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Research Review

What’s the Role of Child Protective Services? New Study Points to Parallels With Policing

Each year, U.S. child protection authorities, tasked with responding to child abuse and neglect, investigate the families of over three million children, disproportionately poor, Black, and Native American children. A staggering one in three children can expect a CPS investigation at some point during childhood. In a new study, sociologist Kelley Fong finds that professionals frequently refer families to Child Protective Services (CPS) to get them help. But because CPS is a coercive institution, not a social service one, this often undermines families in marginalized communities.

Despite its goal of protecting children, CPS has some troubling features in common with policing in the United States. That’s the conclusion of “The Tool We Have”: Why Child Protective Services Investigates So Many Families and How Even Good Intentions Backfire, released by the Council on Contemporary Families. Dr. Kelley Fong, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of History and Sociology, explains “how, with the fraying of the social safety net in recent decades, efforts to help families take the form of summoning an agency that can forcibly separate them.”  Fong notes, “As with the police, this expansive reliance on authorities with coercive power fosters fear and mistrust”—even when CPS finds parents are not maltreating.

The data: Interviews with people who refer families to the CPS, CPS investigators, and the moms who were investigated. To understand why CPS encounters are so commonplace, especially for marginalized families, Fong observed CPS investigations in Connecticut and interviewed approximately 100 key participants on these cases: professionals reporting suspected child maltreatment or neglect, frontline investigators, and investigated mothers. Many reporting professionals understand that CPS may not be appropriate but feel it is the only “tool we have.” As a result, referring to CPS—like calling the police—becomes a kind of catch-all reaction to noncriminal problems, in this case to get support services for families in need:

Reporting professionals almost always want CPS to provide supportive services, reasoning that CPS has more information about available and appropriate services. But CPS investigators, like reporting professionals, are often unable to address families’ persistent needs, and the fact that they come in with the power to remove children puts marginalized families in a legal but also a psychological vise.

Embracing CPS reporting as a means of rehabilitating families disproportionately exposes marginalized families to CPS’s coercive authority, and, paradoxically, that leads to less help and more mistrust.

Moms: “I was so scared.” Fong’s interviews with investigated mothers reveal the heart of the drama that can unfold with CPS.

CPS investigations foster substantial anxiety among investigated families. In these investigations the threat of removal is ever-present—even if unstated. “I couldn’t speak. The only thing that crossed my mind was that they were going to take them away,” one mother recalled. “I always thought that their job is to come in and take a child from their family,” another reflected. “Oh my God. You don’t understand. I was so scared.”

CPS reports can also lead parents to distance themselves from reporting systems. One mother, reported to CPS for using marijuana during pregnancy, hesitated to speak openly with health care providers afterwards. After giving birth, she worried she was experiencing postpartum depression. But, she explained, “I don’t tell them any of that because I don’t need them to say, oh, she’s going through postpartum. She’s gonna hurt the baby.”

Where this leads: “In asking CPS—like the police, armed with tools of surveillance and coercion—to take on all manner of social problems, we further traumatize and marginalize families,” Fong explains. She argues that changes in training and development of support-oriented crisis response teams would be better aligned with many of the family needs that are often handed off to CPS.

When you see the fist, you panic. Stephanie Coontz, the Council on Contemporary Families’ director of research, observes: “Fong's CPS findings parallel what happens when we ask police to respond to problems that social workers should be dealing with. In both cases, people who've been trained to coerce and punish bad actors are asked to get needy people out of bad situations.  We tell people wearing a gauntleted fist to extend a helping hand. They aren't trained to do that, and even when they try, many people only see the fist and they panic.”

Source: Council on Contemporary Families