Editor’s note: The names of the CPS-involved moms have been changed to pseudonyms at their request in order to tell their stories.
Ruby has an idea who called Child Protective Services on her – either her ex, or else a woman she’d confronted about providing alcohol to teens in town, after Ruby had encountered a group of young people drunk on the street.
But there’s no way to know for sure. The single mom in Walden, Orange County, came home one day last spring to find a business card from CPS in her mailbox. When she called the number, she discovered that they’d been trying to track her down for over a month.
“They told me the accusation was that I was doing and selling a white powdery substance in front of my children. I even acknowledged to them: Do I drink sometimes? Yes. Do I smoke marijuana sometimes? Absolutely. I’ve never done – and this is God’s honest truth – but I’ve never done any other drug in my life,” said Ruby, a professional in her mid-thirties who is mixed-race.
‘I don’t really know who’s looking’
The whole thing felt bizarre, starting with the fact that CPS seemed to be acting on such spotty information. First, it took them six weeks to find her house, even though she is well known in her small town and the caller’s allegations involved what Ruby was supposedly doing out of her home. Second, they were only aware of her 9-year-old daughter; she filled them in that she also had an 11-year-old son.
“I understand why they can’t tell me, but they couldn’t tell me who called, so I couldn’t really back up why the person would have called,” she said. “So I just had to kind of give CPS my life’s story.”
Though shrouded in stigma, this scenario is not at all uncommon. Child protective services across the nation investigate the family lives of about one of every 20 American kids every year. More than one in three children will be the subject of an investigation by the time they turn 18. The stream of reports is now so vast, and so unevenly applied, that more than half of Black children will go through it.
Ruby had to alert her ex and her boss that they might receive a call because she was under investigation by CPS. “It kind of makes you feel a little bit trashy, you know?” said Ruby.
The worst part was sitting her kids down to explain the allegations. Someone was going to come over to make sure they were happy, healthy and safe, she told them. “I had to explain to the children: listen, they’re going to come in here and they have to basically prove I’m fit to be your mom, you know?” she recalled. “So that put them on edge for a few months.
“They thought it was blasphemous,” said Ruby, of her kids. “Especially because I’m a safe haven for most of the kids in town anyways. They were more concerned that they were going to get taken away, even if it was just for a short time while CPS figured out what was going on.”
The stress and inconvenience of child abuse investigations – even in the four-fifths of cases that are determined to be unfounded – can have long-reaching consequences, including social stigma; nightmares, trauma, anxiety and feelings of helplessness for parents and children; lost days of work that can, for the precariously employed, lead to job loss; fractured family bonds and disenfranchisement.
Parents who’ve been the subject of child abuse investigations are less likely to seek services in the future, like prenatal care or an emergency room visit for a kid who took a tumble.
The toll is often borne by families that don’t have the luxury of a lot of flexibility or support, like Ruby’s single-parent household. “Because my kids have different fathers, I had to make arrangements with their fathers so the kids could be here. My kids are getting older now, they have their own schedules,” said Ruby. Initially, CPS had wanted to do the follow-up visit on Halloween, said Ruby, who told them that her kids really wanted to trick-or-treat.
Ruby wasn’t really worried. After all, she was the kind of mom who posted the week’s menu on the fridge and was active in the community, where she’d lived since high school. Still, she was concerned enough that she asked friends in prominent positions in town to write recommendation letters for her, “as far as they’ve seen me out in the community with my children, what they’ve witnessed, would they allow me to watch their children, things of that nature.”
No parent is perfect, and increasingly, Ruby’s self-perceived flaws began to appear to her as if through a magnifying glass. “It made me look at myself personally, to see how I could be better. And how other people could perceive me to be not great. It really does make you take a hard look at yourself. As far as bedtimes – I was a little lax with that before. Now 9:30, you have to be in bed. There’s just certain things like that as far as structure. We have to be a little more cut-and-dried now, instead of having the bit of leniency we did before, because I don’t really know who’s looking.”
She used to occasionally let her son, who had trouble getting up at 7 to make the 7:44 a.m. middle school bus, sleep in a bit. No more. “Now it’s just like, oh, no, dude, you gotta get to school, you gotta get up, where before it would be like oh I’ll drive you in, you’re 10 minutes late, whatever. I don’t feel I can do that anymore.”
Being told: ‘We just need to do this’
At the caseworker’s visit in the spring, “they didn’t seem too concerned.” Ruby, her two kids and the caseworker sat at the kitchen table and talked. Then Ruby’s 9-year-old, “a bit of a spitfire,” asked the caseworker, didn’t she need to talk to her alone? (not unless the girl wanted to), then voluntarily took the woman to see her room.
When CPS returned for the second interview in the fall to close the case, “they basically were like: we don’t feel like we have anything to worry about, we just need to do this.”
Even so, the specter loomed over the family all summer. “I had to make sure my house was perfectly clean. I mean of course it wasn’t perfectly clean, it was lived in, but still, you don’t know what someone who’s coming into your house is judging you on, you know? So it was a little bit stressful, telling the kids, you know, make sure your room’s picked up, make sure your room’s clean, you can’t leave anything out,” said Ruby.
“It did kind of help me out a little bit, kept my house clean because they’d be like you can’t make a mess, what if the lady shows up and sees the mess?” she laughed. “I almost didn’t want to tell them it was over. Gotta keep your room clean, all the time.”
The worst-case outcome of a child abuse investigation, losing your kids, is not as unthinkable as it used to be. In fact, the woman whom Ruby suspected of calling CPS on her had lost custody of her own child that way – something to do with drugs, Ruby thinks. The likelihood that a child will experience the loss of their legal relationship with their parents roughly doubled from 2000 to 2016. These days, 1 in 100 children will experience this parental loss.
Even after receiving a letter saying her case was closed, Ruby’s dynamic remains more buttoned-up – whether for better or worse, she can’t say. “We’ve been minding our Ps and Qs. We’ve changed our lifestyle a little bit.” She’s doing her best to adhere to social norms, “to not cause any waves where this has to happen again. Because regardless of whether my case is closed or not, I’m still on probation for at least I think another year and a half or so. If I get another call into CPS on me, then not only is the active case active, they have rights to reopen old cases, which could be a whole whirlwind on me.”
Before, she had been “the residential aunt of my community,” her door open to young people who needed a couch to crash on at any hour. Now, there are a select few she’ll let come over, but they have to text her by 9 p.m. “A lot of them are teenagers, and I don’t know if they’re doing drugs or they’re drinking or whatever, but it just kind of made us fear for our safety to have them in our home, knowing that someone can call CPS on us,” she said.
‘No skin in the game’
Ruby appreciates the need for CPS. “I can’t knock it completely, because I hope that if my kids were in a very harmful environment, I hope someone would check,” she said. Her main complaint, echoed by all three moms interviewed for this piece, is that there is no accountability required of the person who reports the abuse – “no skin in the game,” as another mom put it.
New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among many states where anyone can call in an allegation of child abuse anonymously. Legislative pushes to dial back the resulting imbalance haven’t gone anywhere; being seen as soft on child abuse is a political non-starter. A bill introduced in New York in 2017 to establish civil penalties for knowingly making a false report; and another to require callers to provide their name and contact information in 2021, both stalled.
“I understand that people call in anonymously, but if I call in anonymously because I saw a fender-bender, they’re going to want to know the make and model of that car, they’re going to want to know a description of people involved. So especially when you’re dealing with someone’s family life, their home style, their professional life at that point and their social standing, I feel like more questions should be warranted,” said Ruby. “Anybody that gets angry at anybody seems to be able to just make an anonymous call saying hey, you need to watch this person. And all of a sudden we’re on a watch list from a call that could have been from somebody shady, you know, that had a vendetta.”
A culture of surveillance
There’s nothing new about the overzealous or even vengeful CPS call. It has long been the American way. “I think it’s deeply ingrained in our culture – a culture of surveillance and intervention,” said Mical Raz, a Rochester, N.Y.-based doctor, history professor and author of Abusive Policies: How the American Child Welfare System Lost its Way (2020). “This really has been a longstanding problem in our community and in our culture, which is a culture that’s deeply individualistic, antagonistic, quick to involve a coercive power and kind of slow to provide help to those that are struggling.”
It’s been a half-century since a pediatrician coined the medical condition “battered-child syndrome,” prompting Congress to pass the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. In that time, Americans have come to see a call to CPS as the appropriate response not only to severe abuse of children but to any number of scenarios, from kids left in the car while a parent dashes into the store to a child who goes to bed hungry.
Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, considered a right-wing thought leader, voiced that point of view on his political podcast in March.
“School lunches are not going to solve the problem of child hunger on any serious level. If there is a problem with children actually starving, that is a child endangerment scenario in which CPS needs to be called,” said the former editor of Breitbart News. “The truth it does not take that much money to feed kids. I know ... I have three of them.”
A call to CPS has even turned into a retaliatory or strategic move, pulled out in the heat of ugly divorce proceedings or custody battles. Though it’s impossible to say how often this happens, in a recent survey of 15 social workers and attorneys, all of them said they had seen false reports play out multiple times.
Amy’s story: ‘He can just use you guys to get to me’
“Are you joking? Why would you do that?” Amy recalls responding when her ex told her that he’d called CPS on her – again. It was their 8-year-old daughter who was going to suffer, she said. “She’s going to get questioned. She’s going to be made to feel like there’s a problem when there is no problem.”
After seeing a six-pack of beer in the trunk of Amy’s car two days in a row, and hearing from their daughter that Amy had a dartboard in her new house, Justin had called CPS to report Amy as negligent.
Amy, 39, a white, middle-class single mom who lives with her daughter and boyfriend in Monroe, N.Y., believes the call was “100% vengeful. He couches it in a, you know, a concerned parent way, but it seems to be a tool that he pulls out when he feels threatened by me or by my life.”
When she left Justin in 2019, “he tried to get me arrested for pot. And when I move in with my boyfriend in December, all of a sudden he calls social services because he thinks I’m partying too much.
“I’ve kind of gotten to the point where I’ve realized I’d have to be doing pretty bad things for someone to take my kid away,” said Amy. “But when social services first started getting involved in our situation, I was, like, super-scared. I was crying all night, worried that somebody can just decide to take my kid away. It’s very hard to prove that you’re, like, a good person without sounding insincere,” she said.
The first time – when Justin called the cops to report that Amy had marijuana in the house – CPS had come to the house. Amy and Justin had both been questioned and drug-tested and come up negative, and that, she figured, was that.
Now, three years later, she had to start back at square one. First came a half-hour phone conversation with the caseworker. “Once she found out what I did for a living, she was like there’s no way that you would be able to be a fall-down drunk and do what you do every day for work,” said Amy, who works in a pivotal role at a small company. Then the caseworker came to the house, asking her daughter “a bunch of questions about me, like if I had bottles around the house all the time, if she felt like I wasn’t taking care of her, whatever.”
A second visit followed, with the caseworker accompanied by a drug analyst, who decided that a drug test was not necessary. But if they were to receive another accusation in the next month, they told Amy, then they would automatically have to drug test her.
“That didn’t happen, but I was very worried that he could easily have done that,” said Amy, of her ex. Finally, Amy got the case-closed letter.
The experience wasn’t all bad. It was confusing for her daughter to be caught between her parents’ opposing version of events and to be forced to talk about it with a stranger.
Still, “I think it was good talking to a third person about things. They brought up the possibility of therapy, you know, which is probably good. She’s old enough that she knows what’s going on to a certain degree,” said Amy. The caseworker ended up also talking to Justin about his own behavior toward his daughter, said Amy, something to the effect that he was asking his daughter too many questions and making her uncomfortable.
Still, the whole ordeal felt like a violation, on repeat. “It just felt like I had to explain myself to people as if they were my parent, you know?” No matter how upstanding, how worthy of being a mother to her gifted-and-talented daughter she proves herself to be, there is no way to prevent this same scenario from playing out again and again.
“I asked them flat out,” she said, “This is kind of ridiculous, because he can just use you guys to get to me, because he’s angry or jealous of my relationship or whatever. And they said yeah, pretty much. They were like, ‘If somebody calls we have to check it out. We can’t turn people away. If it became a constant thing it would suck for us as the social worker, because we have to fill out this paperwork and do a ton of stuff, we would probably be getting angry at him. But there wouldn’t be anything we could do to stop him from doing that,’” the caseworker told her.
“The social workers, they were very nice,” said Amy. “They’re always very nice. It’s their job to make you feel comfortable and like they’re your friend. I had to keep telling myself – this person is not my friend. They’re doing a job. They’re looking for something.”
Patricia’s story: ‘I didn’t know what the game was’
It’s been more than 18 years since the evening a state trooper knocked on Patricia’s door in Wallkill, N.Y. They’d just gotten home from one of the kids’ activities – dance or Scouting. Her kids, 13 and 9, were getting ready for bed, and she was in the kitchen preparing their lunches for the next day.
“When you see the police through that little thing, you’re thinking, Well what’s this about? It can’t be me. I opened the door and it’s me,” said Patricia, a soft-spoken, churchgoing white woman who spent long hours at work, where she was bootstrapping her way up the corporate ladder.
“I still had my work clothes on, I was making lunches, I had stuff on the counter,” said Patricia. She counts that as a stroke of luck, since the accusations she was about to discover had been leveled against her were severe enough that her kids could have been taken into protective custody on the spot.
“The only thing that helped was my kids and I, we didn’t look like anything was going wrong,” she said. “I’m sure if I was having a bad day or I looked disheveled it could have gone terribly wrong.”
Her husband, who had recently packed up, cleared out his bank account and left the family, and then served her with divorce papers, had now alleged that she locked their children up and physically and verbally abused them – or something. “I don’t know if that’s exactly what he said because you just get told some bits and pieces,” she said.
‘What if they took them?’
But what she heard of the allegations was enough that she understood why a cop had accompanied the social worker.
“My biggest fear in that moment was that my children would be someplace that I hadn’t vetted as appropriate,” said Patricia. “What if they took them? Who would get them? What kind of environment is that? What could happen? From the moment they were born, everything my children did, school activities – I volunteered so I was there. My son was 13 years old and I was volunteering so I was on premise with him,” she said. “This was a time I felt, Oh my God, my kids could be someplace and I don’t know what it is.”
After questioning Patricia and the kids separately, the authorities left, telling her to show up at 9 a.m. the next morning for court. What followed were a raft of court dates and obligations. The kids were required to testify to court-appointed advocates, something her daughter, 9, initially refused to do. Patricia attended mandated parenting classes in a meeting hall in Goshen the next two Saturdays, alongside mostly men who’d been bused in from prison. It was actually kind of helpful, she laughed. “It’s just that I didn’t like why I was there. But you know, I thought to myself, why aren’t all people going through this? Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us were instructed on what to do when buttons are pushed?”
Since she had decided to seek sole custody, Patricia crossed every T. She voluntarily sought counseling. For six months, she adhered to restrictions on how far she could travel, which kept her and her kids from visiting the lake in Pennsylvania where they liked to go on weekends.
‘I never will forget how scared I felt’
Letters of support started pouring in from her boss and colleagues and from her church congregation. “I still have a big pile of 40, 50 letters, of letters that people wrote on my behalf, saying that this is a ridiculous,” she said.
“Sometimes women in trouble don’t always have a network. I had a network: work, church, family, I had a counselor.
“What if I wasn’t able to do that? What if I didn’t know, what if I didn’t have money? I guess I was lucky in that sense, that I had a lot of touch points that helped me quickly resolve it,” she recalled. “But I never will forget how scared I felt.”
Patricia, the family’s primary breadwinner, would come to understand that her husband was playing a strategic game, probably angling to get better terms out of a divorce. “I didn’t think that was possible, but it isn’t atypical that people arguing or ending a marriage, that one might call on the other,” she said. “When things go bad, they go bad.”
So she would play the game – and she would win it.
In the end, Patricia ended up getting sole custody of the kids, with more strings attached. She was required, for instance, to write regular letters to her husband to inform him of how the kids were doing until they were 18. He never read them, he told her when he saw her at their daughter’s graduation – he didn’t have time.
Now that her kids are grown, she worries less. But she knows that she is changed, as are her kids. “The stigma of when you have to go to these kinds of things, that you’re someone broken, that you’ve done something wrong,” she said. “I think it does change you, there’s no doubt about it. I was never an anxious person. I am now. I’m a little more distrustful. I stand back a little bit from crowds. I always think what it in it for you? What do you want from me? What’s the end game?”
“The biggest thing out of all this is anxiety. I can see it in my children. My son tries to be perfect – a perfect person, perfect guy. Has relationship issues sometimes because of it,” she said. “My daughter is always saying she’s sorry. She beats herself up over the dumbest things.
“I think we all experienced that anxiety – what if,” Patricia added. “I wanted to always protect my children and I didn’t protect them from that. I didn’t know what the game was.”