Foster Care 101: Child Protective Services Aren’t The Enemy

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There’s a common refrain among parents that their kids cannot have another injury, “because the hospital is just going to call CPS.” I’m not sure where the rumor got started, but we all assume that one too many slips off the jungle gym will land your family with in-home visits. It’s often said as a joke. But that doesn’t stop a parent’s fear every time their child gets hurt that someone might assume they’re an unfit guardian.

I’ve been there, marveling at the bruises my daughter had on her legs, and slightly embarrassed that anyone might see them. I didn’t want people to think that I didn’t look out for my little girl. After all, how on earth was she getting these marks? What wasn’t I protecting her from? This innocent fear can lead to flat-out panic if you have to visit an emergency room or doctor. No parent wants their child to get hurt, and the fact that happens at all can make adults inherently guilty and defensive.

These are the exact type of adults that my good friend “Lynn” gets to deal with on a day-to-day basis. She’s a social worker in our local hospital, and it’s her job to assess incoming patients and their families to see if they’re going to need any assistance or if Child Protective Services should be contacted. That’s right, Lynn is the woman we’re all afraid of when we walk into the hospital with an injured child. So I decided to ask her just how she makes those tough calls, how she works with families and what parents should know about social workers and the job they’re trying to do.

Obviously, I had to start how with the question on the forefront of every parent’s mind, “How do you know there’s a problem?” As with most matters in life, the answer is pretty complicated. Moms of accident-prone children can breathe a sigh of relief though, because it’s really not the number of trips to the ER that makes the greatest impact. “Listen, we’re realistic. I have three kids,” Lynn reminded me. “My four year old recently attempted flying off the top of our stairs. We all know accidents happen. But there is a list of specific injuries that automatically necessitate a call to CPS.” In these cases, every ER and social worker in the country has to respond the same way. Certain types of bone breaks, like spiral fractures, are an automatic warning sign. Also, any and all skull fractures must be reported.

“It doesn’t matter if the mom tripped and fell down the stairs and you can see her bumps and bruises as well. In those situations, we have no choice. But we try to be as gentle as possible.” Much in the same way that every gunshot wound, whether it was accidental or not, needs to be reported to the police, social workers have an obligation to report injuries on this specific list. Then, their job is to help the families and child protective services sort out what happened.

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