If you’ve come into contact with the child welfare system, there are concrete things you can do to be prepared and to advocate for your child and family. The single most important thing is to keep your child safe and to communicate to the child welfare case worker. This resource is designed to help families who encounter the child welfare system. Learn what to do if you are reported for child abuse and neglect, what to do early on if you are involved in a child abuse or neglect investigation, and what to do if your child is removed from your home.
More suggestions and resources are below.
How does the child welfare system work?
The child welfare system was created to help every child have a safe and secure home life. This responsibility has been given to public child welfare agencies, but they can’t do it alone. The courts, private child welfare agencies, and other service systems (such as mental health, substance abuse treatment, healthcare, education, and domestic violence prevention) are all partners in serving children and families who come to the attention of the child welfare system.
The public child welfare system is responsible for
- responding to reports from people in the community who think that children are being abused or neglected
- helping families solve the problems that cause abuse or neglect
- helping children to be safe and secure
- preventing separation of children from their families
- working with the families so their children can return home safely (when children have been separated from their families to be safe)
- ensuring that children receive adequate care while they are away from their families
- finding another suitable permanent home for children who cannot return home
Are there additional requirements for American Indian or Alaska Native children?
Yes. Under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), federal requirements apply to state foster care, guardianship, termination of parental rights, and adoption proceedings involving an Indian child who is a member of or eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe.
When ICWA applies to a child’s case, the child’s tribe and parents or Indian custodian have an opportunity to be involved in decisions affecting services and placement decisions for the Indian child. A tribe or a parent can also petition a state court to transfer the case to the child’s own tribal court. ICWA sets out federal requirements about removal and placement of Indian children in foster care, guardianship, group homes, or adoptive homes and allows the child’s tribe to intervene in the case (e.g., participate in court proceedings, access court records and documents, share information with the court). ICWA also requires a heighthened level of services and supports for families, called active efforts, to prevent the removal of their children from their home and help return them safely after a removal.
How should I prepare for a home visit from a child protective services investigator/worker?
What additional advice and resources are available?
90% of child neglect cases are due to poverty, untreated mental health issues, and substance abuse. If you are accused of child abuse or neglect, first ensure your child’s safety. Demonstrate that you are doing everything you can to keep your child safe.
Have family and friends’ phone numbers ready to call. Know who can help you keep your child safe in your home or who can care for your child in their home temporarily.
Find an attorney. If you think you can’t, there are resources to help you. All parents in child welfare proceedings have a right to be represented by an attorney in court. You may need to advocate for yourself to find an attorney with Indian law expertise.
- How to Find Free and Low-Cost Legal Assistance: https://www.nicwa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/How-to-Find-Free-and-Low-Cost-Legal-Assistance.pdf
- How to Find Legal Aid: https://www.lsc.gov/what-legal-aid/find-legal-aid
- How to Find Legal Aid Offices that Specialize in Indian Law, like the Indian Child Welfare Act: http://www.judicare.org/Content/National_Indian_Legal_Services.cfm
- In Oregon, the State Bar provides a referral service to help you find an attorney: https://www.osbar.org/public/ris/
Ask for help accessing services or supports for income assistance and services related to mental health, substance abuse, or domestic violence issues (see links below).
Know your rights:
- You have the right to know what the specific report against you is that you are being investigated for.
- All states are required to give relatives a preference for the placement of a child being placed out of the home.
- You have the right to contribute to, review, comment on, and approve your case plan.
- You have the right to all of your court documents and records and the right to have them explained to you so that you understand them.
For more about your rights, see “General Parental Rights” at Your Rights Under the Indian Child Welfare Act and Your Rights During an Investigation—And How to Use Them
Barriers to Know Ahead of Time
Things that a child welfare worker will likely not know or might misjudge about you as an American Indian or Alaska Native parent:
- A caseworker will assume you understand the language they are speaking, even if it is legal or technical language. If you don’t understand, say so. Ask them to explain it using simpler language.
- A caseworker will assume you can answer their questions immediately when they ask them. If you were taught to take your time and think carefully before responding, explain your preferred style of communication to the caseworker.
- A non-Native caseworker probably doesn’t know if you come from an extended family that shares parenting responsibilities. If you have close family that can help keep your child safe, tell the caseworker.
- A caseworker may assume that you or your family has drug and alcohol problems just because you are Native. If you are in recovery or getting treatment, tell the caseworker.
- A caseworker may mistake Mongolian spots (birth marks common on Native skin) for bruises. If your child has such birthmarks, tell the caseworker.
- A caseworker will not usually know the negative history of Indian boarding schools, child removal, or the impact of this historical trauma on Native families today. If you feel panic, stress, or fear because of what happened to your family, including your ancestors, tell the caseworker.
- A caseworker may stereotype the appearance of American Indians or Alaska Natives. If you are American Indian or Alaska Native, say so— whether you look like the stereotype or not. If you are not sure about your tribal heritage and you have relatives that are American Indian or Alaska Native, say so. If you are American Indian or Alaska Native, you may be eligible for protections under the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Additional Tips for Families
- Be prepared for the child welfare agency to fight against you.
- Do the best you can to cooperate.
- Be prepared to be in a child welfare agency office or courtroom and to be asked a lot of questions. Consider whether you want anyone to sit in with you to support you. You can request an advocate that you choose to be with you during questioning.
- Have some notes about what you want to say, including family strengths and resources (people, services, etc.) available to you. Be prepared to talk about how you see the problem and what you’ve done in the past to try to address it, including people in your family who help you and services you receive.
- Bring paper to take notes. Document every conversation you have with caseworkers. Include the date, location, who was there, summary of conversation, anything you are asked or were required to do.
- If you don’t like your child welfare worker or if they are not asking the right questions, respectfully ask to talk with their supervisor. If that person is not helpful, then ask for their supervisor or an ombudsman. Many agencies have an ombudsman to support clients and assess whether they are getting the help they need and/or a state child welfare complaint office.
- Don’t be afraid to say when you need a break from the conversation or to say that you don’t understand a question or a statement.
- Your tribe may be involved in the investigation and/or court proceeding. You cannot assume the tribal representative is representing your interests. Legally they represent the tribe’s interests, but they may be helpful in getting good services and resources for you.
Resources for Common Question
If you think the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) applies, trace your ancestry, and pursue enrollment with your tribe if needed.
Resource: Tracing Your Native Ancestry
Get familiar with your legal rights under ICWA.
How can I report an unethical child welfare worker?
Resource: How to Report an Unethical CPS Worker
How can I contact the American Indian or Alaska Native tribal government of which I am a member?
How can I share my story and advocate for myself? Read chapter 8 of the grandfamilies toolkit and share this document with your caseworker.
Where can I go to get help for substance abuse issues in the family, mental health issues related to the child abuse or neglect investigation, or domestic violence in my home?
- National Domestic Violence Hotline (website chat) or call 1-800-799-7233
- Substance Abuse or Mental Health: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s National Helpline is 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889. It is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Callers can also order free publications and other information. Also visit the online treatment locators. The website has many other service locators on a menu on the left-hand side.
- Economic Security/Income Assistance: “Getting Help with Living Expenses.” Benefit finder tool: https://www.benefits.gov/benefit-finder
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (website chat) or call 1-800-273-8255