Child Abuse Law

Child Protective Services

Children are some of the most vulnerable members of society, so it's understandable that we have specific laws and programs in place to protect them. While Child Protective Services (CPS) can help intervene in cases of neglect or abuse, not every report they investigate has merit or requires drastic actions like child removal.

If you're being investigated by CPS, you have rights and defenses available to you. Even your earliest actions in a CPS investigation can impact your report, so it's imperative to understand what you need to do.

Why Would CPS Investigate Me?

Most CPS investigations begin when someone calls to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. These concerns may come from observing a child's physical condition, like injuries or unreasonably dirty clothes and general poor hygiene, or from comments the child makes that could indicate an unsafe environment at home.

These reporters don't need to have proof of definite abuse or neglect; if someone believes a child may be experiencing abuse or neglect, they can call CPS to open the investigation to determine if those concerns are warranted. Some people are mandated reporters, that is, they are required to report any suspicion of possible negligent and abuse. Teachers, social workers, and medical professionals are typically all mandated reporters. Some reporters can even stay anonymous.

As such, anyone could theoretically find themselves in a CPS investigation, even if their home is perfectly safe for their children. A misunderstood comment from a child to their teacher or an unusual bruise that a doctor notices could require a call to CPS, which may very well be cleared as innocuous during the investigation.

That said, it's completely understandable that even a safe parent would be nervous during a CPS investigation and would want to know what their options are.

What Happens During a CPS Investigation?

The extent of the investigation will depend on the allegations made against you and your history with CPS. Some possibilities are:

  • An investigative home visit
  • Interviews with you, your child, or other people in your lives
  • Court-ordered drug tests
  • Medical examination of your child
  • Psychological evaluation of your child

What Do I Do if CPS Investigates My Home?

You don't have to let a CPS investigator into your home if they don't have a court order to show you. You may be inclined to open your door right away to prove you have nothing to hide, but it could be in your best interest to deny the investigator immediate access to your home so you have time to process what's happening and consult a lawyer. Speaking calmly and politely during this process can help your case, as an angry or combative response could impact how your investigator views you.

Once you do start talking with the investigator, you should ask what you're being investigated for and the basis for that accusation. You can even ask for certain documentation related to your case. You should always be honest when answering questions, though you may need to word your answers carefully to avoid misinterpretations. If you don't think you know how to answer a question, you're allowed to not answer it. Remember that anything you say can impact the course of the investigation.

You may be able to prevent investigators from interviewing your child in your home, but they could get a court order to compel interview access. Sometimes, they can interview your child without your knowledge when they're outside of your home.

Typically, you can also refuse to take a drug test unless the investigator has a court order.

What are the Consequences of a CPS Investigation?

The results of the investigation can vary greatly. An investigator may find that the allegations were unfounded and close your case without further action. If they think they have sufficient evidence of neglect or abuse, however, you may be required to go to court.

Your case could go through several rounds of hearings to determine the seriousness of your case. For example, if CPS believes your child is in immediate danger by staying home with you, they may ask the court to remove your child from your home until the case is over. In some cases, CPS may even be able to remove your child before the court orders it.

If the court finds relatively minor instances of abuse or neglect, you might be allowed to keep your children at home so long as you follow a "safety plan," which may require you to attend therapy sessions, parenting classes, or addiction treatment. If you comply with the court's orders and pass successfully through their safety plans, they will typically close your case.

If the court believes that your children aren't safe in your home, they could be removed and placed with another family member or foster care. Usually, you'll have time to address the safety concerns that led to the removal so you can try and get your children back home. Permanent removal is usually a last resort for cases of severe abuse and a parent's refusal to address the concerns.

CPS investigations are not criminal investigations, but if the investigators believe the situation warrants criminal charges they may present their findings to your local prosecutor who could decide to open a criminal case against you.

What Happens After a CPS Case is Closed?

Once your case is closed, you're no longer under active investigation or monitoring. If no one filed criminal charges, the investigation will typically stay off of your record and background checks.

If someone files another complaint against you, however, your case could be reopened, or could be referenced during a new investigation based on different accusations made against you.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a CPS Investigation?

You may not be required to get a lawyer for a CPS investigation as you would for some other cases, but it could be in your best interest to get advice from an experienced attorney who's familiar with the child welfare system. In some states you may even be able to get an attorney appointed to you, if you have limited means. Attorneys can help you present your case, answer CPS questions, and guide you through any safety plans or other results of your investigation.