Dealing with Child Welfare Systems
Child welfare departments become involved when sibling sexual behavior that causes concern is reported and the survivor is still a minor. The actual agency’s name varies depending on where you live: Department of Human Services (DHS), Department of Children and Families (DCF), Social Services, Child Protective Services (CPS–the abbreviation used on this page). This system is unfamiliar to most families. In ideal circumstances, they can be a source of help and support. In the worst case, they can make mistakes in judgment that have tragic consequences. Their presence alone can trigger fear, shame, or confusion.
How does CPS get involved?
CPS investigates when suspected abuse is reported to the child abuse hotline or to law enforcement.
What do they do?
CPS staff have two main jobs:
1) to decide if the abuse that was reported actually took place
2) to make sure the child involved is kept safe
After they receive a report, CPS staff have to make contact with the family within a specific time period, commonly 24-48 hours. They will talk to children, parents, and whoever made the report. They do not have to tell the family who reported. They will visit the child’s home. They often require that the child who was harmed and the one who is suspected to have harmed them have no contact or communication until the investigation is complete. The exact process varies with each case and each department.
Do they work with law enforcement? How are they different?
The job of law enforcement is to collect evidence to determine if a crime was committed. They work under criminal law. The job of human services is to make sure children are safe from future abuse. They work under administrative law. Staff from both agencies often work together during an investigation. For example, a CPS social worker and police officer may both be present during home visits and interviews with parents and children. They are allowed to share information with each other.
Can they take the children from the home?
If CPS staff feel that the family cannot keep the survivor safe in a home together with the one who harmed them, they can require the family to sign a no-contact agreement, and/or place the offending child in another household or care setting. If a child has to leave the home, it should be the offending child. No one wants a child to feel they are being punished for reporting or for having their trauma become known.
If CPS staff feel that parents are not taking sufficient steps to keep a child safe, they have the authority to remove that child from the home. This should be, and usually is, a last resort.
If your child is a member of an Indian tribe (US) or eligible to become a member of a tribe, then CPS will also have to act under the Indian Child Welfare Act, which affects your rights as a parent.
Will they expect me to take sides between my children?
This is an impossible situation for too many parents of sibling sexual trauma. Some CPS staff are more understanding than others. Remember: Their job is to focus on the child who has been harmed; your job is to show them that you are willing and able to keep that child safe. The first step in that process is to believe a child who has reported harm. CPS may become concerned if they think you don’t believe the child, or are not taking their concerns seriously.
Although they shouldn’t, some staff might interpret your concern for the child who caused the harm as a sign you are less committed to the other child’s safety. It may be best to avoid the subject of your concerns for the offending child unless you are asked.
On the other hand, some CPS staff will be critical of a parent who does not show sufficient concern for a child who is suspected of harming a sibling. Although feelings of rage, hatred, or revulsion are among the normal reactions to this news, it may be best to avoid expressing them too strongly in the presence of CPS staff.
What happens after the investigation?
CPS usually has a specific amount of time to finish their investigation, perhaps a month or two. They will make a report that shows whether they found enough evidence to conclude, or substantiate, that your child was abused. They will use your state’s legal definition of abuse as a standard. They only need enough evidence to show that abuse was more likely than not. (This is a lower standard of proof than needed in criminal court.) In some states there is a middle ground: the agency can report that they have enough concern to stay involved and monitor the family, without a firm determination of abuse.
If CPS determines that abuse did happen, they will also report on whether your family can keep the child safe on your own, can keep the child safe with their supervision and support, or whether the child needs to be cared for outside the home. If DHS remains involved, parents will be required to sign a contract to allow and cooperate with their plan. The case may then be transferred from their investigation department to their support department, and you may be assigned a new social worker. If they recommend a child to be placed in foster care or other out-of-home care, the courts will become involved.
Can I see the report?
Yes, as a parent you should be able to request a copy of the report. There might be some details blacked out, or “redacted.”
What do I do if they close the case, but I still think my child is in danger?
You can still contact a Child Advocacy Center and request services for both/all of your children. If you see any further signs of abuse, or if your child tells you new information, you can make another report. The support lines at stopitnow.org may also be able to point you toward appropriate help for both children.
What do I do if I think they are making the wrong decisions for our family, if I don’t want to sign the agreement, or if I think the report is inaccurate?
You can start by asking to speak to your social worker’s supervisor. You can ask if there is an appeal process available. If these steps don’t help and you don’t voluntarily follow the course of action they recommend, CPS could bring the case to court. This would result in a judge’s rulings controlling your family’s future. You would not have a public defender to represent you; you would need to hire your own lawyer. It may be best to contact a lawyer familiar with family and administrative law before making a decision about how to proceed.
For more information:
Mel Langston, PhD, mosac.net: Child Protective Services
Mel Langston, PhD, mosac.net: What is Expected of Mothers
The Mama Bear Effect: Investigation of Child Sexual Abuse, The Role of CPS
Nicole Thelin, Lowincomerelief.com: What CPS Can and Cannot Do
Defend Young Minds: Parents Guide to Navigating Legal and Reporting Requirements after harmful sexual behavior
Legal Services Corporation (USA): Free Legal Aid Finder
Interactive legal information for low and moderate incomes: Lawhelp.org
Example of one agency's process: Massachusetts DCF (Department of Children and Families) investigative process
Mary E. Haskett PhD, Kathleen Wayland PhD, James S. Hutcheson BA & Tiersa Tavana BA (1995) Substantiation of Sexual Abuse Allegations: Factors Involved in the Decision-making Process, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 4:2, 19-47