The Foster Care Crossroads

Part 1 of 3: When do you take a child away?


The desks at Child Protective Services are piled high with files that tell the stories of children suffering from neglect and abuse. The files record the countless times mothers have tried to beat a drug addiction in order to be able to keep her parental rights.

Eventually, every caseworker comes to a painful crossroads --whether or not to take a child from the home of his or her parents.


Mary Meyers, Child Protective Services unit supervisor in Payson, reviews case files for one of the more than 9,000 children in foster care in Arizona.

Removing a child from the home is the very last thing Child Protective Services wants to do, but they are often faced with no other alternative.

Mary Meyers, a CPS unit supervisor in Payson, said when a woman who has been using illegal drugs gives birth, her department is notified by the hospital. Often, the mother will admit to the drug usage.

She said CPS visits the home to determine if the house is ready for an infant. If the mother is addicted to methamphetamines, chances are good that the home will not be ready for a newborn.

FOSTER CARE SERIESToday: The social workers. How do you decide when it's time to take a child away.Friday, Nov. 24: The parents. How does it get this bad?Friday, Dec. 1: The foster families. What kind of person takes in other people's children?

She said mothers will make concessions in an attempt to keep their children, promising that as long as they are "dirty," they will not breastfeed their babies.

Before removing the infant from the home, CPS will look at who else lives with the parents or who could serve as a mentor for the child's well-being, such as a grandmother.

If CPS is forced to remove the child, they will try to place him or her with a relative rather than a foster home.

"We always look for someone," Meyers said.

Often, CPS does not come into a family's life when a child is born. If there are signs of drug addiction, mothers take their babies home and it isn't until a neighbor witnesses something troubling and calls the CPS hotline that a caseworker arrives to intervene.

As a rule, every call to the CPS hotline must be investigated.

Caseworkers have walked into homes and seen no food for the children and the mother passed out on the couch due to drug or alcohol abuse.

Karin Kline, who works in the CPS public information office in Phoenix, said many of the calls about children being abused come from teachers because they interact with children on a daily basis.

Meyers said CPS workers will take the child to a neutral location to talk to him or her. This discussion never takes place at the home.

After talking with the child, CPS will then talk to the parents, and at that time their rights and responsibilities will be read to them.

The parents will be told at this time how to file the proper paperwork.

She said if at all possible, CPS will try to leave the child in the home if the situation can be easily rectified.

If the child has an injury that is significant, and if it is determined to be caused by a parent, the child will be removed from the home immediately.

As an example, she pointed to case she worked on in California where the father used a belt on his son's back so hard that the man's name on the belt could be seen imprinted on the child's back.

She remembered the father saying he would do it again. That child was removed from the home.

CPS tries to respond to all allegations within 24 hours. Priority is given to cases where imminent danger is present. In those cases, workers will be at the home within two hours.

"Imminent danger" could be a 3-year-old left at home to fend for himself, or a child ending up in the hospital with a fractured skull.

The age of the child in question is taken into account. She said a messy house means different things for a teenager than a 2-year-old.

Often older children will be asked to help clean up the home, and if they're willing, none of the children will be removed.

Meyers said, when she approaches a home to determine the conditions, she expects a negative reaction from the parents. Telling the parents that she works for CPS will freak out 99 percent of them.

Kline said allegations of sexual abuse against a child by a parent are handled differently.

She said there will only be one physical and one interview for children who are suspected of being sexually abused.

CPS will not talk to the child much, but will observe the interviews that police conduct, and work with the Advocacy Center Against Domestic Violence.

Kline said abuse against a child can be in many different forms.

  • Neglect allegations make up 60 percent of the cases.
  • About 25 percent are for physical abuse.
  • Between 9 to 12 percent are for sexual abuse.
  • Emotional abuse makes up about 3 percent of the caseload.

Kline said the first thing that CPS will do when entering a home is to assess the situation to see if there is anything that could be done to make the child safe.

In some cases, the solution could be simply purchasing some food for the home.

CPS Public Information Officer Mary Brandenberger said CPS workers enter a home and assess what they see according to a minimum standard of care that the state mandates.

When CPS makes the determination that a child must be removed from the home, the child being removed often does not want to leave the parents, even if he or she is being beaten daily.

Parents, on the other hand, react with anger and frustration, and ask how the government can come in and take their child.

CPS will tell parents, workers will be back the next day to talk about the services needed so they can get their child back into the home.

The parent can appeal the decision with the Protective Services Review Team of the Division of Children, Youth and Families.

If the PSRT agrees with the CPS decision, a hearing will be scheduled for the person accused with the office of administrative hearings. An administrative law judge will hear the evidence and make a decision about the allegations.

One of the many parents' rights is to work with CPS to get their child home, and to keep their child safe at home.

Meyers said that is one of the top goals.

"We do not want the child," she said. "The state makes a lousy parent. (Parents) do 150 percent better than the state." She added that foster homes are currently full in Gila County, which means any children removed from their parents' care are placed in group homes.

In Payson, 70 percent of children removed from the home eventually return to their parents or guardians.

According to regulations, if this is the intention, children must be returned to the home within nine to 15 months.

"We don't want their kids," Meyers reiterated. "It is about making the life better for a child."

Download information about reporting child abuse (PDF - 24KB)

Commenting has been disabled for this item.