There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline rush and flood of shame that hits when you open the door to find someone from Child Protective Services (CPS) on your doorstep. It’s horrifying. It’s embarrassing. You immediately start to remember every CPS horror story you’ve ever heard and you begin to worry.
Of course, you get defensive… but you know you’re a good parent. You want to cooperate because being cooperative has to be seen as a good thing, right?
Hold on. Hold up. Breathe. You’re about to make a whole bunch of rookie mistakes that could come back to haunt you later.
First of all… you must take every visit from CPS seriously, no matter how ridiculous the allegations are.
Now, more than ever, low income families are being targeted by CPS as people confuse poverty with neglect. No winter coat? That alone could trigger a call to CPS.
There are many innocent situations that could get you reported to Child Protective Services, including seeking a second opinion on a medical treatment.
Please don’t fall into the trap of thinking this can’t happen to you. No matter how good of a parent you are, a Child Protective Services visit can happen to anyone…
…and if you’re not careful, you could make a serious mistake before you even really know what’s happening.
I know because it’s happened to me!
Don’t make these 5 mistakes!
#1: Do NOT defend yourself!
Breathe. Be calm… and be quiet!
I know how it feels. You feel that sudden rush of adrenaline. You feel accused, shameful, inadequate, upset and under attack. You may even feel anger – especially if you think you know who made the call!
Stay calm. Don’t show your anger or anxiety and, no matter how hard it is, DO NOT DEFEND YOURSELF! The more you say, the more they know! Do NOT volunteer information for any reason. I understand the urge to be cooperative but you could just be making things worse for yourself later.
Most CPS referrals are very vague. They only know what was reported to them and usually that information is not very specific. If you jump in and defend yourself, anything you say could be used against you later.
Once a CPS investigation has begun, they will investigate every aspect of your family. Even if the allegations against you are false, they will be paying attention for other items of concern and can begin investigating other allegations based on their findings.
The best defense? A closed mouth.
#2: Do NOT let them in the house!
It’s true! Unless they have a warrant and/or there is an obvious emergency, they cannot force themselves into your home. Even if a police officer is present, they can only enter your home if you consent, if they have a warrant OR if they hear an emergency situation going on.
Do NOT consent to let CPS in your home!
Decide now what you will say if CPS ever shows up and wants to enter your home. Keep it simple, polite and firm. I’m fond of saying “This isn’t a good time for me but I’m happy to schedule a visit on _______.”
Of course, you have the right to refuse and you don’t need to explain why. Remember, NO is a complete sentence!
Whatever you do, do NOT explain why you don’t want them in the house! Avoid saying things like “it’s a mess right now.” Depending on the allegations, you could be strengthening the case against you!
Know your rights!
If you do let them inside, you can ask them to stop or leave at any time. Unless they obtain a warrant, they are just like anyone else visiting your home. You have the right to make them leave at any time.
Even police are not allowed into your home without a court order or the presence of an emergency situation. If either CPS or police try to enter your home, ask what the emergency is and inform them you will be video recording once they enter the home.
If police do force themselves into your home, do not physically resist. Allow them in, state that you object to their violation of your rights and state that you wish to have an attorney present. These statements may assist you in a later court hearing.
#3: Do NOT forget to ask these important questions – and record the answers!
I was still dazed when the CPS investigator left my house. I immediately called an attorney and my mother-in-law… and then I realized just how much I didn’t know. I didn’t know the investigator’s name. I didn’t know what I was accused of. I didn’t know anything, really.
That’s a bad thing.
Here are a few questions you absolutely need to have answered – and be sure to record or write down the answers!
- Can I see your ID?
- What is the name and phone number of your supervisor?
- What are the exact allegations that have been made against me?
- Do you have a warrant to search my home or speak to my children?
Federal law gives you the right to know the exact nature of the allegations against you. If they say something vague, like “child abuse” or “environmental neglect,” demand specific answers. Sometimes, they will be very reluctant to tell you exactly what the accusations are but you have the legal right to this information!
If the investigator states they have a warrant, ask to see it. Be sure it is actually signed and dated by a judge!
Can I really record the conversation?
Most states require mutual consent to record conversations. As soon as they state who they are, ask for permission to record the conversation.
Most smartphones have built-in apps that can provide audio and video recording. If you want to audio without using the camera, this Smart Voice recorder by SmartMob is one of my favorites.
You most likely will not get consent to record the conversation with either audio or video. However, you can refuse to participate in an interview if you can’t record it… and if they try to force their way inside, inform them that you will absolutely be recording any entry into your home.
Even if they say no to audio/video recording, you can still take notes! Whip out your favorite memo app and start taking notes on the conversation. In a pinch, you can do this in an email or text message draft.
If you need to get your cell phone from your home, leave them at the door and say “I need to get something.” Close the door and hurry back! Don’t give them more time to look around than necessary!
#4: Do NOT assume you can’t get legal help just because you can’t afford it.
During that initial CPS contact, state your intention to get an attorney even if you can’t afford one. I know – this is a website for low income people and attorneys are VERY expensive. I understand that.
However, there are many free legal services available. We have a full list of free legal aid agencies in all 50 states right here!
Also, most lawyers provide a FREE 30 minute consultation on your first visit. When CPS visited us a few weeks ago, we followed up with a local family law attorney and received some very good advice during our free 30 minute visit!
If possible, arrange for any interviews to be held in front of an attorney. This can be costly, especially if you are paying to have the attorney come to your home.
If all else fails, request to audio/video record any interviews. This will most likely be denied but it’s worth trying.
#5 – Do NOT assume they have a court order – or even enough evidence to get one.
As I said before, CPS usually doesn’t have a lot of information in the first place. Don’t assume they have a court order or even enough evidence to get one!
They cannot come in your home without a court order unless they witness an emergency taking place.
They cannot take your children away without a court order except in exigent circumstances. Child Protective Services cannot simply take your children away from your home. Except in exigent circumstances, a court order is required before CPS can legally remove a child from your home without your consent. Exigent means that an emergency is actively taking place and action must be taken immediately.
Law enforcement have their own laws and regulations regarding the removal of children. However, CPS cannot take custody of the child from the police until the court order is complete.
It’s the same situation with hospitals. Without a court order, CPS cannot ask a hospital to detain a child in temporary custody.
Always ask to see the court order! To be valid, the court order must be signed by a judge.
No signature? No court order? No authority!
Ready for the good news?!
Child Protective Services (CPS) offers many services and programs can help your family.
There are some really beneficial programs offered by CPS. Even if you are investigated – and even if the allegations are deemed unfounded – you may be able to get some valuable help from this agency!
Among other things, CPS can provide your family with food vouchers, free diapers and even help with housing! After our recent investigation, we were given $500 toward our utility bills!
One of the most important things to remember is that Child Protective Services investigators are just people doing their jobs. Sometimes they miss things and sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes, they see some truly horrific things. At the end of the day, they just want to leave their jobs and move on with their lives. They don’t hate you and they aren’t after your children.
That being said, EVERY investigation is a serious matter. Just because CPS can help you doesn’t mean you should let your guard down!