Motherhood in the Shadow of Child Protective Services: Dr. Kelley Fong, author of Investigating Families

‘By relying on CPS to respond to issues of poverty and adversity, we’re creating a heightened sense of insecurity for families that’s counterproductive to everything we know about family well-being.’

For her book Investigating Families published this fall, Dr. Kelley Fong, a professor at University of California, Irvine, followed along on more than 100 CPS investigations, interviewing many of the hotline callers, investigators and parents. Her research documented how CPS is called on to play a role outside its mandate, funding and structure, and how state intervention violates norms of family privacy and sanctity in a way that makes family life more precarious. Here, Kelley explains her research process and findings.

Q: How did you land on studying investigations, which haven’t been the focus of a lot of research?

A: Understandably, there’s been a lot of attention to family separation. It’s the most extreme intervention that the system does, or even one of the most extreme things that our government does. But I was really struck by how much broader CPS’s reach extends.

Around the time that I started graduate school, research was coming out looking at national administrative data that showed just how expansive this system has become, particularly for Black and Native American families. When one in two Black children experiences a CPS investigation at some point during childhood, we should all take a step back and think about how this is not just about a few “bad apple” parents, as it’s often characterized. This is a system that is really broadly intervening in American family life.

Just as we would think about the criminal legal system not only in terms of incarceration but also policing, it’s essential to understand investigations as a central part of the CPS system.

Q: You talked with reporters, investigators and parents. What would you say you learned about people who call the hotline?

A: Reporters are often mandated reporters – teachers, doctors, police officers and others encountering children in a professional capacity – and they’re often in a bind, where they are working with children and families that they’re concerned about and don’t always have what they need to make the changes in these families’ circumstances that they would like to. So for frontline professionals who are overwhelmed, and who have limited resources at their disposal, CPS is kind of a catch-all where they can send families and know that someone will follow up. CPS will go out and visit the home and talk with the family and see what they might need.

Some of the appeal of CPS also stems from an interest in fixing families, or rehabilitating families—an idea that what families need, particularly families of color and low-income families, is some other authority or entity to go in and fix some aspect of what they’re doing.

A lot of mandated reporters are looking for that stick, that authority that CPS has. They are aware of the fact that CPS terrifies families and are kind of using that and thinking, “This will ultimately be in the family’s best interest. They need a little bit of that ‘tough love.’” This is some of how we get the inequality that we see in reports from mandated reporters, because for many of them, that is a way of thinking about families of color and low-income families that feels more natural compared with affluent white families. With affluent white families, reporters might recognize that something needs to change, but they don’t necessarily think that the family needs an external authority to go and tell them to change. They trust that the family, given the information or given resources, will do what’s best for their children without an agency like CPS.

Q: What did you learn about investigators?

A: For investigators, one of the things that came through was their belief that many of the cases that come their way don’t necessarily need a child protection intervention. And by that I mean an intervention that is, essentially, focused on identifying candidates for foster care—identifying families whose children may need to be removed for extreme safety reasons.

Oftentimes, they would get reports and say, “I don’t know why this was called in. This was clearly a misunderstanding.” Or, “This teacher could have handled this in some other way.” Instead, they had to go out and do a full surveillance treatment, asking a ton of questions about all aspects of families’ lives and calling teachers and doctors and others. They have to do a quite intensive intervention even when that initial call might have just been a teacher making a judgment about a family or misunderstanding what CPS might be able to do.

Q: In the book, you described that people are calling about families with needs, but that the CPS lens is a lens of risks, and that that shifts things for families. Can you talk about those two different frames?

A: CPS likes to think about itself as a helping agency, and they do provide a lot of support to families when they can and that parents often appreciate. There were constantly emails around the offices where I shadowed, asking, “Does anyone have extra clothing for a baby? Does anyone have furniture that they might be able to donate to this family on our caseload?”

At the same time, at its core, this is an agency that is focused on child abuse and neglect—on things that parents are doing wrong. That is inherent to what the agency does. It’s inescapable. So that support also comes tethered to identification of the parent as potentially abusive or neglectful.

As a result, some parents told me, for instance, that they didn’t ask for things that they needed, like beds for their children, because they didn’t want to seem like they needed CPS to continue to be involved in their life. CPS is an agency with the power to take their kids. They wanted CPS to get out of their life as soon as possible.

And from the caseworker perspective, whose job it is to identify abuse, neglect and the risk of abuse or neglect, all of the needs that families have become sort of warped into risks. When a family is homeless, CPS caseworkers recognize that that’s a need that the family has. At the same time, their training and their job is organized around seeing homelessness as a risk for child abuse and neglect, which it may very well be. There’s research suggesting that. When we have CPS as the agency involved with families experiencing these kinds of needs, they are seen as risks to their children, rather than as families in need of essential supports.

Q: Your book argues that investigations alone have lasting impacts on parents. What did you see?

A: For mothers, the thing that came across was how significant these encounters with CPS were even if they didn’t go any further. So even if CPS determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to confirm abuse or neglect and closed the case, as is typical, moms talked about the ways that the investigation really stayed with them. Not only the surveillance and the immediate fear and apprehension in the moment of, “My child might get taken away.” But also a general sense of unease, which I think about as “precarity” in the book.

Precarity is a sense of vulnerability, insecurity, unease, shakiness. The sense that your family life is not entirely up to you, that there’s some other authority in charge that can come into your private and personal space at any time, for pretty much any reason, and disrupt everything that you’ve been thinking of as almost sacred. Suddenly someone is coming in and communicating—even if they don’t say it out loud—that someone else is going to decide whether or not your family stays together.

Often, folks think about precarity in terms of precarious employment, precarious housing. Meaning that your job or housing situation might not be secure and stable. With CPS, there’s something even more fundamental at stake: your family, your children. When I asked parents about the experience of being investigated by CPS, one of them said, “It’s like walking on a tightrope.” That’s the experience that I hope comes through in the book—that by relying on CPS to respond to issues of poverty and adversity, we’re creating that heightened sense of insecurity for families. 

The thing with CPS is that, certainly there are policy and practice guidelines, but with both reporting and investigations, things are quite discretionary, quite murky. There’s a lot of shadowy power that the system has. You can’t know for sure who will turn you in or what CPS could just decide about your family on a whim. Especially for parents who are accustomed to systems batting them around, they can’t trust that CPS will see things the way that they see them.

This experience of insecurity really fuels other enduring forms of precarity, as families don’t know who they can trust. They might not want to open up about challenges that they’re facing, for instance, for fear of a CPS report. That can exacerbate this sense of isolation and adversity. That’s counterproductive to everything we know about how to promote child and family well-being.

People’s everyday interactions with state systems also inform their understandings of justice, inequality and the state. Parents I followed encountered a system that they felt disregarded what they had to say, set impossible and ever-changing expectations, had no interest in advocating for them or their family’s interests, that was always against them. They didn’t feel that anyone was on their side. And some parents told me things like, “I won’t go into the welfare office. It’s all part of one big system and they’re against me, just like CPS.”

We know that children and families do best when they’re part of communities where families can have strong social connections, strong institutional connections, trusting relationships with those that are involved in their lives, and can ask for help when they’re facing challenges. We have a pretty weak social safety net, so I’m not going to pretend that, if only families asked for help, everything would magically be better. At the same time, real resources are sometimes available. When parents are making very understandable decisions not to take the risk of seeking support because of the potential for family separation, they also may be closed off from potential resources and potential social and institutional connections.

Q: Your book isn’t prescriptive, but based on what you witnessed, what policies do you imagine could help and what kinds of things do you see happening that you feel hopeful about?

A: I feel extremely hopeful. Every week I hear about some advocacy or organizing, some new initiative happening somewhere in the country to shift our investments towards a more truly supportive response to families facing adversity.

We can think about where to go next in terms of things to walk back and things to walk forward.

In terms of things to walk back, what I learned from the research and what folks around the country have been saying, is that so many situations that are handled by CPS can be handled in other ways. I would like to see those situations moved out of CPS so that families don’t need to have this traumatizing experience.

I have reservations about efforts to expand CPS, to cement it as a vehicle to funnel support to families. Many of the mandated reporters I spoke with tried to pin their hopes on CPS as this catch-all agency where, whatever families need, CPS can get it if it’s there. But the research shows that providing support within this CPS package can be counterproductive. Even if CPS is providing support, the immense power they have, their focus on abuse and neglect—it overwhelms everything.

We also need guardrails to curb mandated reporters’ more paternalistic or punitive impulses. Right now, mandated reporting is like a guardrail on one side. We’ve created this guardrail because we’re worried about situations of abuse and neglect that might not get reported, so there’s a law that says that you must report if you suspect abuse or neglect. There are other guardrails we could think about, like different screening practices, to try to reduce the likelihood that calls driven by paternalistic or punitive impulses are not filtered to CPS.

In terms of things to walk forward, the necessary counterpart is building out these other parts of our society. We don’t have the safety net we need. This isn’t just about kind professionals creating friendlier spaces to get help. It will really require redistribution.

When I talked with mothers about what they’d like to see, they’re not looking for charity. Parents are asking for what they deserve. Real resources and investments in community institutions, in schools, parks, afterschool programs, libraries. All of those investments are not typically considered “child protection” work. I would like us to think about that work as child protection work, because it is. It feels like every week I’m seeing a new research study connecting these kinds of community supports to reductions in abuse and neglect and to improvements in family well-being.