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The Ins and Outs of Child Protective Services

removing kids from homes – even dysfunctional ones – is not to be taken lightly

Voluminous research data has shown that removing a child from his or her home traumatizes the child, even when the home is dysfunctional and violent and the removal separates them from the bad things that may already be taking place.

As a result, removal decisions are typically gut-wrenching, as they should be: Unless imminent danger is present, removals should only be done after a painstaking investigation/assessment. Removing the wrong child from the wrong situation could create another problem – a new trauma – while trying to solve the present one.

But first, some related background information. Federal legislation (Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997) put strict time limits on how long parents have to improve their parenting, once their child is ordered out of their home by a court. It’s typically 15 months. This law exists because in the past, kids sometimes languished in foster care and sometimes in a succession of foster homes for years and even decades, with no permanency in their futures.

Reports of abuse or neglect are “screened out” when the reported incident does not meet the legal threshold for abuse or neglect, and thus are not investigated. When screened out, the family may be offered voluntary services. Reports are “screened in” (for investigation) when the incident meets the legal standard. Investigations determine if maltreatment has occurred, if the children are safe, and if any risk conditions are present. Investigations culminate in two possible findings: that the abuse/neglect is substantiated or not substantiated.

If substantiated, it’s then determined whether services are needed to ensure safety. If needed, a case is opened and services are offered either on a voluntary or court-ordered basis. If services are not needed, the case is closed and the family may be offered voluntary services or a referral made to a community service provider. Reports that are screened out (not investigated) remain on file with CPS and if a future report is received about the same child/family, the screen-outs are reviewed also.

“Imminent danger” means that something dangerous (or even fatal) will happen, usually measured in minutes or hours, if someone doesn’t intervene. Every situation is unique and requires careful, objective assessment, sometimes in a very brief timeframe. Imminent means something will go wrong, not that it could. Other less urgent situations can be assessed over a series of visits.

In potential removal situations, a variety of mixed thoughts and emotions emerge for the parents and the children. CPS investigators try to gain an in-depth understanding of the family’s overall situation and functioning well before arriving at a decision regarding services or removal. Investigators also attempt to afford the potential abusers a measure of dignity and respect, whether deserved or not. But because of the nature of their work as agents of the court and despite our justice system’s belief in “innocent until proven guilty,” CPS investigators tend to – when in doubt – err on the side of child safety.

Short of imminent danger, there are sometimes intensive services, supports, and monitoring that can be very quickly begun in the home to ensure safety while the change process gets underway. This is part of what is called safety planning. There are sometimes many steps that take place between a report and a child’s removal from the home; a report does not always result in removal. In situations without imminent danger, there can be several people involved in multi-level decisions, meetings, and discussions that take place after a report is received.

Removal decisions are never easy or simple. CPS staff has to ultimately justify their actions to a judge on firm legal grounds. But when child removal takes place, CPS agencies typically attempt to place children with appropriate relatives, which can reduce some of the impact of the removal trauma. Short of that, foster homes (with licensed/trained parents) and other alternatives are used.

Despite their reputation, CPS staff do not set out to take kids from their homes and they take no pleasure when they have to do so. Their foster care budgets are always very tight so they have to justify the expense of foster care placement to their supervisors. But they are unwavering in prioritizing child safety, as they should be. CPS involvement doesn’t just mean investigations, child removals, and court orders; CPS services can help marginal parents improve their parenting, sometimes at little or no cost to the family.

CPS typically makes solid decisions regarding child safety, but being human, they are not immune to occasional mistakes or bad decisions. They typically have grievance systems to address those things. If you are involved with CPS and you believe they have made poor decisions regarding your child or your family, use the grievance process. You can also contact your child’s guardian ad litem (lawyer), if one has been assigned. Contacting agency supervisors and directors is also an option.

In the next issue, I will answer the question, “Should I or shouldn’t I make a report to CPS?”

Jim Catlin is a licensed clinical social worker who holds a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from UW-Stout. He invites readers to submit questions and offer ideas about what they would like to see in this column. Submit questions/ideas to

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Jim Catlin  author

Jim Catlin is a licensed clinical social worker who holds a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from UW-Stout. He invites readers to submit questions and offer ideas about what they would like to see in this column.