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Issues Library—Privacy

Child Protective Services Investigations

What are Child Protective Services Investigations?

Child Protective Services (CPS) is typically the division of a state’s health and human or family services agency that is responsible for investigating reports of abuse and neglect of children. Inclusive in this responsibility is provision of services (classes, counseling, resources, etc.) to families in need of them, foster care placement, and adoption facilitation.

A CPS investigation is opened when someone reports to the agency that a child is being neglected or abused. Anyone can report such occurrences, but all states have a list of people, such as teachers/school personnel, medical professionals, and law enforcement officers, who are mandated by law to report suspected abuse and neglect. Some states require anyone who suspects abuse or neglect to report it. Specific procedures are unique to each state, but an investigation usually involves a visit to the home of the alleged perpetrator and victim, interviews with the parents, children, and perpetrator, and a determination of whether sufficient evidence exists to support the allegations. If the allegations are substantiated, the caseworker, and in some cases, a judge, will identify the appropriate measures, which can include anything from implementing a parenting plan to removing the children from the home and placing them in foster care.

Why is HSLDA Involved in CPS Investigations?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, investigations of homeschooling families were common because people who either did not understand homeschooling or were opposed to it reported these families for educational neglect and truancy. HSLDA defended many families faced with investigations, even appearing in court on their behalf to prove that homeschoolers were doing anything but neglecting their children’s education.

HSLDA has also worked tirelessly to decrease the number of unnecessary CPS investigations by ensuring that adequate measures are in place to protect innocent families from what can be a traumatic intrusion into their private lives. In 2001, HSLDA lobbied Congress to include a variety of safeguards in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), the federal legislation that provides funding for social services departments. While Congress did not include all of our suggested reforms, two of the most important—social worker training in family rights and mandatory disclosure of allegations to the accused—were included in the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003.

How Frequently are Homeschoolers Investigated?

It is impossible to know how many homeschooling families are investigated for child abuse and neglect, but in HSLDA’s experience, the number of investigations initiated solely because a family has chosen to homeschool has significantly declined over the past 30 years. However, many innocent families are still wrongly reported. Statistics show that up to 60 percent of children removed from their homes by social workers were taken away from their parents without probable cause to suspect abuse. Approximately 30 percent of reports that are investigated include only one child found to be a victim of abuse or neglect. Fifty-eight percent of the reports are found unsubstantiated.1

When homeschooling families are reported for abuse or neglect, the allegations often include a mention of school attendance as well as other accusations, and in most cases, they are unfounded. Unfortunately, allegations are often made by family members, neighbors, or acquaintances who are upset with the family and use the child welfare system for retaliation. It is important to note that some states have statutory penalties for knowingly making a false report.

Over the years, HSLDA has represented thousands of families during CPS investigations. Our lawyers have also litigated and won a number of cases on behalf of homeschoolers (search active cases or our archives).

Are CPS Investigations Legal?

While social workers are required by law to investigate tips of abuse and neglect, they are still not free from the constraints of the Fourth Amendment—thus, there is both a legal and an illegal way to conduct them. In his article, “The Fourth Amendment’s Impact on Child Abuse Investigations,” Michael Farris explains the balance of the state’s responsibility with individual and family rights, stating that in a 1999 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said it best, “The government’s interest in the welfare of children embraces not only protecting children from physical abuse, but also protecting children’s interest in the privacy and dignity of their homes and in the lawfully exercised authority of their parents.”2

In general, unreasonable searches and seizures are banned under the Fourth Amendment, and all warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable. There are, however, two recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement for child abuse investigation:

1) If the adult in charge of the premises gives the social worker his/her free and voluntary consent to enter the home; or

2) If the social worker possesses evidence that meets two standards:

a) It satisfies the legal standard of establishing probable cause; and

b) The evidence demonstrates that there are exigent circumstances relative to the health of the children.

In other words, if a parent gives a social worker permission for entry into the home, then the social worker is acting legally. If the parent denies permission, the social worker can attempt to obtain a warrant, and the social worker can enter with that or with probable cause that exigent circumstances exist.

What Should Homeschoolers Do?

Make sure you know the specific statutes of your state. Child “abuse” and “neglect” are terms defined in and governed by state statutes. In the event of an investigation on your family, do not give the social worker permission to enter your home, and call HSLDA immediately. You may also find it helpful to review HSLDA’s article “The Social Worker At Your Door: 10 Helpful Hints” (a members-only resource).

What is HSLDA doing to improve the situation?

HSLDA is always seeking to improve child welfare laws at both the state and federal levels. Some of the measures we would like to see enacted are:

1) CPS may only place founded reports on the state's central registry of child abuse and neglect. (In some states, unfounded reports are placed on the central registry, which not only causes harm to innocent people but is also a violation of due process.)

2) Caseworkers must inform families if a report is anonymous. (There is a difference between anonymous and confidential—reporters’ names should be kept confidential, but anonymous reports are not as reliable as those made by known reporters.)

3) Parents must be allowed to select an unrelated adult to be present during interviews of their children.

4) Investigations must cease immediately upon discovery that the allegations are false. Continuing the investigation process despite proof of innocence only traumatizes the family and wastes state resources.

5) Parents must have access to the records of their investigations.

HSLDA also continues to assist with incorporating the following two federal CAPTA requirements into state codes:

1) Requiring child protective services workers to be trained in their duty to protect the statutory and constitutional rights of those they are investigating.

2) Requiring child protective services personnel to advise individuals subject to a child abuse and neglect investigation of the complaint or allegation made against them.


1. Children’s Bureau. (2003). Child Maltreatment. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

2. Calabretta v. Floyd, 189 F.3d 808 (1999).

 Related HSLDA Articles

The Social Worker At Your Door: 10 Helpful Hints
July 2010 (members-only resource)

HSLDA Memo to State Leaders on Federally Mandated Child Welfare Reform
August 29, 2008 (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

Practical Ways to Reform the Child Welfare System
August 2007

The Unconstitutionality of Home Visits by School Officials
September 9, 1999

 Helpful Reading from Outside Sources

Child Welfare Information Gateway

About CAPTA: A Legislative History

Recommended Model Child Welfare Reform Language
August 29, 2009 (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)