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[Note: Although this can be read as a stand-alone, why would you want to? :) LJ Idol is doing the Intersection Thing this week, and my beloved spouse ([personal profile] invisionary/[livejournal.com profile] ravenshrinkery) has written a companion piece about how he learned more respect and less fear for the police - from a very unusual source. Read it here on LJ or here on DW.]

[Disclaimer, and one of the few times I feel obligated to write one: Although some of this comes from what I have learned at work, I am not in any way speaking for my employer, nor is this any kind of formal professional or legal advice.]


Back in the Dark Ages of Homeschooling, my mother decided that neither our public school district nor any private school close enough to be accessible met the needs of her daughter, who had academic skills far beyond grade level but slight motor and spatial delays that made schools reluctant to consider grade-skipping as an option. For a short while, we were the only homeschoolers we knew, and then we met some others. Many of the others belonged to something called HSLDA - the Home School Legal Defense Association. While my family's many problems with this organization are not within the scope of this post, one particular skit that they like to perform IS.

Essentially, the HSLDA skit presented the worst possible stereotype of a privacy-invading social worker sent by Child Protective Services as a reality that every single homeschooling parent must fear simply for being a homeschooling parent. And of course, Mrs. Wise the homeschooling mom KNOWS HER RIGHTS and insists that Miss Orwell the evil CPS lady doesn't get anywhere near her kid because once Miss Orwell's claws come out, Mrs. Wise will Lose Her Kid Forever!

Folks, CPS does not work like that. Really, it doesn't. I'm speaking as a social work student who also works closely with the programs that serve kids in out-of-home care, and as a parent who has actually been the subject of an actual CPS investigation not so long ago. Most of all, though? I'm speaking as someone who is good at analyzing statistical research and reports and understanding what they are actually saying.

In the United States, here is your math - this set of figures is from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System report for 2009:

Nationwide, slightly more than 4% of all children in the United States under age 18 were named as alleged victims in some form of report to state CPS systems. This does not mean that 4% of children have been removed from their homes. Consider these national figures for the U.S., and then we can walk through what the math means:

- 38.1% of reports are immediately "screened out" upon receipt. These reports are basically "closed" before they are ever opened because the allegation, even if true, does not meet the state's legal criteria for reportable abuse, neglect, or maltreatment, or because CPS is unable to follow up for some other reason like not having enough data to know who or where the alleged victims are. This leaves 61.9% of reports to even make it to the point where a CPS worker shows up in the first place.
- 22.1% of reports that are investigated are substantiated (meaning that there is "credible evidence" or whatever your state's standard of proof is that abuse or neglect did in fact occur). An additional 1.8% of investigated reports are considered "indicated" or "alternative response-victim" status, which are specialized dispositions indicating child abuse or neglect has occurred but that the status of "substantiated" is not appropriate for some other reason.
- 20.8% of the subset of children in families that received a determination that abuse or neglect occurred were removed from the household. 3.6% of "non-victim" children were also removed, but it is unclear from the report whether some of these children were siblings of children found to be victims.
- 51% of the subset of children who are removed from their families by CPS will be reunified with their families, with custody fully and formally returned to the parents.

So, for every 1000 children that someone makes a report to CPS about, only 619 will be subjects of family investigations by CPS. CPS will find that 471 of those 619 children were not victims of abuse or neglect, and that 148 of those children were. 17 non-victims and 31 victims will be removed from their families - a total of 48 removals per thousand reports. (Again, remember that this report does not explicitly state the "non-victims" were not removed from the same households as "victims".) 25 of the 48 children who were removed from their families will return home to parental custody.

Even if we start the 1000 kids with the CPS worker at the door, for every 1000 there will be 239 "victims" and 771 "non-victims". 49 victims and 28 non-victims will be removed, for a total of 77 removals per thousand. 39 of the 77 who are removed will return home to parental custody.

In other words, if you just suspect or know that someone made a report about you, the chances of the HSLDA panic you'll-never-see-your-kids-again scenario actually occurring (assuming this stuff is completely random, which of course it is NOT) is about 2.3%. If you had no idea and the CPS worker just shows up at your door, the chance is still a bit less than 4%. In other words, even if it were purely up to chance once the investigation started rolling, there would be a 96% or better chance that you would NOT "lose your kids forever" - and a 92% or better chance that your kids would never be removed from your care at all. Also, "never seeing your kids again" is decidedly hyperbole, because outside of a small handful of very specific situations, there is a legal obligation to ensure visitation between parents and the children who have been removed is possible and that if it doesn't take place, it's because the parents did not follow through.

And of course, no matter what the fearmongers would have you believe, the results of a CPS investigation are NOT random. And yes, actually, there ARE people who deserve to have their parental rights terminated. I've seen the files and I've talked to a co-worker who previously worked as a CPS responder. Some things that some parents do are just that dangerous or utterly wrong-headed.

For example, if your minor children have been removed because you are unable or unwilling to stop their legally adult sibling (who lives in the home) from biting one minor sibling on the inner thighs hard enough to draw blood and making credible and detailed threats that he would sell another minor sibling into prostitution, it might be a good idea to kick out said legally adult son so that the minor kids won't be in continual danger from him. It might also be a good idea to a) reduce the number of household pets down to something close to what your town's occupancy codes permit (or failing that at least clean up after them), b) NOT let your cousin the Level II sex offender move in with you, and c) actually take your goddamn psych meds. I'm just saying. (And yes, this was a real case.)

No, not every case where a removal happens is this bad. This one was...pretty memorable. The garden variety combination of "not on drugs they should be and on drugs they shouldn't be instead" underlies many a CPS removal, as do "child protective" placements that involve parents who have abandoned the child to the care of a relative who assumed the care was temporary, or "one parent dead, other parent in jail"-type situations, or the completely unsupervised infants that my co-worker was regularly removing with nothing but a blanket and a police escort. And remember, these are still part of that same low percentage of cases in which children are removed from parents and never returned.

What does this mean? It means that the random unexpected CPS worker at your door is even less likely to run off with your kids, assuming that you aren't actually, you know, maltreating them. It means that homeschooling isn't the problem - "Biblical chastisement" of four-month old babies, or the 13-year-old daughter actually running the household (including provision of said "chastisement") instead of receiving any academic instruction whatsoever are the problems. Or alternatively, it's not homeschooling that's the problem, it's the *ahem* hydroponic gardening lessons, man! "Spanking" as understood by most of the American mainstream is not a CPS issue, but something like Roy Lessin's spanking rituals could be, and with damn good reason. The "polyamorous lifestyle" might not have been an issue if the three alleged adults could collectively come up with the funds to keep the utilities paid (and that wasn't even a CPS case as such, but a custody dispute that keeps getting mistaken for a CPS case in people's minds).

When there was an open CPS case on my own family, the primary thing that delayed its closing was that the worker assigned to us was so overworked she kept having to reschedule the final home visit to close the case, which she had expected to close as unfounded all along. That the state central register had literally run out of paper and postage and had to wait for an emergency appropriation for more didn't help either. See, CPS is underfunded for the sheer amount of crap it has to deal with. Most parts of the state are also dealing with a shortage of available foster homes.

As far as putting kids in institutions because this somehow makes lots of Federal money - it doesn't. In some cases (far from all), the Federal government will partially reimburse the states for the cost of putting a kid in some types of residential care. But at least in New York, the general policy is to avoid this as much as possible, for both ideological and financial reasons. Residential care is expensive - anywhere between $150 and $450 per child per day for the "care and maintenance" portion (that is, everything that is not educational or medical expenses) - and counties are on the hook for a significant portion of that cost. They don't want to pay it unless they really have to. Also, in my various reviews of case records for kids in residential programs, only about 1/4 of the kids are there for CPS-related reasons. The rest? They've been placed as juvenile delinquents for misdemeanors or low-level felonies, or as Persons in Need of Supervision, or as residential students through the local school district's special education office. Regardless of how they ended up there, most kids in a non-home setting are there because they require someone to be awake and watching them 24/7, which is usually not possible in a home.

A small portion of older teens are instead in a residential placement because they have specifically requested that they not be placed in a family setting - they will explain that they have families, they just can't live with those families, and they don't want to "pretend" someone else is their family. This is a fairly common reaction among older youth who were Kicked Out For Queer, for instance, or youth who have previously been adopted and then either the adoption was legally dissolved or the adoptive parents died. Out of 100 files I reviewed recently, there were four or five like this. The rest of the kids were in a residential placement because of the need for awake people to watch them 24/7, because they had an extensive history of behavior that was dangerous to themselves and/or others.

What all this means is that the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor when dealing with a threatened or actual CPS situation that if you aren't actually doing something illegal, and you do not act as though you are doing something illegal, you won't have a problem. Yes, it is a theoretical possibility that you will just happen to trip a pet peeve of the particular caseworker that is assigned to your case, and interventions will go farther than they should, but it's actually really damn unlikely. And yes, it is also possible to end up in a no-win situation with every option you have being something that theoretically constitutes child neglect - but situations like those are why more and more states (New York now included) are implementing differential response protocols for neglect cases, allowing families to access needed services for child protective reasons without the stigma of an indicated report.

The odds that the loudest of the anti-CPS voices are doing something illegal? Much higher than the odds that CPS will actually take your kids, unless you actually are committing child maltreatment.
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