1 out of every 3 children will have their families investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) over the course of their childhood. Many of these children come from poor families and/or families of color. Investigations by CPS are often invasive. Investigators enter family homes and ask probing questions. But through these investigations, CPS is also able to assess and respond to the needs of families, oftentimes concluding that child abuse did not occur.
Drawing on observation of 37 CPS cases, including interviews with investigators, mothers, and ethnographic observation of two Connecticut CPS offices, Kelley Fong argues that it is a combination of care and coercion that brings CPS investigators into so many family homes. CPS investigators can often provide much-needed resources to families that are otherwise difficult to access, such as care for mental health, as long as families comply with CPS’ demands.
Workers at schools, doctors’ offices, and social service agencies realize that many families and children need assistance that they are unable to provide. In response, such workers file reports with CPS even when they do not believe that abuse is occurring, in hopes that CPS will offer families the kind of tangible support that they are unable to offer.
However, the intervention of CPS is also coercive and intrusive. While CPS can provide access to resources, this help is offered alongside the threat that the agency will separate children from their parents. The anxiety and fear sparked by an investigation can make parents wary of interacting with any institution that may refer families to CPS, including schools, doctors’ offices, or social service agencies.In the United States, a weak social safety net means that families are left with few options for receiving support. A referral to Child Protective Services is one of the few options left for administrators who are aware of the challenges children and families face at home. However, CPS investigations also bring fear and worry to these families and may marginalize them from the institutions of social life, such as their children’s school. Strengthening social support programs outside of CPS would allow families to get needed help from concerned professionals without intruding into and threatening family life.