New Research: How Fear of CPS Harms Families

Interview with Kelley Fong, PhD candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at Harvard University, Author of “Concealment and Constraint: Child Protective Services Fears and Poor Mothers’ Institutional Engagement”.

By Keyna Franklin, Rise Parent Leader, and Careena Farmer, Rise Contributor

Throughout our series on surveillance, Rise has exposed how child welfare surveillance harms families and communities, particularly low-income communities and communities of color. Far too often, when families are struggling, the response they are met with is a child protective services (CPS) report and investigation. Here, Rise talks with Kelley Fong about what she learned from mothers in Providence, Rhode Island through her research. Her study explored how fear of CPS impacts how mothers engage with service providers and whether they access support.

Q: Why did you do this research study?

A: I found it very striking how common CPS involvement is in many communities, particularly low income communities and communities of color. I wanted to understand what that was like for mothers in those communities, whether or not they had child welfare involvement. I also wanted to understand child welfare involvement, not just as something that happens to individual families, but as an experience that is shared across social networks and communities. I interviewed over 80 mothers with low incomes in Providence, Rhode Island. I wanted to understand what it was like to be a mother in Providence, navigating different social services. 

The study I wrote looks at strategies moms use to protect themselves from child welfare reports. For the moms I spoke with, their children were the most important thing to them. They loved them more than anything and would do anything for them. Anything that threatened that relationship was to be avoided at all costs. Even though they were confident that they were good moms and took care of their kids, they still worried: What if someone were to call? What would happen? They talked about selectively sharing information with service providers or selectively accessing services based on their perceptions of what could happen if providers were to report them to child welfare. All of these different agencies that moms are interacting with are mandated reporters, meaning they are required to report any suspicion of child maltreatment. It creates a link to child welfare that moms worry about. 

Q: What else did you learn?

A: I learned how pervasive CPS is in the communities where the moms that I talked with lived. I asked, “Of the moms you know, of the moms in your neighborhood, how many have been investigated by CPS?” Many said over half. When over half of the moms you know or in your neighborhood have had run ins with CPS, even when you know you are a good mother, you worry it is something that could happen to you. It affected the way they parented and engaged with systems that are supposed to help families. 

Another important thing to take away is how child welfare mattered to parents who weren’t involved with the system — moms who had never experienced a report. Collective knowledge and information-sharing taught them that you have to be careful about what you say to whom. They felt they had to be careful before telling a doctor they are homeless or telling a school sometimes they get really stressed out with their child. 

Q: What were mothers’ different views of the child welfare system?

A: The child welfare system did not have a great reputation across the board. Even moms who hadn’t had experience — from what they heard from friends or on TV — they felt the system was failing children. They referenced children who were abused or neglected while in foster care or times when the agency kept returning children to an unsafe environment. They also referenced times when they didn’t understand why the CPS response had been so extreme. 

For moms who had had involvement with CPS, going through the system made them feel isolated and frustrated. Moms felt like no one was on their side. In New York, my sense is that parents have strong legal representation in court. Sometimes the moms I interviewed didn’t even feel the lawyers representing them were on their side. When moms wanted to come up with a strategy for how they were going to fight for their kids, attorneys wouldn’t return their calls or give them the advocacy they needed. 

Q: Some mothers in the study were scared to say they needed help. How does fear of CPS impact whether mothers use services?

A: We lean on schools and doctors and nonprofits to support families. The challenge is those services are in a position to turn moms in to CPS. To get help, you often need to open up about your challenges. Moms didn’t know if those admissions would lead to a CPS report. Given the high stakes, mothers would say: It’s better safe than sorry — Even if there is a possibility I can get help I need, I don’t want to risk catching a case. 

One of the moms I talked to came to Rhode Island from out of state. She went to the welfare office to sign up for benefits for her family. They said she needed proof of residency. Maybe she could have said, “We’re homeless right now. Is there something else I can provide?” But she didn’t want to share that they were living in their car for fear that CPS would be notified. She left and that family did not get the benefits they needed. Those kids lived in the car for 6 months through a rough winter. 

I also heard a lot about home visiting, an approach that is widely touted as a way to improve the well being of young children. I heard from several moms that they were offered home visiting and they decided not to take it, not because they didn’t think it would help them, but because they worried about someone coming into their home. Will it lead to a CPS report if my home is messy? So these families who could have benefited from home visiting services didn’t end up receiving them. The goal of the child welfare system is to keep children safe; however, the way it is set up can generate responses that actually make children less safe. 

Q: What factors influence whether mothers are more or less likely to fear CPS? What is the impact of race?

A: My sense was moms with higher levels of CPS involvement in their social network or neighborhood knew the consequences of being reported and expressed these fears more strongly. We know CPS disproportionately intervenes in communities of color, particularly Black communities. So for moms in those communities, concerns about CPS involvement are elevated. 

Q: What did you learn about the experiences of mothers who were reported to child welfare? 

A: When we think about child welfare, we often think about foster care and parents who have had children removed, but most investigations are unsubstantiated and don’t lead to child removal. It is easy for mandated reporters to say, better safe than sorry, no harm no foul. What I heard from mothers was that this often wasn’t the case. There was real harm caused even with cases that were not substantiated. Investigations had ripple effects. They shaped how moms thought about systems that reported them. Moms often interpreted reports not as the reporter trying to help, but trying to get them in trouble and intervene in families. They also resented being put in the system and how having a record with CPS might affect things down the line

If the child welfare system did get more deeply involved, moms often felt the system was not looking out for them or their children’s best interest. They were very cynical about the child welfare system’s motives and felt they were treated as just another case. There is so much uncertainty. Some parents felt they were doing everything the agency asked and felt hopeful their kids would come home at the next court date. At each court date, the case would be postponed another six months. For a mom, that is a year or two in her child’s life, missing their first words or steps or first day of school. Moms are often fighting the system for years. It is also important to note that in some cases, moms talked about ways the system helped them. I think the question is: Can we do that without separating families? Can we support moms in their parenting without a punitive approach? 

Q: When they did use services, were the services mandated or voluntary?

A: Most parents I talked with were not currently under CPS supervision, so technically they were voluntary. But moms understood the potential consequences if they did not accept “voluntary” services. In Rhode Island, for lower risk cases, CPS may refer you to case management and voluntary services. Some of the moms understood it was technically voluntary, but felt that if they didn’t participate, child welfare would stay in their life, so  their best option was to accept the services from community agencies. Sometimes, moms continued services even if they felt they weren’t that helpful because they felt it would look bad if they didn’t. Low-income moms have to be very aware of what other people think of their parenting. In addition to thinking, “What is the thing I can do that is the best for my child?” they’re also thinking, “What is the thing I can do so other people know I’m an adequate parent?” 

Q: How can fear of CPS impact family well being?

A: CPS doesn’t like to think of itself as a threatening institution, but they are experienced that way by mothers. When we link supports to this threatening institution that can remove your children, families who are struggling with homelessness, housing or food insecurity, or domestic violence, may not share that information with service providers. It sometimes cuts them off from support. For example, housing was the most common challenge that parents mentioned. Moms talked about not wanting to go to shelters because they were worried the shelters would call CPS. 

Q: How can we help families get the support and resources they need? What is missing from the system?

A: Research shows that for low-income families, providing additional income reduces the likelihood of CPS reports. Increasing material resources for low-income families is essential. Also, service providers should listen to parents accessing their services to learn how service providers could do things differently. For example, sometimes moms felt there was a disconnect and that providers didn’t understand their lives — providers are often White, live in affluent communities, and don’t have personal experience with CPS. So they may be asking questions they feel are benign, but may not understand how low-income parents might interpret these questions as threatening or judgmental. Relatedly, it’s important for social services and child welfare systems to value the experience of those impacted. This includes supporting peer advocates, who are often able to build more trusting relationships with parents, as well as bringing parents more centrally into leadership and decision making roles.

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