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Last year, nearly half a million reports of suspected child abuse or neglect were submitted to the state hotline, and more than 166,000 of those were investigated. Eventually, a small fraction – about 9,600 children – were driven from their homes.
In about 80% of the investigations, the allegations of abuse or neglect were unfounded. Parents involved in Child Protective Services cases should be appointed lawyers if they can’t afford it — and many of them can’t — but that only happens if the agency actually goes to court trying to remove a child from their home.
During the investigation phase, parents are subjected to careful scrutiny and may have to make important decisions that could significantly affect whether they keep or lose their children. But they have no legal aid, and many are clueless about their rights to the point where the stakes could not be higher for their families’ futures.
A bill introduced by State Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, aims to increase due process protections for parents involved in CPS cases. Frank, chairman of the Texas House Human Services Committee, which oversees the Department of Family and Protective Services, said he wants to reduce children being unnecessarily placed in an overburdened foster care system already under fire for letting down children entrusted to her care.
“We always want to make sure we remove children when they are in danger. But I think it’s becoming clear, in many cases, we remove the children and put them in worse situations than they were in,” Frank said. “It causes trauma to the child. It also causes a lot of extra work within the CPS that should be more suited to the most severe cases.If we’re not doing a great job with the most severe cases at all, we probably shouldn’t remove [children] on the margins”.
Frank’s House Bill 730 would require social workers to inform parents of their rights at the start of an investigation. Parents may have no idea why a child protective services social worker comes knocking on their door, although they can be confident that the social worker has received a report of abuse or neglect. The parent will not be told who called or what you said. Many reports come from teachers or medical professionals, but anyone can report a parent anonymously, and the parent will likely never find out who made the call.
Any survey involves, at a minimum, interviewing the child(ren) in the home and their parents or guardians. Many also include house searches, including medicine cabinets and refrigerators; interviews with neighbors and frequent visitors; and criminal background checks for every person over the age of 14 who lives there. A social worker can ask a judge for a court order requiring a parent to undergo a psychological evaluation or even access a parent’s medical records.
Parents have the right not to speak to CPS investigators and to deny them interviews with their children. But CPS can go directly to a child’s school and talk to children without parental consent. Parents often learn of a CPS survey when their children come home from school and tell them they’ve been interviewed.
If the bill passes, social workers should inform parents of their rights, including that they can refuse to share medical records or undergo drug tests and that they have the right to confer with a lawyer. If parents refuse to be interviewed or let social workers into their homes, the bill would also require the DFPS to show probable cause, one step up from the current “good cause” standard, to get an order of the court.
“Parents in this state have rights, both by law and by the constitution, but they are often not at all aware of what those rights are at this stage,” said Cindy Dyar, director of the Family Defense Project at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. “That’s why so many things happen at that stage that are uncontrolled—completely uncontrolled—and the things that happen are very concerning.”
The legislation would also place limits on “parents’ child safety plans,” under which CPS asks parents to voluntarily sign agreements for their children to be supervised by another guardian, usually a family member, instead of initiating a court case against the parents. Legal defendants have called these coercive arrangements, questioning how voluntary they can be if there is an implied threat to remove children into foster care. The bill would limit the validity period of a security plan like this one and would require the state to report every use of such arrangements.
Frank says the bill is the latest attempt by a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers to limit the reach of the scandal-plagued state foster care system. In 2021, during the last legislative session, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle passed a law that tightened the definition of neglect, resulting in fewer children being removed from their homes, Frank said.
The proposed changes reflect a broader push in jurisdictions across the country by focusing attention on whether child protection cases are held in civil court. Social workers often do things, like warrantless house searches, that are not allowed in criminal cases.
“The removal of a child is one of the strongest police actions we can take,” Frank said. “I mean, put me in jail for a year, don’t take my son away, right? Yet we have all kinds of checks and balances to staying in prison for any length of time. Rightly. We have checks and balances and we have due process. But the removal of the children? It has due process, but not as consistent.
A DFPS spokesperson declined to comment on the bill, but noted that the current handbook requires social workers to provide parents with guidance on the investigation process, which includes instructions on how to make complaints. Frank said better legal protections also benefit social workers, who often find themselves in difficult situations and could use clearer guidance for what the law allows. And those protections help not only parents, Frank said, but their children as well. “It’s not like, parent versus child,” Frank said. “We owe the child due process – in my view, this is as much child protection as it is parental protection.”
When Anita, who did not want her last name published due to the stigma attached to being involved in a CPS case, first met a CPS social worker, she was an overwhelmed young mother of several young children. The investigation led to a security plan, signed by Anita, which required her to let only authorized adults watch her children. At one point, needing to go to work or risking losing his job, she left the children with her father, who was not a legal guardian.
Anita said she didn’t realize her decision would take her children away. “They just come in and say all these things, and you don’t really know what they’re talking about,” she said. “They don’t actually go over the guidelines with you for this type of thing. So there was a lot of confusion on my part.
Anita was only appointed attorney after her children were estranged, well into her relationship with CPS. She followed through on her case plan and her children were returned to her care. But she still felt confused by what had happened. “At first I felt like I didn’t know my rights. And I didn’t learn them until after that whole experience,” she said.
The Family Defense Project, which focuses on early representation of affected parents, receives referrals from clients in the same 68-county area as its parent organization, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, and is one of the only organizations statewide focused on early defense for parents in cases of CPS. Dyer, the director, said there are many instances where a court case could have been avoided if only parents understood their rights first.
“People love to insert stereotypes and stuff like that about anyone involved with CPS — there’s a lot of, ‘Well, if you’ve got nothing to hide, why aren’t you cooperating?'” Dyar said. “And they really have no idea what it feels like to have, out of nowhere, CPS show up at your door.”