How Do Families Experience and Interact with CPS?

AuthorDarcey H. Merritt
Published date01 November 2020
Date01 November 2020
ANNALS, AAPSS, 692, November 2020 203
DOI: 10.1177/0002716220979520
How Do
Experience and
Interact with
979520ANN The Annals Of The American AcademyHow do families experience and interact with cps?
The lived experiences of child protective services
(CPS)–involved parents is rarely considered from a
social justice perspective. Parents and children endure
the oversight of the child welfare system in myriad
ways, and these experiences usually vary based on race,
ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. This article explores
how CPS interactions affect family dynamics and well-
being and how family members view their experiences
with CPS, including their sense of autonomy and
empowerment. I focus on the inherent power dynamics
between CPS workers and parents, race and ethnicity,
and family. I highlight the perspectives of parents and
their intended (rather than unintentional) parental
behaviors (e.g., providing healthy food choices) to
understand ways in which their socioecological contexts
impact the well-being of their children. I report results
of a pilot study designed to enhance the voices of par-
ents in the literature and provide recommendations for
policy and practice that inform innovative solutions to
better support CPS-involved families.
Keywords: child welfare system; parents’ perspectives;
child protective services processes; minority
child; welfare families; low-income child
Research has documented few accounts of
the child welfare system from the perspec-
tives of families involved in the system. Child
protective services (CPS) is the “front-end” of
the child welfare system, where reports of abuse
and neglect are processed, maltreatment investi-
gations occur, and decisions about opening an
ongoing case are made. CPS is inherently coer-
cive, as family participation is usually compul-
sory or, at best, strongly encouraged, with the
Darcey H. Merritt is an associate professor at NYU
Silver School of Social Work. She studies parenting in
socioeconomic context, considering the impact of work-
ing memory on parental decision-making. She provides
empirical and meaningful knowledge to bolster the
well-being of children and families, through contribut-
ing their voices to the discussion of child maltreatment
prevention methods.
explicit or implicit threat of significant consequences, including removal of one’s
child from the home. Given the high stakes for CPS-involved families, we must
understand their experiences with this system and the ways in which they view it as
helpful or harmful. Yet very little in the literature has explored how families view
their CPS experiences and how their interactions with CPS impact their family
dynamics, well-being, and sense of autonomy and empowerment.
This article highlights the experiences of families and discusses the ways in
which schools work with the child welfare system to initiate families’ involvement
with CPS, sometimes in ways that can be detrimental to family well-being. I
describe and discuss the process of interacting with CPS, with attention to the
inherent power dynamics between CPS workers and parents, race and ethnicity,
and family context. Family context has great variation, a sampling of which
includes family composition (e.g., number of children, parents), family member
relationships, safe home environments, resource rich learning materials in the
home, pervasive food insecurities, substance use, and emotional/mental health
challenges or strengths.
I present a nuanced approach to understanding the experiences of these fami-
lies, an approach that considers parental intentions and perspectives. I present
results of a pilot study specifically designed to assess parental perspectives
regarding CPS involvement to bolster their lived experiences and add their voices
to the literature. Finally, I discuss future steps and recommendations for policy
and practice in an effort to move the conversation forward and adopt innovative
solutions that better support CPS-involved families, considering their often-
challenging circumstances.
The Impact of CPS
The United States has a storied history of discrimination, which continues to
manifest in structurally oppressive systems, including in many of our social and
human service agencies. Despite good intentions to protect children from harm,
the child welfare system is not an exception (Kriz and Skivenes 2011; Mixon-
Mitchell and Hanna 2017). Most parents consider their families to be sacredly
private and immune from oversight and intrusive judgment. But CPS services are
based on protocols designed by those in positions of power and privilege who
have not likely been subjected to authoritative involvement in their families and
may not have considered the impact of CPS on traditionally vulnerable popula-
tions, such as those who have repeatedly suffered from disenfranchisement, rac-
ism, and other forms of oppression. CPS services are inherently accusatorial, as
they are primarily initiated as a result of judgments about parenting efforts and
practices, made by authorities outside of family systems, such as educational
personnel (21 percent) and law professionals (19 percent) (U.S. Department of
Health & Human Services [USDHHS] 2020). Child welfare professionals have
the power to deem parenting appropriate or inappropriate, guided by state stat-
utes and system policies, but such judgements come with implicit biases at all

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