Little did parents Melissa and Dillon know, but when their five-month-old Mason Bright fell and hit his head, this would be the start of a three-month legal battle to keep their family together. Despite the fall being an accident, and even with medical findings of a clotting disorder which may be confused as evidence of abuse, Mason and his five-year-old sister were taken away from their parents and brought into foster care.
A false allegation of child abuse or neglect can cause trauma and undue harm to families, in addition to the negative effects on the children’s emotional and mental stability. These false allegations also overburden the foster system, wasting state and/or federal resources that could have been directed towards children who truly need help. If you are a defense attorney working with a parent or guardian who is dealing with Child Protective Services (CPS), it is in your client’s best interests to have the case dismissed at the earliest possible opportunity.
In this article, we will explain how CPS cases are initiated, what parents can expect from a CPS case, and 5 tips on how to get a CPS case closed.
What you need to know about a Child Protective Services (CPS) case?
What is the CPS?
Child Protective Services (CPS) is the state government agency responsible for investigating reports of child abuse or neglect. Depending on the state, it may be known under a different name such as the Department of Youth and Family Services, Department of Family Services, or Department of Social Services, to name a few. CPS (or the associated Department) is usually represented by the state Attorney General’s office.
How is a CPS case initiated?
As soon as it receives a report of child abuse or neglect, CPS will first evaluate the seriousness of the allegations. The report will include details of the child’s situation, conditions in the child’s home, the nature and extent of the child’s injuries, and information about other children in the same environment. Reports of sexual abuse or severe physical injury are usually referred directly to the police. Otherwise, the CPS will evaluate whether the report is reasonable and requires further investigation or an official CPS case to be initiated.
For instance, if the complaint was previously investigated, has no basis, or if the allegations do not constitute neglect, then CPS may reject the complaint and will not initiate a case. However, if CPS finds that the report provides enough reason to believe that the reported facts are likely to constitute abuse, CPS may start its investigation. Upon assessment of the urgency of the report, and depending on state laws, an investigation will typically begin:
- Within 24-48 hours in cases of immediate danger; or
- Within 30-90 days if immediate danger is not present.
CPS is required to find and notify both parents about the ongoing investigation.
Although not all CPS cases end up in court, CPS may petition for a court order to compel the family’s cooperation, to remove the alleged abuser from the child’s home, or to remove the child from the home. As a general rule, without a court order, children may not be removed from their home. When there is a risk of immediate harm, however, law enforcement may immediately remove the child without a court order. In such circumstances, the court will have to evaluate the necessity of the removal, usually within a day or two of removal.
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How long does it take to close a CPS case?
Depending on various factors, including the types of alleged abuse and/or neglect, a CPS case may last a few months up to a year. In cases of neglect, changes in the family’s living situation, such as a change in home environment or change in guardianship, may already warrant a case dismissal. Nonetheless, it is in the best interests of both children and their parents to have the CPS case closed, especially when the allegations are false.
What parents or guardians can expect during a CPS case?
- The identity of the person who reported the abuse or neglect will remain confidential. This is to protect the reporter from the possibility of retribution from the alleged abuser.
- Their child may be interviewed without parental consent. Even if the parent is not the alleged perpetrator of abuse, the CPS caseworker has the authority to interview the child without the parent or guardian present in order to gather the information that can help the investigation.
- Their cooperation matters. A CPS case does not necessarily mean that the child will be taken away from the home. To address the issues contained in the report, CPS may require interventions such as community service, parenting classes, drug tests, or even making simple repairs in the home. A lack of parental/guardian cooperation with CPS caseworkers in these interventions may aggravate the allegations against your client.
- Their communication with CPS workers or investigators must remain respectful. Despite their innocence, anything parents or guardians say to CPS investigators or law enforcement may be taken against them in court. For this reason, before the case gets to court, parents and guardians will benefit from a lawyer’s advice on how to communicate carefully, clearly, and truthfully with CPS caseworkers.
Tips on how to get a CPS case closed
Can a judge dismiss a CPS case? In short, yes, and going to court may not even be necessary. Here are some ways to get a CPS case closed quickly.
- Get the case closed before it potentially goes to court. The majority of CPS cases involve neglect. When a child is said to be neglected, it means that the parent or guardian fails to provide for a child’s needs, such as adequate food, shelter, health care, or education. In some states, neglect may also include failing to put a child in school or failing to provide the required treatment for children with special needs. In cases of neglect, addressing the cause of such failure will typically allow the CPS case to close quickly. For example, if the home is said to be inadequate or unsafe for the child, making necessary repairs can support the case becoming closed without having to go to court.
- Aim for a settlement, if possible. Settlement can be achieved during the case conference where you, your client, the CPS caseworker, and other persons involved in the case may discuss a possible settlement to address the alleged neglect or abuse, without having to go to trial.
- Stay up-to-date on federal and state laws as to what constitutes abuse or neglect. What constitutes abuse or neglect in one state may not be treated as such in other states. If from the onset, the allegations in the complaint do not actually constitute abuse or neglect, then it may be dismissed, upon motion, on the grounds that the complaint fails to state a cause of action. This dismissal must be granted by the court.
- Conduct your own investigation. Even if your client provides you with all the information they think is necessary to merit the dismissal of the case, conducting a thorough and independent investigation into the alleged abuse or neglect may lead you to evidence that may disprove the allegations. Medical records, psychological evaluations, school records, employment records, and even research papers may be valuable in getting your case dismissed at the earliest possible time. A thorough investigation of all potentially relevant information may even help disprove probable cause. Without probable cause, the judge may even dismiss the case before trial.
- Communicate regularly with your client. Regular communication with your client throughout the CPS case process is incredibly important. As early as possible in your client’s case, inform your client of all their rights throughout the process of a CPS case. Aside from keeping your client updated on hearing schedules and developments on the case, regular communication also keeps you informed on your client’s living situation and any relevant changes that may be important to the case. Major changes in your client’s (and/or their children’s) living situation may provide you with grounds to move for the dismissal of the CPS case.
After a traumatic separation from both of their children, the Brights eventually found relief when a county court ordered CPS to return Mason and Charlotte to their parents. The judge considered the finding that Mason suffered from Willebrand disease, a clotting disorder that causes bleeding and injuries that may be mistaken for abuse. The court also ordered the state to pay the couple $127,000 as compensation for their legal expenses. While it took over a year, CPS eventually officially closed its investigation, and admitted that they did not have enough evidence of abuse.
If your client has been falsely accused of child abuse or neglect, you can help your client avoid the emotional harm of prolonged a CPS case, especially when they are deprived of child custody, by getting their CPS case closed quickly.