Child Protective Services (also called Child Welfare Services) is a County-level organization that assesses situations of potential child abuse and neglect and, if warranted, removes the child from those situations. They are not affiliated with the Court or the police department, though they often work with these agencies. CPS maintains telephone hotlines for reports of molestation, abuse or neglect. Calls can be made anonymously. Many people are “mandated reporters”–they are compelled to call CPS in the event a potentially dangerous situation is reported. These include Family Court Services counselors, school employees, health practitioners and police officers. In the event that a report is made, a CPS agent will investigate–within 24 hours if the situation suggests immediate harm to a child. On the basis of the investigation, which can include interviews and physical evidence collection, CPS may file a dependency court petition. This means, they will try to get the Court to address the situation. They may advocate removing the children from the custody of a parent or parents.
The mission of CPS is a laudable one. A good portion of their cases involve parents who abuse drugs and neglect their children. When CPS is involved in family law cases, however, things get murky. In the heated context of divorce (or a non-marital custody battle), allegations often fly loosely. Sometimes, the motivations are purely malicious–one party accuses the other of molesting their minor child solely to get an edge in litigation or to destroy a reputation. Other times, the accusation is sincere, but perhaps the result of over-vigilance. You might well have been tempted to call CPS (or perhaps you have already called CPS).
Let’s talk about that case first. Imagine this: when you pick up your child at the exchange, you find he/she has a suspicious bruise on her face. You immediately suspect the opposing party, and your instinct is to call CPS. After all, with a name like Child Protective Services, they must be the ones to call, right?
Keep this in mind. If you are here, you are already dealing with, or about to be dealing with the family court system. If you call CPS, you are bringing in a completely separate government agency, perhaps two (if the police get involved). At the very least, involving CPS could slow down your case to a crawl, as the Court will often wait for CPS and police investigations to be complete before making a decision, and CPS will often decline to take action, preferring to defer to the Court. This loop can take a while to break.
More importantly, you are playing with fire. CPS may take your concerns to heart and resolve the situation in a way that serves the child’s best interest. Or CPS, upon interviewing the other party, may decide the child is unsafe in your care. Then you have a fight on your hands you never anticipated. I have personally seen several well-meaning parents call CPS only to have their child taken away and put in the care of the very parent about whom they had concerns. Costly battles ensued. They are winnable, but is it worth it? To you? Or to your child?
Bottom line: Before you call CPS, think twice. Then call your lawyer for advice.
Next time, I will talk about what you can do if a CPS agent knocks on your door, either as the result of your call or someone else’s call.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is for general informational purposes and it should not be relied on as legal advice. An attorney-client relationship is not formed by reading the information on this site and can only be formed by a written agreement that sets forth the scope of the relationship and the fee arrangement. There is no substitute for expert legal assistance. If you need representation, schedule a consultation with the Barefoot team.