Calling in Child Protective Services, or CPS, in any situation is costly. For a grandparent, the cost will be tremendous. Lives will be disrupted, relationships will be damaged, and a child will be forever changed – for better or for worse, and probably a little of both. Long and careful thought is needed before a grandparent makes this life-altering decision.
If a grandparent makes such a call, one of two things will happen. One, even if CPS opts not to remove the child from their care, the parents – your children – will suspect or know the call came from you. Your relationship will be forever altered. They may well restrict your relationship with the child.
If CPS opts to remove the child, they will ask you to become caregivers. Be sure you have the fortitude to handle this. It may be temporary. It may also be forever.
Understand CPS Priorities
CPS has their own priorities, and they are not to the person who reports a problem. They have a specific action plan they must follow. Their first priority is the safety of the child, and their second priority is to keep – or return – the child to its natural parents whenever possible. While this sounds laudable, a grandparent must understand that this does not necessarily mean the child’s best interests.
A grandparent must also understand that if the child is removed from the home, she becomes a ward of the state – not the grandparents. The child may be placed with the grandparents, but they are not her guardians. They are only the temporary caregivers. Their responsibilities are huge and their rights are practically zero. While CPS generally tries to place the child with a relative, they do not have to.
Also, CPS will not, as a rule, aid the grandparents in getting custody of that child until all efforts to reunite the child with the parents are exhausted. Again, this sounds laudable. It does not always serve the best interests of the child.
Understand the Court’s Priorities
CPS will take their case to family court. Grandparents will be encouraged to attend, but will not be allowed to participate beyond possibly being a witness against the parents – your own children. You will go to court often, face your own children, and deal with an army of lawyers – none of whom will care about protecting your rights. For that, you will be required to pay for your own lawyer.
The priority of the court is to reunite families. They will require that CPS supply a case plan for offering services to the parents in order to accomplish that goal. As a last resort the court will forcibly sever the parents’ rights and direct CPS to find a family willing to adopt the child. This can take anywhere from six to eighteen months, or longer. If the parents refuse services, and then choose to begin services with CPS as late as the day before the judge is due to sever, that judge will delay his decision for yet another six months in order to give the parents every opportunity to comply. This can be an emotional roller coaster for both the grandparents, and the child.
Before You Call: Evaluate the Problem
A grandparent must step back emotionally from the situation and carefully evaluate it before choosing such a drastic course of action. Look at the family without passion. There are valid reasons for interfering with a family. These include abuse, neglect, abandonment, child endangerment, or drug and alcohol abuse. Be sure that you are really seeing what you think you see.
You may need to enlist the aid of others to make an objective evaluation. Tread carefully here; you don’t want to make false accusations. Try talking with other family members, a pastor, or one close friend. Remember that professionals like school personnel or police have strict guidelines placed upon them. If they believe abuse is occurring, they are required by law to make a CPS report regardless of what you desire.
Planning Family Intervention
If the situation is not a crisis, or you do not have factual information, then you may better serve the family with intervention. Your first goal is to help the parents see the problem too. Talk to them. Outline your fears, and why you believe a problem exists. Think of constructive ways you can offer help. You may want to involve other family members in this as well.
Look at services that are available in your area that will help parents solve the problem. Check churches, self-help organizations, or counseling agencies. Look for grandparents’ advocacy groups. They are made up of grandparents who have already been through what you face, and they have a wealth of practical knowledge and contacts to assist you.
Ensure Your Rights
In many cases, you may want to pursue some sort of legal right to the child during this time. If one parent is estranged, for example, you may be able to get power of attorney from him to act on the child’s behalf. You can also file in court for grandparent’s rights, which will help you maintain regular contact with the child regardless of what the parents do.
Sometimes parents will agree to temporary custody while they straighten out their circumstances. If so, make sure you do this legally. Go to your local court clerk and ask for the proper paperwork. You both must appear before a judge, but it is quick, painless, and temporary. This gives you specific legal rights to care for the child, and needs another court appearance to overturn.
When You Must Call
There are two situations when you simply must call CPS. If you factually know that the child is in danger, or in a crisis situation like extreme abuse or sexual abuse of any kind, then you must make that call. Make sure you have the factual evidence to back up your claim. Kids have been known to cry wolf for a variety of reasons. Their word alone is enough to start an intervention. It is not enough to call CPS.
If the child is abandoned, then you must make that call. You can move the child into your home, but you will have no legal authority to provide for her educational or medical needs. Nor will you be able to stop the parents from returning at their leisure and removing her. You need legal help, and you need it immediately.
Most counties have a CPS hotline. If not, call the local police. Make sure they know you are willing to keep the child. In most cases they will be glad to leave her with you. Remember, though, that you are not a guardian – only a caretaker. The child will be a ward of the court.
Child Protective Services can do a great deal to help families become healthy, whole units, but they are not magicians. Outside of true crisis situations, they should never be a first option. If you have the fortitude to become a surrogate parent to their child for the rest of her life, then surely you have the gumption to get personally involved before making such a life-altering call.
Be available as an aid rather than a judge. Find help for yourself as well as for them. Keep communication lines as open as you can throughout the process. Most of all, regardless of what the situation is, remember that people change and heal at different rates. It takes a lot of toughness to look at your grown child and take their child away form them. It takes even more to forgive wrongs down the road, and promote healing of the family from within.