Causes Parental Suffering

Its official name is Child Protective Services (and most parents recognize its acronym, “CPS”), but I have to think that my post title more accurately describes it, especially when it’s aided by busy-bodies — people who don’t really want to help a situation, but who do want to cause a little excitement in their lives. I have a collection of CPS stories — all of which happened to friends, family or neighbors — and they’re a reminder of what happens when you set up an agency that exists only if it can ensure that a sufficient problem exists to justify its mandate. With details changed to protect people’s identities, here are the CPS stories of people I know well:

In the era before digital cameras, a young mother had her baby asleep in the car. She wanted to drop film off at one of those parking lot photo booths, so she drove to a parking space immediately adjacent to the photo booth. She got out of the car, locked the car, walked the few feet to the photo booth, and conducted her business. What she didn’t know is that, during the few minutes she was away from her car, a busy-body had seen a baby inside, written down her license plate and then reported her to CPS. Based on this witness’ testimony, CPS went after her with a vengeance. I never heard how that one ended up, but I assume it did the way so many of these stories do: with CPS guaranteeing itself the right to look over the parents’ shoulder forever.

Last year, a mother with a 5 year old and a 3 year old went to pick her 5 year old up from preschool. The 3 year old was napping in the car, so she parked the car in front of the school where a bunch of other parents were milling about, locked the car, grabbed her 5 year old and hustled back to the car. Total time gone: about 4 minutes. When she got backed to the car, a woman grabbed her, announced a citizen’s arrest, and reported that she’d already called the police. The police showed up, arrested the mother, and she’s now negotiating with CPS for custody of her children. I know her well and can guarantee you that she is in all respects an exemplary and loving mother — nor is CPS saying otherwise.

A mother had a running battle with her 13 year old about the fact that the latter liked to leave her plugged in blow-dryer next to the bathtub. The teenager refused to believe that this was an electrical hazard. Eventually, one morning, the mother took the blow dryer away. The daughter left the house in tears, bewailing the fact that her mother was cruel for leaving her with un-styled hair. A neighbor called CPS. CPS stormed in and informed the mother that, henceforth, she was not allowed to take away any of her daughter’s possessions or interfere in any way with her daughter’s grooming, or discipline her in any way. Doing any of those things would give CPS justification to remove the child. No one — including CPS personnel — claimed that the mother had done anything other than remove her daughter’s blow-dryer, making her cry.

A mom got into a fight with her 10 year old son about household chores. The 10 year old went to school and, aided by his friends, told the teacher he was being abused. The teacher called CPS. CPS arrived, and the 10 year old son, when pressed, stated that the abuse consisted of the fact that his mother sometimes forgot to buy milk. There were no other allegations against her and, again, every indication was that she was an attentive, loving mother (as attested by her other three children). CPS required her to go to child-rearing classes and kept up surprise inspections for over a year. She was told “comply or lose your child.”

Parents of a newborn took their child into the pediatrician about a spot on the child’s arm. The pediatrician found nothing wrong but over-worried parents. The next time the mom saw the pediatrician, she complained that she and her husband were sleep deprived and their tempers were fraying. The pediatrician called CPS. Solely on the basis of the one doctor’s visit and the mother’s statement about frayed tempers, CPS arranged with a prosecutor to have the father charged with child endangerment and threatened him with the loss of his green card and deportation.

I had my own little run-in with a busy-body the other day. I had some books to return to the library, but my kids, 7 and 9 at the time, elected to stay in the car and play with their video games. While I was in the library, an elderly couple came running and told the librarian, “You need to call the police. There’s a [describing my car] car out there with two infants in it.” I listened into disbelief and then announced to the librarian, “That’s my car, and Bookworm 1 and Bookworm 2 are playing their Nintendos in there.” Within a second of receiving this information, the librarian relaxed completely and hustled the couple away. She knew my kids and knew this was a ridiculous charge. However, if I hadn’t been right there, I’m sure she would have called the police and I would have had to answer to charges of child abandonment.

Those are just stories I know. I bet all of you have stories.

By telling these stories I am not denying that there are terrible cases of child abuse going on around us. Nor do I deny that affluent communities can have child abuse too — although I’d be willing to bet that, no matter how politically correct you want to be, child abuse is going to be more prevalent where people are dogged by poverty, crowded housing and substance abuse. In each of the cases I’ve described, the problem was that a busy-body went off half-cocked, and CPS came in with all guns blazing, using its massive power — mostly in the form of a threat to remove children — to charge parents with criminal acts, to entitle CPS to free run of a home, and to remove from parents any ability reasonably to discipline their children.

It’s this last that has always gotten to me. When I was a kid, my mother had two weapons in her arsenal to deal with naughty behavior. When I was very little, she put me in a playpen. In there, I was safe, I was near her, and I had to learn to entertain myself. When I got older, my Mom spanked, with her hand. She didn’t beat me, she didn’t whip me, she didn’t strike out randomly. She made a rule and, if I broke it, there was a quick “whap!” and it was over. I usually didn’t break the rule a second time, and I never broke it a third. In my house, we all knew the rules, and my Mom could trust us a lot. My Mom didn’t have a lot of residual anger, either, because the house ran like a well-oiled machine. It was very peaceful.

My kids are lovely human beings but, when they were little, they were distinguished by being exceptionally headstrong, impulsive and independent. My kids had no off switch, nor was I able to provide one. Because I was afraid of CPS, I didn’t put them in play pens (instead, I cordoned off my entire house) and I tried never to use even mild corporal punishment. When they broke a rule, the response was “time outs” and “removal of privileges” and “long talks” — all of these with children under six. My spirited children couldn’t have cared less. Time outs didn’t affect my energizer bunnies in the least. Removal of privileges? Who cares? Talks? Great.

What all this meant was that, for me, parenting was unbearably frustrating. I had enormous responsibility and no power whatsoever. I ended up doing what any reasonably intelligent person would do under those circumstances: I put them in preschool. Having them around was too much work and too little pleasure. Preschool made their behavior issues someone else’s problem. And because I had a good preschool, and because my kids are great people, and because I love them very much, things have turned out pretty darn well. I do wonder, though, if I would have kept my children home more if the threat of CPS hadn’t made me such a passive parent that it was easier not to have my children around at all.

What do you all think? Do you have CPS stories? Can you defend CPS — not in its role as defender of genuinely abused children, but in its role as bully of the middle class?


22 Responses

  1. It’s taken several years, but I think we’ve finally found an area where we both agree (in principle, if not detail; I’m not wild about leaving kids in cars, but that’s beside the point): CPS wields extraordinary power, and they get away with it because they lack oversight.

    Our newspaper, here, is rife with letters to the editor from anguished parents who lack recourse from CPS actions. Or worse, parents who say they have followed a CPS “plan”, yet CPS refuses to extricate themselves from the family’s life. And there’s NOTHING the family can do about it.

    It’s very easy to believe that CPS harms nearly as many children as it helps, and apparently, there are certain statistics that support that assertion.

    How does the Marin County DA handle cases where families sue CPS?

  2. Hurrah, Greg! How nice to agree. I’m not big on leaving kids in cars, either, but I think we all agree that leaving a sleeping child in a locked car while you’re few feet away is not a hanging offense. Nor is there any problem with leaving two big kids in a locked car, in a zero crime neighborhood, with a cell phone. Even someone as neurotic as I am about child safety simply can’t fuss about that.

    I don’t know of any Marin families that have sued CPS. Everybody collapses before it because of the risk that CPS will take the children away.

  3. Yes. That’s my impression of the situation here. It’s an issue that emerges in the paper every few years. And from the outside, it does *sound* as if some parents have valid claims against CPS, so I don’t understand why they don’t pursue legal action. I would really like to hear insight on what actually happens when legal action is attempted.

    Regardless, our county’s CPS is said to be one of the most “proactive” CPSs in the state.

  4. All it took was a series of phone calls to CPU stating that my children were unfed and i had them removed from school . I had to fight for 8 weeks to have them returned and upon producing dockets for food purchased prior to the malicious calls, i would of been up the creek without a paddle, it was ordered the children be returned by the magistrrate. All it takes is an anon phone call and you are found to be guilty then have to prove innocence. The system is full of flaws and any parent who is subject of trouble makers out to cause maximum damage via making malicious calls , the stigma attatched and the upheaval to children. Bring back the rights of the parents, normal parental rights and discipline are being undermined by the CPU, kids need to be protected but so do parents who come under the scrutiny of CPU for false and malicious allegations.

  5. Just keep this in mind, should you ever get drunk enough to consider a vote for Senator Fat-Ass of New York.

  6. I’m amazed that CPS is so vigilant where you live. I’m a mental health professional and consequently am mandated by law to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect. My experience is that unless the child is bleeding from an open wound, they do virtually nothing. And. since I am required to report and I know that a visit will be made but no follow up provided, I will, by law, have made a situation worse. That is, a situation in which abuse and intimidation is HIGHLY likely and I have just lit the powder keg under a raging parent now enraged at the visit, but one which offers no protection to the victims.

    In addition, my experience with caseworkers has been less than adequate. Some are angry jerks, indifferent and power tripping- arrogant and disrespectful to families, others are fine but overwhelmed and drowning in cases. Some barely speak english. It is a messed up system.

    That being said, a bare handed smack on the bottom is not considered to be abuse. Nor is keeping a child in a playpen provided they are looked after in all normal respects. people are allowed to be bad parents, so long as the minimum level of care is provided. The story about the blowdrier sounds bizarre. That mother needs to talk to a supervisor.

    Leaving a baby in a car is one of those cases where you see it- a baby locked in a car alone, and no one knows how long the baby has been there. In hot CA we hear annually about babies baked to death in cars on summer days, so people have gotten over-reactive. Cool day, sleeping child in the carpool line at school is obviously a different situation- some people don’t understand gradations. Same with your kids being described as “infants”. The question is, how to protect kids and not harass others. How would you fix it?

  7. Well, Bookworm, you’ve hit a homerun in my book … Jaybee’s and Lulu’s comments are gold.

    But Lulu — as a mental health professional (which I never would have guessed from her previous comments here) — knows far more than we do about the legal mandates governing CPS. She should be the one advising us on where to implement reform.

  8. Think about why someone goes into Child Protective Services: they probably had an unhappy relationship with their own parents. Therefore they’re going to be _gleeful_ at opportunities to strike back at Mom and Dad. Plus, it’s sometimes dangerous to meddle with genuinely abusive parents, some of whom have boyfriends with guns, so it’s safer to stick with the harmless middle-class whitebread families. They have more to lose, so they’ll go along with the court orders instead of just skipping town.

  9. That’s the disgusting ignorance trim spews and right wingers cultivate.

  10. When I was a child, my Dad used to threaten me with spankings. He never yelled, he just told me what I was heading towards. If I was particularly bad, his warning would include the phrase “and by the time I’m done, you won’t be able to sit down for a week of Sundays.”

    I do not consider this child abuse. I have endless respect for the moral lessons I learned; the four of us kids grew up definitely knowing right from wrong. Now, my parents weren’t perfect, but I’m old enough to love them and respect them for what they did right. No one is perfect and to expect that is utter foolishness.

    The CPS would definitely, these days, have some trouble in store for my father. I don’t have any CPS stories beyond that generalized fear of them, and of their power.

  11. BW,
    I have not had a run in with CPS, but one of my soldiers did. His child fell (hard) down a flight of steps – at school. His wife came to school and took the child to the emergency room. A busybody in the ER called CPS about a woman “carrying in a severely beaten child”. This one, however, has a happy ending (of sorts). CPS showed up, his wife called him – a senior lieutenant in the local PD – and he arrived shortly thereafter. A nurse had heard the call and ID’d the busybody.
    The good LT smiled briefly and relinquished the scene to a pair of officers from the major crimes unit (not his division), They walked the CPS officers out of the ER in handcuffs, charged with attempted kidnapping. The two had come to “claim” the abused child but had no documentation, credentials, or written authorizations. The charges got dropped (quietly) and CPS was warned that further “no warrant” visits would be reported to the FBI as kidnapping and extortion. The busybody was charged with misdemeanor child endangerment and falsifying a criminal report – fined about 2 grand and one year on probation. And, oh yeah, after the initial mess it was found that her eight year old was the “babysitter” for the three and five year olds while mom & dad went out on the weekend.

    Go figure.
    Anyhow, I can’t share the city name (my friend still works there – and I don’t want the CPS nazis to visit him for spreading his story).

    SGT Dave – “It isn’t abuse when you correct them, it is called setting limits. Maybe if YOUR parents had done so we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

  12. The NJ version of CPS is DYFS -Department of Youth and Family Services. DYFS is under close scrutiny because several years ago, a child who had been removed from his biological parents for reasonable cause and placed in a foster home was found starved to death by the foster parents. Also, they are not paid half what they should be, and their case load is crushing. I perform the mandatory placement physical exams when a child in DYFS custody is moved from one home to another. The reasons why the kids are in DYFS custody make you cry. Parental drug use, incarceration, abandonment, and the occasional beating. Leaving a kid in a car for a few minutes isn’t even on the radar screen.
    Sounds like CPS has way too much time on their hands and way too much power in them. This busybody behavior is also unnerving. Power corrupts…..
    It also sounds like far too many California citizens have surrendered their rights to the state government. Their toleration of CPS behavior explains the attempt by the state legislature to consider having home thermostats be controlled by the state government in times of energy “emergency”. Sounds like a revolution is in order.

  13. The foster care system is no better or safer then an abusive home.

  14. Greg, explain what you mean by “ignorance.” What is factually untrue in my post?

    Or is that your way of saying “LALALALALA?”

  15. There are regular stories in the newspapers in Seattle about abuses that go on for years against children in the foster care system with CPS paying no attention whatsoever. The last was a girl who was placed with someone who claimed to be a cousin (which was never verified). Cousin went on to abuse girl for years, definitely more than 5, probably less than 10. This included “punishing” her for God knows what by sticking a needle in her eye. Girl is now half blind, of course.

    On the other hand, a friend proceeded to tell me about something she had heard from a neighbor about a child living nearby who was, to my third-hand ears, indulging in major sexual acting-out. We’re talking about a five-year-old here, not a teenager, so there was probably something going on. I told my friend to call CPS or tell her neighbor to call but no one ever did, so God knows how that little girl will survive. This wasn’t a bruise from falling down; this was a girl who was rubbing against people in a decidedly sexual manner. Of course this was an upper middle class neighborhood so maybe nothing would have happened.

    I hate the whole stinking system but I don’t know what would be better. We cannot pretend that monsters don’t have children sometimes and we cannot abandon children to monsters, not unless we are ourselves monsters.

  16. Some of these horror stories make no sense to me, though I don’t doubt that they could have occurred.

    Re:Seargent Dave’s story:
    Why would someone call the CPS from an ER waiting room? All physicians are mandated reporters. Why would CPS go to a waiting room instead of waiting for the physician to examine and interview first? Reports are anonymous and even if the nurse overheard someone calling, people are allowed to report if they have a suspicion. The burden of proof according to CPS is on the parents (this is why in so many bitter divorces, parents charge the other routinely with abuse with no proof). The busybody did not commit a crime by reporting a suspicion, unless she made false claims such as stating she saw the mother strike the child.
    Like I said, my experience with CPS has been under-response, not overkill. In the case described, all CPS would have had to do is call the school to verify the parents’ story.
    Finally. how on earth did did anyone get the background information about the “busybody”? Shouldn’t that be confidential?

    Certainly it is a system needing fixing. One problem with abuse is that it doesn’t occur everyday, all the time. A child could be very abused but have no marks at any given time. Many abused children are not forthcoming. They love their parents and don’t want to be taken away, or they are terrified to tell and get in worse trouble. Unless the caseworker sees proof, or the parent or child admits to something (and caseworkers do have some awareness of manipulative lying teens too), they can’t do much except encourage parenting and close the case for lack of evidence.

    Some foster homes are great. Many are minimal improvement over the home they were removed from. A well-run orphanage could be much better fro many.
    I agree with Al; most of the foster kids I have known were removed because of severe abuse or neglect usually secondary to parental drug addiction.

    It is a hard job with on the spot judgments.

  17. You make very valid points, Lulu, which is unsurprising given your background. The bee in my bonnet is busybodies who go off half-cocked and CPS employees who, once they get the bit in their teeth, can’t let go. I never hear cases of CPS being called in, looking around and backing off. Once they’re called, they seem to feel some sort of obligation to interfere with or threaten the parent, even when there is no evidence whatsoever of abuse. This takes the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” theory to unwarranted and rather horrifying extremes. That’s why I think that, in affluent communities, a lot of CPS staffers feel the need to justify their presence by making mountains out of molehills. But these mountains and molehills affect very fundamental parent/child relationships, and make it impossible for many parents to parent, not just as they want to, but as they, knowing their child, feel is necessary for the child’s well-being.

    Even the best parents make mistakes and have accidents. Indeed, I know of one family where, after the father inadvertently scratched the child while rescuing him from a tumble, the parents bandaged the child so that neighbors wouldn’t get any ideas and call CPS on them. That’s the busy-body/CPS conundrum in a nutshell. It doesn’t stop bad parents; it frightens good parents.

  18. The hypersensitivity also helps abusers. It makes all parents into liars and sneaks. Would you admit to spanking your children? Of course not — might lead to difficulties. So you keep it within the family. Just like real abuse. When everyone is keeping secrets, the ones with really atrocious secrets have an easier time.

  19. Thanks Lulu for taking the time to say what you think.

    Almost two years ago — when the letters-to-the-editor in my local paper reached a fevered pitch (letters whose content would break any parent’s — or grandparent’s — heart) — I attended a presentation made by a parent-advocacy group from Colorado.

    The group often finds itself in profound opposition to CPS policy and action. In contrast with Book’s middle-class observations, the group said that parents of more modest means (i.e., poor parents) were the usual victims of CPS whims and indiscretions.

    The horrors of foster care were convincingly discussed at length.

    Unfortunately, the group’s founder and chief spokeswoman was WACKO beyond sympathy. And *some* of the parents who shared their stories certainly sounded as if they deserved the CPS intervention that befell them. HINT: Don’t leave your 15 year-old son to fend for himself at home while you vacation in Australia for six weeks over the Xmas holidays!

    So, the presentation left me with strongly mixed feelings.

    Mostly I think we should all Praise God if we never have to deal with CPS.

  20. Greg: very thoughtful comments. Thanks for adding them.

  21. Yeah I have an 11 year old son whom lives with his father and father has full legal custody. because he told social services that I was putting beer in a baby bottle to put my son to sleep and he also kept me drugged up on medication and told a friend that he would pay me to take them. he is very controlling and verbally and has been phsical on two seperate occasions. he has no septic system in his mothers house mold every where roof is still leaking and the human waste is going to a 5 gallon drumb in the basement there’s also a truck tank in the ground for waste also he also hits the child really hard his grandma says you don’t have to beat him and she went to her daughters house and also told her. the house could be condemmed but know body wants to listen not even social sevices the say that they can’t find anything thats because they don’t open there eyes and look at the full picture. the child has also made to statements to 2 seperate people at different times in his life and nobody called cps. I wish I could do more but I have done what I can I think.

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