‘I Felt Terrified—and Shocked’ – How to approach parents in child protective investigations

In 2018, Rise parent leaders were asked to provide input to the Administration for Children’s Services on training for child protective investigators. Our team worked with 20 life experienced parents to develop feedback, including parent advocates working at foster care and legal agencies and parents with recent foster care cases. Jeanette Vega, Nancy Fortunato and Robbyne Wiley developed the presentation. Here is their presentation: 

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for the opportunity to present parents’ perspectives on investigations.

The main thing we want you to hear today is that parents truly love their children. As investigative workers, you have the power to make the investigation experience more positive or more terrifying for families.

Parents facing family separation need to have the feeling that we are powerful enough to fight those charges, or even try to change our lives.

Investigative workers can be part of supporting families in feeling and becoming powerful enough to overcome their obstacles. Or you can be part of making us feel more powerless— and at the mercy of more people of authority.


First we’ll bring you into what families experience when they get that knock on the door.

Here’s how Rise writer Samantha described it:

It was August  2, 2010, 10:30 p.m. it was hot and my two children were dirty and sweaty from playing outside. I was running their bath when the doorbell rang. My 10-year-old son ran to the door, then quickly ran back to the bathroom.

“Mommy! Mommy! Child protective services is at the door.”

“That isn’t even funny to joke about,” I said.  

“No, Mom, really, they are,” he said. My heart pounded.

As I let the two ladies in, I lit a cigarette and asked, “What is the allegation?”

One said, “Discipline. We are investigating how you discipline your children. Do you beat your son?”

One of the investigators leaned against my refrigerator, rolling her eyes and sucking her teeth. She was probably tired and didn’t like my cigarette smoke. But I felt insulted, like she thought she could act however she wanted in my home.  

The other was polite, but even after I told her that I didn’t beat my son, she asked, “What do you beat him with?”

I said, “Watch how you speak because I know my rights.” I’m sure my attitude didn’t help. But I was afraid that if I acted soft, they’d eat me alive.

Let’s hear how Samantha felt when the investigators left her home:

That night, my children were not removed, but I felt terrified—and shocked. For more than 10 years, my job had been to help people set up daycare centers and make sure they knew how to protect children. I wasn’t an unsafe mom.

After the investigators left, I sat in the bath and sobbed. Then my anger overcame me and I yelled for my older son. He came into the bathroom half asleep. “Why did you say I beat you? Don’t you know they can take you away?” My son kept his head down.

After I sent him to bed, I picked up the phone, and sobbed to my girlfriend, “I don’t want to lose my children! I am not a bad mother!” My younger son was awakened by my cries. I hung up and lay with him in his toddler bed. He held on to me like a baby koala and cried, “Mommy, don’t leave me.” I lay there with my eyes opened, clutching him, listening to the street, wondering the fate of my children.


As you can hear, Samantha felt frightened, judged, overwhelmed and at the mercy of an institution that had the power to determine her family’s fate.

Most parents don’t know what you know:

* That the majority of investigations are closed without any finding of abuse or neglect
* That most families with even serious challenges are referred to preventive services or placed under court-ordered supervision
* That only a small percentage of families investigated has their children removed.

You can give families this information, and you can keep in mind when you knock on the door that the most likely reality is that the children are safe inside that home.


We will discuss simple strategies investigative workers can use to approach families so that families don’t feel powerless during an investigation.

When you first arrive at a parent’s home, act like you are a guest visiting their home. Knock pleasantly, introduce yourself and show ID so that parents can feel sure of who you are. Be sure to speak in a respectful tone, and pay attention to your body language. When people feel scared, they often try to protect themselves by acting tough, fearful and powerful. If you act tough, it will only scare the parent, who is likely to respond the same way. Approach calmly and with confidence.

Expect parents to be upset about the allegations that have been made against them. It’s frightening to be investigated, and it’s also embarrassing and shameful to be reported or characterized as a “bad parent.” If they are defensive, remember, it’s not about you and you don’t need to take their response personally.

As workers, you can acknowledge how the parent may feel. You can say, “I’m sorry to intrude on you today but we need to discuss the alleged concerns. I can imagine this is uncomfortable for you and I want to let you know that I am here to support you through this process. May I please come in so we can speak privately?”

Make it clear that you’re not saying the allegation is true but that ACS is required by law to investigate. Tell them that your role is to make an assessment of whether the allegation is true and whether the child is safe.

Parents say that ACS workers usually emphasize that their job is to keep children safe, while preventive workers say that their job is to assist parents to strengthen their families. Parents like to hear that someone is on their side. Try to find a balanced message.

In some jurisdictions they use an approach called “differential response,” an investigation that doesn’t begin with a knock on the door at all. Families facing less serious allegations receive a phone call from a worker to set up an appointment for an assessment. The worker tells the family from the beginning, “My job is to partner with families, listen to what families say they need, and help families build their own ability to protect their children.” Even in a traditional investigation, you can find a way to communicate partnership to the family.


Explain the next steps in the investigative process, including what you are going to do in that first visit. If you have to look in cabinets, walk around the apartment, speak to children alone, inspect children’s bodies, or ask about their parents’ drug use, mental health, relationships and parenting style, make the reasons clear. These actions may come to feel routine to you but they are intrusive to parents. It’s not helpful to walk into someone’s home making demands or directing them what to do.

Emphasize that you’re not there to be an authority figure. Many parents have had previous negative experiences with other child protective investigations and other authorities –like the police, mental institutions, etc. – and the parents expect the same from you. During every interaction, try to bring a positive attitude.

Show compassion, interest and curiosity. Remember that a parent is sharing very intimate details of their family life with a stranger. Nodding, speaking in a soft tone, keeping your eyes gentle, keeping your body language open, leaning forward to show interest, and giving your full attention to the family can help the parent feel comfortable and safe.

Remember that many of the families you’re investigating have long histories with ACS. Just the investigation alone can be re-traumatizing. Some families have had previous investigations or have friends and family members who lost children to the foster care system. For them, ACS is known as “baby-snatchers” and is feared.

Guide parents on what they can do to make the best of the situation. For instance, give them a chance to share contact information for anyone who can speak about their strengths. If the parent is open about struggles with a child’s behavior, or with mental health or substance abuse, let them know from the beginning that services right away can help their case.  

Let’s hear how an experienced child welfare investigator was able to interact with Samantha in a way that helped her feel calm and in control. Samantha wrote:

I met with my new caseworker, Ms. Veloz, a 10-year veteran of the job. She also asked me whether I beat my son. But somehow Ms. Veloz asked the same questions in a less accusatory way, like we were having a conversation.

I decided to make it my mission to show her how committed a mother I am. I offered to take her to my son’s camp and to my parents’ home. She also spoke with my son’s therapist. I’m sure it helped that she saw the efforts I’d made for my son. When Ms. Veloz “strongly suggested” I take parenting and anger management classes, I found a class myself.

Ms Veloz was able to communicate with Samantha in a way that made her feel that she could take charge of her case. One of the simplest ways to do that is by providing information to parents.

Here’s how another parent described the impact it had on her when she really understood how the system works:

I decided that if I was going to change my situation, I couldn’t just depend on my caseworker. I would have to learn what I could about the system myself.

I went to the library and the librarian gave me The Family Act Book, a very thick blue book with information about the system. It said I had the right to visit my children, the right to be a part of making decisions about their medical care and education. It said I could even attend parent-teacher conferences.

I wrote the information down in a notebook. With that knowledge, I would go to meetings with ACS and I would quote different sections of the book. I wanted them to think I had real power behind me, so when they asked me where I got my information from, I’d lie and say that I had my own lawyer. I spoke calmly but firmly and I carried myself in a way that let them know I was in control.

Many times I had to hold back tears, anger, frustration that felt like a ball of fire. Inside I often felt hot and furious. But I thought about ice, snow and winter to calm me down. I controlled my temper, and it paid off.

You can see from this mother’s story that knowledge made her feel powerful and in control—and that helped her stay in control in a tough situation.

Parents often believe that the child welfare system withholds information on purpose to keep them from succeeding. Here’s how you can inform parents from the beginning of the investigation:

First, tell parents directly, “I want to make sure you have the information you need to make decisions for your family.”

Be clear about what you’ll expect from the parent throughout the investigative process. If you’ll interview their neighbors, school personnel and family members, let them know so they don’t feel blindsided later. Let them know if you’ll be coming back to speak to them again, and how often. Be clear that the investigation process can last up to 60 days.

Provide them with ACS’ pamphlet on investigations. You can also suggest that parents read stories on Rise’s website from parents who also have experience with the child welfare system.  The more knowledge parents have, the more empowered they will feel that they can get through the situation.

Refrain from using technical terms and social work jargon. Use words and phrases that parents can understand. Tell parents, “I know that was a lot of information and it can be confusing when you’re under stress. Do you have any questions?” Provide that information in writing if possible.

Give parents information on how to get in contact with a parent advocate. That can benefit both the parent and the investigator. A parent advocate can help the parent understand the process a little better.

Let parents know all of the possible outcomes of the investigation.

Make sure to inform parents of their rights. For instance, you can tell parents that, during meetings with investigators, they have the right to have someone supportive, like a parent advocate, with them.

Building Relationships

After that first visit to the family’s home, your challenge is to go from families feeling fear to them feeling willing to build a relationship with you. Most parents feel that investigators are accusatory and judgmental, and they don’t want to open up to them. But the more you understand the family’s circumstance, the more likely you help connect families to services that will keep the child safe and make a difference in the whole family.

First, let’s hear what was behind Samantha’s investigation. A family’s story like Samantha’s is what you want to come to understand:

For a few years, I had been battling my older son. He is a good brother and a compassionate kid. But when he was about 6, he started acting out in school, and lying, too.

When I was growing up, my parents’ discipline was harsh. Late at night, my brother and I would lie in bed counting the shots in our neighborhood. My parents wanted better for us, so if we came out of line, there were serious consequences.

When my children were young, I didn’t adopt that harsh discipline. I tried to understand my children’s perspectives. I thought maybe my son was acting out because after his brother was born, he was no longer the center of attention. I tried to give him extra attention, but nothing seemed to work.

Eventually, his behavior made me think I had been too soft, and I began to go back to some of the ways I was raised. Not the physical discipline. But the attitude: This is what you wear, eat, do, and if you mess up, you will be punished. Instead of helping, my son just became resentful.

The April before I was investigated, my son asked me to get him help. He said, “Mom, I don’t know why I behave the way I do.”

I felt sad for him and for me. I took him to be evaluated and he was diagnosed with ADHD. I wondered if I had done something wrong that caused him to have ADHD and I hoped that once he started therapy, miraculously, he would be the same child I knew when he was little.

But there were no miracles. Then in June, I suddenly lost my job. Life felt very stressful.

Not long after that, CPS came to my door. 

Here’s how you can build relationships:

Know that parents want to be seen as individuals. When you knock on our door, most parents do just want to get you out of their lives. But they also want investigators to get to know them and their children before passing judgment. To help parents feel comfortable, you can say things like, “If you don’t mind, I would like to learn about your family, your strengths, and any concerns you may have. This will help me get a better understanding of you and your family as a whole. If you are facing challenges, I can guide you to resources that can help.”

Remember that family crises can escalate—ask how things were before and what changed. Many times parents face an investigation because of new of challenges. Parents have written about losing their tempers or even using more drugs because of hopelessness that comes with grief of losing a job.

Recognize that families’ environment plays a big role. If you notice negative conditions in the neighborhood, you can ask “What are the stresses you’re facing in your family life and within your community? How are you coping?”

Be respectful of cultural differences. Let’s also remember that some families are new to the United States, or were themselves raised in ways that are no longer considered acceptable.Provide information about discipline standards so that parents can understand what’s expected, and make referrals to community agencies that are experienced in assisting with cultural transitions. You can be sensitive to immigrant families by asking, “What challenges have you faced since coming to this country? How is it different to be a parent here? What can I assist you with?”


Now we’ll discuss serious abuse cases.

We want to express that we understand every case is not as easy as we may seem to be suggesting. Some cases are serious and the environment may not be pleasant for you to see.

You may feel frightened and be threatened as you do your work. You may come into homes where you see disgusting conditions. You may feel pain and sadness, not just when you see children hurt, but because of how many families live.

At the same time, keep in mind: Poverty is not neglect. Poverty is seen as a failure in America, and that can bias you against very low-income families. The neighborhood a family lives in may bring up bias for you, or may put you in a state of fear and judgment.

And remember: The neighborhood or conditions may be affecting the family, too. Remember to ask families how the conditions they’re experience might be affecting them.

When you see children in bad conditions, it can be hard to believe that the parents truly love their children. Here is another parent’s story on a serious case, what the worker observed—and also what the worker couldn’t see:

Long before my kids went into foster care, I knew they were going to get taken away. Their mother and I were addicted to meth. Our life was out of control.

During this time, she and I were not really taking care of our three kids. We’d put them in front of the TV with their bottles and some food and lock ourselves in our bedroom all day to get high.

I worked long shifts and I knew their mother was not taking care of the girls while I was gone. I’d come home to find the girls still wearing the same diapers I’d put on them before I left. 

The neighbors started to tell me that my kids were running around the neighborhood by themselves at only 3 years old.  

One afternoon I came home early from work. Cruising up my street on my bike, I saw my oldest daughter, Jasmine, across the street from our house, playing in just her underwear and a t-shirt. I was shocked and scared for my children. 

I yelled, “Jasmine,” and she bolted back home. When I got inside, I saw their mother staring blankly at the television, totally unaware.

At that point, I was determined to stop using.

I look back on this dark time with sadness and regret. I see how different I was when I was getting high. My addiction made me only want to make money and buy drugs.

This story reflects how this father knew he needed assistance with his family but an investigator coming to the door would not have seen his good intentions. The investigator would only have seen a very painful scene.

When you work with families that are facing issues like domestic violence, mental illness or addiction, seek guidance and information on these issues. There are usually more options for supporting a family without removal than you may know about, such as parent-child in-patient substance abuse treatment, or the FTR program to provide in-home support to families while the parent is in outpatient treatment. In domestic violence cases, you may be able to get the perpetrator to leave the family’s home instead of pressuring the victim to go to a shelter. Experts in those fields can guide you.


Here, Laquana describes how two different investigators on a serious case had different impacts because of their approaches:

When the ACS worker walked in to my apartment, the first thing she did was turn her nose up at all my belongings. I have tons of clothes and shoes. (I’m very good at buying clothes on eBay!)

She made snide remarks about my shopping habits and asked questions about how I was able to buy designer clothes for my baby.

I explained that I was in graduate school, maintaining a 4.0 GPA, and that I was involved in community development projects but she didn’t seem interested in anything positive about me.

She was investigating me because I had taken my infant to the hospital with a bump on his head that turned out to be fracture, and I couldn’t explain how he got it.

The next step was a visit from a police detective. He was different. He made me feel comfortable in his presence. We went over the situation in detail and he asked me if I fell asleep holding my son, if I had left the kids unattended with the baby. He pulled out all the details that led up to the moment when I discovered the lump on my son’s head. I explained all the possibilities I could think of. He said that he sympathized with me, that he knew it was strenuous with three small children and no real support. I told him, “It’s hard right now, but it will pay off.” I said that I accepted full responsibility but told him, “I love my children. I know my son did not get his injury as the result of abuse.”

After the detective spoke with me, he talked with the ACS worker for a few minutes, and then the worker told me to get in her car. She scolded me for not giving her all the information that I gave the cop. She acted like I’d been lying to her, but it was just that he had been better at his job and he helped me think. I said, “I answered whatever he asked.” To myself I thought, “If you were more concerned about the investigation than my Gucci shoes, you could have covered more ground.”

From Laquana, just like with Samantha, you can see that two people can do the same job and get different outcomes.

It’s essential to keep an open mind even when the facts seem to tell a simple story. In Laquana’s case, a babysitter stepped forward and admitted to dropping her child. Not only did Laquana get her children back, but she successfully sued the system for how it handled her case.

However, don’t misinterpret Laquana’s experience. Be sure you’re involving the police only when absolutely needed.

If you’re coming to remove the children, you may be afraid of how the parent will react. But in most cases, bringing police with you will only make things worse unless it’s truly needed. Most parents who are investigated come from communities where we are not happy to see police at our door. When workers come with the police, automatically you look like the enemy, not as a partner. Remember, too, that children will be even more afraid if the police are involved.


If you determine that an action needs to be taken with a family and there will be a Child Safety Conference or even a Transitional Meeting, it’s important to remember to set the family up for success with what comes next.

Here’s an advocate’s perspective on how to empower parents during a child safety conference.

As a parent advocate going into a child safety conferences, I have seen some pros and cons with the engagements between CPS /caseworkers and parents. At times there are some workers who truly want to hear the parents and what concern they may have, to understand their struggles and the challenges that they are facing. The CPS workers look at the strengths of the family.

Those CPS workers have a conversation with the parent about the positive things they have done and praise them for their hard work. 

Parents then find the child safety conference process much easier to participate in and have a voice in decision making. Parents are more willing to comply with the service recommendations when their voices are included.

Nevertheless, I’ve also seen caseworkers use their power to make parents feel uncomfortable by antagonizing them, or bringing up accusations about their past history or their mental health status. You can see and feel the judgments and biases that the workers bring in to the meeting. At times it feels as if the workers already have the decision set and the meeting is just to follow protocol. If I can feel that, so can the parents.

This approach makes the parents feel powerless and gives them all the reasons why they should not trust the system. This negative approach can cause children to enter foster care and even stay longer in care, because parents don’t feel the power to get the services and support that they feel they need.

Before going to a Child Safety Conference:

Be clear that, based on the conference, the child may be removed but that a parent’s best chance of preventing removal is to come to the conference and problem-solve. Parents often believe that the child welfare system withholds information on purpose to keep them from succeeding. Tell parents directly, “I want to make sure you have the information you need to make decisions for your family.”

Let parents know that they can bring anyone who can speak well of them and be a support to them in the conversation.

Also let them know that a parent advocate will be available to assist them during the conference. 

When removal IS the outcome, explain to families that there will be a Transitional Meeting. Explain to parents what this meeting entails.

You can tell parents that because the child is in foster care, ACS must transfer the case to a foster care agency. (Always remember to use the child’s name.) If the goal is reunification, be clear: The agency’s job is to support the parent in getting the child home.

Tell parents that the agency is there to assist them in completing the services and monitoring the safety concerns that brought the case in, until they have been eliminated.

The impression you give to the parents can determine the family’s engagement with the caseworker going forward.  It can set the family up for failure or success.

We want finish today by bringing you back to Samantha’s story:

On October 2, I received a letter from ACS. I thought, “What now?” I ripped the envelope open. All I remember reading is, “Your case is not indicated,” and, “All allegations were unfounded.”

I jumped up and down. I called to thank all who were supportive.

Even so, the two-month investigation took a terrible toll. I fell asleep every night crying.

I think my son could sense how out of control our family was getting, and that made him act out. I couldn’t look for work either, because in my field I needed to be cleared by the State Central Registry. I felt like my life had been pulled out from under me.

I respect that child protective workers have a very hard job to do. Like police, they don’t know what kinds of situations they are walking into, and sometimes they walk into bad ones. But I think many families would be better served if parents were approached in a way that was respectful—the way Ms. Veloz approached me.

During investigations, it’s hard not to feel like a criminal, even when you’re just a parent who’s struggling. Try and make removals your last resort. If you have to remove a child, indicate through your behavior that it’s not a casual decision. Each time, it should be the hardest decision you have to make in your career.

We hope that, through this presentation and through Samantha’s life experience, you heard how intrusive investigations are for families. Your approach, tone and body language play a big role in parents’ reactions toward you. We acknowledge how hard and at times scary your role is, and we hope you heard the importance of showing compassion and understanding of the families and communities you will be serving.

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