Answering Child Protective Services (CPS) Questions

by Shay Seaborne

 

  • Am I likely to be a target of a CPS investigation, just because I’m homeschooling?
  • What should I do if CPS comes knocking at my door?
  • What if someone reports that my toddler ran outside without clothing?
  • What if I spank my child in public?

A group of homeschoolers in my county decided to find answers to these questions. We invited Mr. Edwin Schuster, from the Virginia Child Protective Services, to speak with our group. Here is what we asked, and what he had to say.

The Reputation of CPS:

Is it CPS’ goal to take children away from their families?

Schuster acknowledged that it is a common perception that CPS workers go about snatching children, but unless there is evidence that the child is in imminent danger, caseworkers must obtain a court order to remove the child and the burden of proof is on the caseworker. CPS will work with the family to keep children at home if possible. Suggestions for improvements to the child’s environment may involve counseling, lessons in parenting skills, or even demonstrations of housekeeping techniques if appropriate.

A CPS visit usually does not involve snatching children. For instance, if the complaint is there is no food in the house, said Schuster, and they come and ask to see your fridge, and you show them there is food in there, they close the file. Schuster said CPS opens a gateway to a lot of things, like places a family can be referred to, suggestions, and people to talk to.

What about reports of abuses by CPS workers?

As with any large system, there will certainly be some problems and abuse of power. Edwin Schuster characterized CPS workers as walking the line between protecting the rights of parents and children, and added, it does not always work well.

Schuster admitted there are CPS workers who act inappropriately or make mistakes and need to be better informed. Although abuses in the system are publicized by watchdog organizations, there are always two sides to a story. For instance, there may have been numerous complaints against a parent before CPS reacted in a heavy-handed manner.

According to ReligiousTolerance.org, a small percentage of CPS workers remain unsuited for their job because of inadequate training and inflexible attitudes. Innocent parents are still being accused of child abuse, although at a much reduced frequency than during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Schuster stated that CPS tries to train its workers to be fair and cordial, but some do try to act like police and need to be educated. Complaints about individual caseworkers go to their supervisor. A worker who steps out of bounds can be reprimanded or dismissed from the agency.

Level of evidence required for an investigation:

Under what conditions does CPS investigate?

Child Protective Services only responds to valid reports that involve abuse and/or neglect of a child. A situation that would be considered valid and, therefore warrant investigation requires that: The child be under 18 years old; caretaker is alleged to have committed the abuse or neglect on the minor child; The child lives in Virginia or the alleged abuse occurred in Virginia; The alleged abuse meets the definition of abuse and/or neglect as defined by the Virginia Administrative Code. CPS only becomes involved with a family if there is a complaint that meets the agency’s four points of validity, including that involves abuse or neglect, and homeschooling does not meet that requirement.

Responding to an investigation:

What happens if I am contacted by CPS?

Schuster cautioned that parents should always ask for a caseworkers ID, because there have been impersonators. Parents should ask what the investigator is looking for. The caseworker will state the allegations but not who made them and ask to see evidence to disprove them. It may be something as simple as verification that there is food in the house. He stressed the importance of keeping the tone it as cordial as possible. If someone is very hostile, Schuster noted, then I have to start to wonder.

If I let a CPS worker into my home, doesn’t that let them do whatever they want?

A CPS worker cannot enter without your permission unless they have court order or warrant said Schuster. Instead of letting the caseworker in, parents can tell them when they can come back, offer to step outside, or request a meeting at the CPS office. Parents can tell the CPS worker I want you to leave at any time.

Can CPS talk to my child without permission?

The agency usually asks for names of references such as friends, neighbors, and family from the parents, child, or the complainant. However, if the child is homeschooled and the parent is not cooperative, it will be harder to determine whether the child is safe. Although CPS will often talk to child at school or daycare without a parents consent, in the homeschooling situation, they will ask first, said Schuster. If CPS wants to speak to your child, you can ask for a neighbor or other trusted adult to be with the child during the interview. Also, if you are uncomfortable with strangers interviewing your child, ask the caseworker if she or he will accept references from friends or family members instead, Schuster said. If, rather than allowing a CPS worker to speak with a child, the parents refuse and get a lawyer, the worker wonders if they are hiding something, observed Schuster.

What if I refuse to let a CPS worker into my home?

In the absence of a search warrant or court order, parents have the right to refuse entry to a CPS worker but if you dont let them in they will have to continue investigating, said Schuster. They will talk to your neighbors and make a disposition with no other information, which may be a disadvantage to the family. How can you get your case unfounded if you do not let them in, Schuster wondered.

Do I have the right to appeal?

During an investigation, parents have the opportunity to come talk and recruit others input, said Schuster. After a finding is made, there are 3 levels of appeal.

Common fears:

I spank my child sometimes. Is that considered abuse?

Spanking is not child abuse, noted Schuster, who said that if he sees a stressed parent spank a child in public, he will give the adult some ideas for things to do to reduce the stress while shopping.

If corporal punishment results in injuries, CPS will investigate. When a parent uses an object in corporal punishment, CPS makes a more serious response. If a child is reported as having a suspicious injury, the case would be investigated further, Schuster said. We know some children are fair skinned and mark easily, so CPS takes that into account. However, the worker will observe whether a child with marks is fearful of the parents.

During an investigation, CPS workers might talk to the child, parents, and neighbors or relatives, as well as a doctor, if one is involved, Schuster said. If the allegations involve some type of physical abuse, you may ask your doctor to examine your children and then provide his or her statement instead of allowing a CPS worker to examine your child for injuries, he continued.

What if someone reports that my toddler ran outside naked?

Schuster stated that he would call it unfounded unless the caller says it is a regular occurrence, in which case CPS and would look at what can be done differently, and make suggestions for prevention.

Can homeschoolers be reported to CPS for educational neglect?

There is no definition of educational neglect in Virginia. If you are following the home education law, Schuster stated, CPS is not going to get involvedThere has to be reasonable cause for a contact, he reiterated.

Does CPS seek parents, especially homeschoolers, to harass?

Child Protective Services only responds to valid reports made to them by the public that involve abuse or neglect of a child. It is not the policy or practice for CPS to go looking for families to investigate. CPS would not take a complaint that a child was not being sent to school because this is an issue covered by the local department of education.

Do I need a lawyer?

Schuster stated that some parents feel they need a lawyer involved from the first contact with CPS but most handle it themselves without an attorney. Responding to a question about organizations that claim to sell protection against CPS, Schuster asserted, I think theyre selling something based in fear. Instead of buying into it you should inform yourself and understand your rights. I recommend you begin by reading the CPS materials, and ask questions of your local agency.

It seems that homeschoolers, as with most families, will spend their child-rearing years without contact from Social Services. Also like other families, homeschoolers should still make sure they are fully informed of their rights and of CPS procedures, so they may continue to homeschool with assurance.

Copyright 2002, Shay Seaborne. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the VaHomeschoolers Newsletter.

In Virginia, families contacted by CPS have a right to:

  • Ask the CPS worker for positive ID
  • Know the nature of the complaint
  • Refuse entry to the CPS worker (but the investigation will continue)
  • Refuse to show the CPS worker any part of your home
  • Ask the CPS representative to come back at another time, to meet in a neutral location, or to wait for the arrival of a trusted individual
  • Ask the CPS employee to leave at any time
  • File an appeal before the finding is determined
  • The right to appeal after a finding is made

Information on CPS and Child Abuse:

  • Virginia CPS
    Contact the office with questions or to request a speaker for your group. Also, download A Guide to Child Protective Services; obtain facts and statistics, information about process and appeals, prevention and treatment services and more.
  • Parents Anonymous
    A family strengthening program that encourages all parents to ask for help early to effectively break the cycle of abuse. Site includes parenting tips and extensive links to other helpful parenting resources.
  • Religious Tolerance
    The website of Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance provides guidance, resources, and perspective for families who are falsely accused of child abuse.


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