me, and those eyes are, ‘What the hell are you doing? What are you doing at home? Are you doing enough?’” The investigator visited April at home three times during the six-week investigation, gathering substantial information about her family’s personal life, well beyond the initial allegations. The hazy bounds of this surveillance produce a lingering sense of unease. Mothers aren’t always sure they can trust that CPS has fully closed out. Might the agency still be in their lives somehow, ready to strike at a moment’s notice? Or, might information provided to CPS make its way into the hands of other government agencies? CPS assured an undocumented mother they would not share her documentation status, for example, but this mother still worried that her CPS case could put her on the radar of immigration enforcement authorities. April’s case closed after investigation. But, reflecting on the information she’d shared, she said, “I don’t know what system that now is in… After that, I walk down the street, get in an accident, now they’re bringing up that time when my kid got—I have no idea. I’m a weird thinker. Anything could happen at this point, right?” Such concerns are understandable among mothers who have repeatedly encountered untrustworthy institutions.
And CPS reports can inhibit families’ engagement with potential sources of social and institutional support. April was frustrated that Michael’s school had turned first to CPS, rather than informing her about social work services available at the school. “You ain’t even trying to handle the issue,” she said. The experience confirmed to April that she couldn’t trust the school—it wasn’t looking to support Michael, but, rather, to target and blame her family, perhaps due to racial bias. Although she had chosen the school for its strong academic performance, April planned to find another school for Michael after the report. Time and again, mothers told me how hurt and betrayed they felt by the schools, hospitals, and other service providers that had accused them of child abuse or neglect. These feelings are important in themselves, exacerbating a sense of exclusion. By fueling distrust and disengagement, they also distance families from the very systems tasked with assisting them.
As scholars, advocates, policymakers, and the public are increasingly recognizing, then, it’s anything but innocuous to shuttle families to CPS cavalierly, to call on this agency to respond to all manner of concerns about children. CPS does sometimes help families in ways they appreciate; in April’s case, the investigator referred the family to an organization that found and paid for a summer camp that Michael loved, and April was looking forward to meeting with a therapist she hoped could help him. But there’s no reason this assistance had to come from CPS—we can imagine the school referring April to this same service, for instance. Such support for families, beyond CPS, is essential child protection work.
It might feel natural to try to promote child welfare by reflexively turning families over to the child welfare system. But taking a closer look reveals the costs of this approach.
Kelley Fong is assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine.