Vol. 17, No. 1 • November 2012

CPS: Implications for Foster Parents

Some people dream of visiting Vegas or the casinos in Cherokee and striking it rich. Foster parents are gamblers of a different kind. Rather than betting money on the slots, foster parents risk their time, resources, and love in the hope of winning a better life for foster children.

Clearly, it's a risk worth taking. Under their attentive care, foster children often stabilize, grow, and blossom. By opening their homes foster parents give families time to heal and reunite, and they make it possible for new families to form through adoption. Every day, foster parents put themselves and their families on the line, and our society benefits.

Yet some foster parents are unaware of all the risks they take. Although no one goes into fostering blind--to become a licensed foster parent in North Carolina one must have 30 hours of preparatory training--many foster parents never realize how vulnerable they are until someone alleges they have abused or neglected their foster children. To be prepared to face this challenge, they must understand the implications child protective services (CPS) investigations have for foster parents.

Always a Possibility
Being investigated by CPS is a real possibility for every foster parent. According to the NC Division of Social Services (2012) foster parents are more than twice as likely as other people to be the subject of a CPS investigation. Most of these investigations do not result in a finding of abuse or neglect. Indeed, allegations of abuse and neglect by foster parents are found to be unsubstantiated (that is, untrue) at least as often as are allegations against other parents and caretakers.

Yet some children are maltreated while in foster care. During 2009-10 a total of 14,056 children spent some time in foster care in our state. Of these, 21 (0.15%) were maltreated by "substitute care providers," a category that includes foster parents, residential care providers, and child care providers (Duncan, et al., 2012). Though it accounts for only a small portion of child maltreatment, this figure is alarming simply because foster care is a place where children should be safe.

Why do some foster parents abuse and neglect foster children? There can be many reasons. For example, the exceptional stresses involved in fostering may be too much for some individuals or families, especially in cases where foster parents are overburdened by several children with serious difficulties. Insufficient training and support from DSS can contribute to these situations. In other instances, children who want to provoke an abusive reaction from their foster parents may succeed in causing a foster parent to lose self-control. Another factor can be DSS's lack of information about a child at the time of placement, which can cause foster parents to accept responsibility for a child when, had they known all the facts, they would have known they could not handle the child.

Most Investigations Unsubstantiated
For every abusive foster parent there are many more who are reported to have maltreated their foster children even though they have not done so.

Foster parents may be at greater risk than others of being reported to CPS without good cause. The NC Division of Social Services (2012) explains some of the reasons for this. For example, children who have experienced abuse and neglect, as well as the uncertainties and insecurities of years in foster care--often with many moves--may be wounded in ways that influence their behavior. These children may use an allegation to get out of a placement, as an act of revenge, as a way of distancing themselves from caretakers because they fear intimacy or are unable to trust, or because they believe an investigation of foster parents will enable them to return to their biological parents.

Reports of abuse may also stem from a general misunderstanding of foster parents and their role. Many people outside the child welfare system do not understand why someone would choose to be a foster parent, especially for children with difficult behaviors or disabilities. Some community members, well-intentioned but uninformed and suspicious of foster parents' motives, may make baseless reports to DSS.

Birth parents are another possible source of maltreatment allegations. They may report their child's foster parents out of jealousy, resentment, or as a way to justify their own past behavior.

One Foster Parent's Story

In many ways, foster parent Carol Nixon's experience of being investigated for child abuse is classic. It began with misinformation: when a brother and sister were placed in her home she asked that agency if the children had a history of sexual abuse, and she was told they did not. She later learned they had been severely sexually abused.

After the boy moved from her home to a pre-adoptive placement he claimed, possibly as an attempt to sabotage the adoption, that he had raped Nixon's 3-year-old foster son while staying at her home. When the boy's therapist called to tell her about this allegation, Nixon knew it was impossible based on the details in the boy's story. Despite this, she had the 3-year-old examined by a doctor, who found no evidence of abuse. To keep them fully informed, Nixon told DSS about the allegations.

Soon after, she received a letter informing her that because she and her husband may have allowed this sexual assault to happen they would be investigated for child neglect. When she called her DSS to find out what was going on, her licensing worker, the person she was closest to at the agency, told her she could not speak with her about the case. The worker explained later that, based on its interpretation of NC policy, her county DSS prohibited licensing workers from having contact with foster parents undergoing CPS investigation.

Nixon and her husband felt powerless, confused, and uninformed about the investigative process. "Worst of all," she says, "the people at my county DSS didn't tell me they were going to abandon me. I was left with no support."

In keeping with NC policy, the CPS unit from another county DSS conducted the investigation. "It was pure hell, what we went through," Nixon says. "I was crying all the time for months. We knew we had done nothing wrong, but we felt like bad parents."

It was some comfort, Nixon says, that the CPS worker was gracious and kind. When the investigator left she told Nixon, "You have nothing to worry about." It also seemed a positive sign that, during the investigation, her agency did not remove the foster children from her home.

Though the investigation, which took months to complete, cleared Nixon and her husband of child neglect, she was still very angry with her county DSS. "I was so angry I couldn't even look at them--it was eating me alive. I seriously considered not fostering anymore." She was upset that she was denied access to the final report that cleared her name. The thing she was most angry about, though, "was the fact that I was completely abandoned by the agency when I needed support the most, and that I had not been told this would happen if an investigation occurred."

In the end Nixon decided to continue fostering on the condition that all future MAPP training in her county strongly emphasized the risks of false allegations foster parents face and the procedure agencies must follow when a report against a foster home is accepted. Her agency continued to place children in her home.

CPS Procedures
All North Carolina foster parents should understand CPS policies and procedures. Below is a brief overview, but we encourage you to learn more by following the links we give and by talking to your licensing worker.

Steps/Issues in a CPS Investigation

  • The report must meet the state's legal definitions of abuse, neglect, or dependency. If it does not, no investigation occurs.
  • For reports of abuse, an investigative assessment must be initiated by the county receiving the report within 24 hours; for cases of neglect or dependency, the county must initiate an investigation within 72 hours. Initiation includes face-to-face contact with all children living in the home.
  • CPS must interview people thought to know about the alleged maltreatment.
  • After information-gathering, CPS decides whether the foster family harmed the child through their action or inaction. This is where a case decision is made whether to substantiate the allegation.
  • CPS reports the outcome of the investigation to the Central Registry and, in the case of a substantiation, other parties.
  • If the decision is made to substantiate, the licensing worker and CPS worker visit the foster parent to explain the decision.

For greater detail about this process, consult pages 14-16 and 19-25 of the jurisdiction chapter in NC's Children's Services Manual <http://bit.ly/Tc1aSb>. See also chapter 8 of the Supplemental Guide to Foster Home Licensing <http://bit.ly/QPpOLA>.

If You Are Investigated by CPS
If your county DSS is your supervising agency, another DSS will conduct the investigation. It is a conflict of interest for your supervising agency to conduct the investigation.

Cooperate with both your supervising agency and the investigating agency to complete the investigation and resolve issues of concern.

  • Ask about the allegations and the process of the investigation until you understand to your satisfaction. It may help to write down answers to your questions.
  • Ensure you and all children living in your home are interviewed by CPS. These interviews are required, since all children living in a residence are considered alleged victim children. This includes your own children. Interviews may be held in private.
  • Allow CPS to visit your home. Law, policy, and administrative code require this.
  • Make any records or documentation you have kept concerning the child available to social workers.
  • Do not attempt to have the child examined by a doctor or other professional without the agency's authorization.
  • Do not "investigate" the allegations on your own by questioning the child.
  • Provide a list of collateral contacts and witnesses the social worker may interview to gather all relevant information about your situation or the alleged incident of maltreatment.

Know and exert your rights as you deem necessary.

  • Consult an attorney.
  • Document or record interviews and conversations with CPS workers.
  • Have a witness present during every contact with the investigating social worker. It may be helpful if this witness is well-respected in your community.
  • Request copies of safety, risk, and strengths and needs assessments completed by the social worker.

Take care of yourself and your family.

  • Call for support from your local, state, or national foster parent association.
  • Join a support group or seek the emotional support of others (including professional counselors) as needed.
  • Use your licensing social worker as a source of support and information.

Remember this is not a "win-lose" situation and DSS is not your adversary. Together you can partner to maintain foster children in a safe, nurturing, permanent home.

Tips for Foster Parents on Protecting Themselves from Allegations of Child Maltreatment
  • Before a child is placed in your home, write the placing agency and specifically ask that any history of physical or sexual abuse of the child be documented in writing. If the child has had several foster care placements, ask whether the child has ever made an unsubstantiated report against a caretaker. Insist on a written response. Keep this response for your records.
  • Insist on written placement agreements. Do not accept a child into your home without a placement agreement stipulating the agency's expectations, roles, goals, plans, and information on the child.
  • Develop a pre-placement "questionnaire" to be answered before you accept a child into your home. Information you should collect includes: the reason the child is in foster care, a description of the environment in the child's home at the time of removal, whether the child has been sexually abused, the child's previous history and experiences in foster care, the status of the child's siblings, words or behaviors to which the foster family should be sensitive, etc.
  • Keep written records. Take notes on the child's progress and daily events in your home in a spiral notebook. Entries should consist of descriptive observations, not opinion ("His temperature was 102.5," not, "He was very hot"). Use a new page for each entry, put a date at the top, and mark through the rest of the page at the end of the entry. Always keep a copy of materials you share with your agency.
  • Build a relationship with birth parents. Developing a positive, respectful relationship may reduce the chances that they will make baseless allegations against you. A good way to demonstrate respect is to ask for birth parents' advice as a means of giving them back some control--for example, ask them about the child's food preferences, or how they prepare the child's favorite meals.
  • Be part of the team serving the child. Get to know the names and contact information of other team members. Let DSS know when you have had difficulty with a child or the child is sick or injured in any way--this is especially important prior to family visits, when birth parents are most likely to raise allegations.
  • If a child is sexually reactive, acts out sexually, or has provocative behavior, adults and older children in the household should always be sure to have another adult nearby or in the same room for the protection of the parent and the child.
  • Children who have been sexually abused can be more likely to become victims again. Even if a child has a history of making unsubstantiated reports, always take new allegations seriously. The child may be a victim of sexual abuse again.


When Investigated, Don't Assume . . .
  • "I'll automatically lose my license."
    Only after a case decision has been made is it possible to determine whether the foster home will remain licensed and available to receive children.
  • "If I give all the children back to the agency it will close the investigation."
    All aspects of the investigative assessment must be completed once a CPS report is accepted for investigative assessment. Once initiated, both law and NC administrative code require that investigative assessments be thorough. It is not possible to meet this requirement if components of an investigative assessments are omitted.
  • "All the children will be removed from my home, including my biological children."
    Removal of a child from the foster home is not an automatic step. Removal of the child should occur only when risk of harm to the child is greater than the positive strengths of that child's relationship to the placement providers.
  • "The agency that licensed me will investigate."
    To avoid conflicts of interest, CPS investigations of foster families may not be conducted by the county department of social services that supervises the foster family.

Source: NCDSS, 2012

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~