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Never Say Never: Should You Tell Parents You Called CPS?
In Hollywood movies and on network dramas, Child Protective Services is often portrayed as an intruding and aggressive entity bent on separating children from their families. The reality is that social workers (and other professionals) choose a career path with CPS with the intent to engage families, in order to help keep children safe.
“Some people have a belief that we go in and take kids and rip families apart,” said Lauren Terry, Licensed Master Social Worker and Casework Supervisor for Monroe County Child Protective Services, That is completely not the case. Our goal is to keep families together.”
In 2020 of all the CPS reports received in Monroe County, less than 3% of reports actually resulted in family court action. Less than a third of those – about 1% of all reports for the year – ended up in placement of children in foster care. About two thirds of the cases that result in family court action have children either in the care of relatives or the children are remaining in the home with the parents. Placement with a relative is pursued in all cases where the child can’t stay at home, even if the child is initially placed in foster care.
Knowing that families may not fully comprehend or appreciate the intervention of CPS, mandated reporters are sometimes reluctant to inform parents that they have called the hotline.
Brice Meade, CPS Intake and After-Hours Supervisor, understands that this reluctance stems from a fear of retaliation—to the child victim or to the person making the report.
“Some (mandated reporters) think it will hurt their relationship with the parent,” Meade said. “But it actually hurts the relationship with the parent by not telling them.”
Meade has worked for CPS for two decades. In his current role, he trains mandated reporters and gives refreshers in day care facilities and doctors’ offices. It was in his previous job working for the CPS impact team at Bivona Child Advocacy Center—investigating families after a report had been made—where he recognized his calling and the importance of engaging families.
Meade said that every time a call is made to the hotline—whether or not the ensuing investigation substantiates the report—any response from CPS moves the family’s functioning forward. While 74% of reports are unfounded, families functioning improves when CPS Caseworkers engage the family and work to connect them to treatment and services, Meade said.
Mandated reporters can sometimes feel frustrated that their concerns are being ignored when cases are deemed unfounded. He explains that unfounded just means that it didn’t meet the legal criteria or definition of abuse or neglect. “It doesn’t mean the family is functioning perfectly,” said Meade. “There are often still functioning issues.”
For that reason, it’s essential to be honest with the family. Terry advises, “Remind the family that you are mandated by law to call this in. Alleviate the fears of parents (having contact with CPS). Honesty helps build relationship and trust.”
She says that families can spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out who called, and often end up figuring it out anyway or, worse, wrongly accuse someone else, potentially causing more friction in the family or adversely affecting other professional relationships.
“A lot of parents appreciate the honesty of mandated reporters,” said Terry. “Because you care about the family and children, you end up strengthening the relationship.”
Timing Is Everything
If you decide to tell the family that you’ve made a report, Meade recommends waiting to hear from a CPS caseworker first.
“When you make a call into the CPS hotline, it doesn’t mean it will be accepted as a report,” he said. CPS needs time to build a strategy, investigate, and conduct interviews to get accurate information. “Don’t stress out the parent, if it doesn’t meet the criteria for a report,” he said.
Timing is important, as some mandated reporters are rightly afraid of interfering with the investigation by giving the family a heads up. Meade said, “Even in the best scenarios, getting accurate information from a victim is difficult. The instinct to protect comes into play.”
While working as a CPS caseworker, Meade witnessed a mother choosing to protect a new boyfriend over the child’s abuse, who had been told to keep quiet. “These are tricky situations that are already difficult,” Meade pointed out, “so let CPS be the first ones to talk to the family.” He recommends that after CPS has gotten started, ask the caseworker when a good time is to tell the family.
However, in serious cases involving sexual abuse and physical abuse, you want to let the investigation team handle how the family gets notified. Most often, in these cases, CPS works hand in hand with law enforcement in a criminal investigation.
When the time is right to talk to the parents, Terry recommends you educate the family by explaining what a mandated reporter is and how you are legally bound to report a suspected case of abuse or neglect. “They may be angry initially,” she said, “but they will appreciate your honesty,” adding that the family usually goes back to working with the person.
Terry stresses that it’s imperative to listen to the family, regardless of the outcome from the investigation. “Realizing that the family is more than that, getting a real sense of what’s going on,” says Terry, helps CPS to remove stressors or barriers impacting a child’s maltreatment. “There is no one plan for every family,” she explained, “because not every family is the same.”
She said that over the years, many parents have asked caseworkers why the mandated reporter didn’t tell them about calling in report. But not once does she recall an instance of a parent asking why they did.
Should I Tell the Family?
Does your agency or school have a specific policy about how to handle reports?
Foster Parents Needed
Have you ever considered becoming a foster parent? The need for foster parents is greater than it has ever been, and many mandated reporters have exactly the skills needed to give a kid in foster care the stable and loving home they so desperately need. Will you step up? To learn more, come to an information session. For dates and times, go to MonroeFosterCare.org
Bivona Child Advocacy Center Virtual Child Abuse Summit
Registrations are now open for the Virtual Child Abuse Summit presented by Bivona Child Advocacy Center May 19, 2021 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m..
Keynote Speaker: Elizabeth Smart
Professionals encouraged to attend the Summit include social workers, law enforcement, legal professionals, judges, mental health and medical professionals, school personnel, daycare providers, child advocacy center staff, and the faith-based community.
To learn more or register, go here.
New York State law allows a CPS worker to remove a child ONLY if there is ‘imminent danger’ of harm or injury:
- ‘Danger’ is exposure to harm or injury
- ‘Imminent’ means about to happen or immediately threatening
View all previous newsletters in the archive.