The investigative process in child protective cases is often confusing and stressful for most parents. It can feel like the end of the world. When someone suspects child maltreatment and calls a state hotline, a child protective services worker is supposed to investigate the parent and offer family services. The caseworker, in these cases, holds the power to have their children taken away. Many times parents are mistrustful of the caseworker and do not follow up on referrals for recommended services.
Parents can be asked to attend meetings about their situation but feel their voices aren’t heard or are too intimidated to ask questions. They often don’t understand why they are being investigated, or don’t know the questions they should ask about the entire investigative process. Parents can be asked to attend inappropriate services that are not culturally responsive or that conflict with their work schedule or other obligations.
Parents might be asked to produce their child[ren] for interviews with medical professionals or caseworkers. Without sufficient knowledge of their legal or parental rights, they aren’t sure that this is a requirement. Uncertain that agency personnel, or others, can speak with their children outside of their presence, they are equally unaware of the consequences if they refuse to cooperate with these requests.
All of this happens during the early phases of the investigation, also critical to the process and outcomes. Having an advocate can prevent miscommunication and misunderstandings. Advocates can also promote positive efforts to keep families safe and out of the court system. Do parents wait until they are standing in a courtroom before they consult an attorney? Do criminal defendants? And, is it wise?
Federal and state laws generally govern what happens when child protective services (CPS) intervenes in a family’s life when child abuse or neglect is suspected. These laws vary from state to state, so it is important to know your state’s laws and regulations. Knowing and understanding this legal framework for the investigation is important. Possessing knowledge of parental rights and the parameters within which child protective service agencies can operate can help families avoid involvement with the courts.
During an investigation, parents must be armed with a “know your rights” checklist that explains what is supposed to happen, details the investigation process, and notes those frequently asked questions. There will be questions asked that parents have in common. Be prepared to answer them. So research them thoroughly in advance.
Parents need an advocate prior to going to court that very first time. In fact, as soon as it is learned that there is an investigation pending, there should be at least one knowledgeable source of advocacy to consult. This can begin with a friend or loved one who may have some lived experience to help navigate the process. The most valuable person for parents to have by and on their side in such events, will most likely be an experienced attorney. However, effective advocates aren’t always lawyers, and don’t always have to be.
An investigation signals to families that a fight is about to be ‘on’, and they must be fully prepared to defend their home and parenting practices and ask for help if necessary. What may sometimes be construed as a negative, may need only reframing to reflect a more positive view. Add some context, your story, to the mix. Outside a few circumstances, parenting is really quite subjective and often seen through a uniquely cultural lens. Therefore, parents should be prepared to question everything and take nothing as absolute ‘gospel’. Counter their argument with your own, making sure that you are heard and the entire process is fair.
Even laws can be interpreted differently and when contextualized, catered to your specific circumstance, they can be successfully fought and won….with the right tools in one’s arsenal. If ever you are the subject of an investigation, begin by asking questions as to the nature of that investigation. What are they looking for? The source of the allegations is not as important as the actual allegations themselves. Don’t become fatalistic about the outcome. Your child[-ren] doesn’t necessarily have to be removed from your care and investigations of suspected maltreatment aren’t always confirmed or ‘founded’, either. Fight your best fight and BEFORE you stand before a judge, enlist the wise consultation of an advocate.