Early in March 2020, when a homeschooling family in Kentucky returned home from running errands in town, two officials—a Child Protective Services (CPS) investigator and a law enforcement officer—were waiting, demanding to interview this family's children and examine them for bruises

Why did this happen? Short version: that day, mom and dad had gone to the bank with five of their children. The bank staff criticized them for bringing so many people into the building in light of COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. So the dad stood aside with the children while the mom transacted their business.

That's it.

The incident offers some important takeaways. First, in a pandemic situation like in early spring 2020, when tensions were heightened and stay-at-home orders were in place in many states, some people are more likely to report out-and-about children as possible victims of neglect or abuse. Second, this family's experience confirms the need for CPS reform—something HSLDA has been advocating for years.

Welcome to Kentucky

Bill and Kristy (not their real names) are from New York City. They decided the kids needed a house with a backyard to play in, so they moved Kristy and the kids to Kentucky before Bill could transition his work from New York. Kristy had a Kentucky driver’s license, and Bill had a New York license.

While Bill was in Kentucky on one of his frequent visits, the family ran errands, as any family in the middle of a move does. They loaded up their seven children in the van and made their way around town, working through their errand list. All seven children went into various businesses with them until the family got to the bank, where the oldest two children asked to stay in the van.

A COVID-19 warning sign was posted on the bank’s front door. At the desk, the teller immediately interrogated Bill and Kristy about why they had brought five kids into the bank at one time. She told them they could not get within six feet of her and that they needed to take the children out. Kristy explained that the children were too young to be left unsupervised by an adult, and neither she nor Bill could take them elsewhere because the couple were opening a joint account, and both had to be present.

While Bill stayed with the children away from the counter, Kristy opened up the account, feeling self-conscious as the staff whispered to each other and watched her family suspiciously. When Bill walked to the counter to show his New York ID and to sign, the bank staff asked why Bill’s and Kristy’s identifications were from different states, which the couple explained.

When they left, Kristy told Bill she would never go back into that bank. She was used to having people comment on her large family, but this was too much.

When the family arrived at home, a female law enforcement officer and a male CPS investigator were waiting—they immediately separated the children from Bill and Kristy. The officials stated that they needed to do a safety check on the family’s “five children” (not seven) because it had been reported that the children were out in public with a strange man who was not their father. The report also said that the children had bruises on their arms, as though they had been improperly grabbed.

The CPS investigator moved all seven of the children farther away from Bill and Kristy and questioned the kids. One of the boys had to remove his shirt, on the investigator’s orders. The girls were also asked to remove their shirts, but Kristy objected and insisted on being present for the girls’ physical examinations. The investigator pulled up the girls’ sleeves, lifted their clothing, and took pictures. In particular, Kristy and Bill’s 10-year-old daughter felt extremely uncomfortable having her privacy and dignity invaded by a stranger.

The children showed no bruises.

It has all the hallmarks of a weaponized false anonymous tip made by someone who is familiar with CPS practices.

False allegations

And, of course, when the CPS investigator learned that Bill and Kristy were homeschooling, he didn’t think they could adequately educate all their children. He asked what curriculum they were using, which had nothing to do with the false allegations. There is no question that, by this time, the investigator did know the allegations were false: not only did the children have no bruises, but Bill was clearly not an unrelated male (his last name on his New York driver’s license proved it!).

The caseworker told Kristy that all her children needed physical exams, even though the report of injury was false and there were no other concerns. Kristy explained that she had already tried to get new patient appointments, but none were available for a few months. He then told her to take the kids to the health department. She told him that she was pregnant and that taking all the kids to the health department, where other people could be sick with COVID-19, didn’t seem like a good idea.

The investigator didn’t care—he said that all the children “needed to be seen.”

That’s when Kristy called Home School Legal Defense Association.

Where pandemic panic meets bad CPS practice

HSLDA has been advocating for CPS reform for years. What happened to Bill and Kristy shows the need for two specific reforms, even if we were not dealing with the current pandemic.

Reform Number 1: Eliminate anonymous reports. Instead, require reporters to leave verifiable contact information that will remain confidential unless a report is later determined to be knowingly false or malicious. This would significantly reduce the number of false reports—which would free up overworked CPS investigators to focus on cases where their assistance is truly needed.

CPS hotlines are too easily weaponized. HSLDA sees this often during divorce or child custody cases or in disputes among neighbors. We don’t know who made the report against Bill and Kristy, but we have a good guess. And the report has all the hallmarks of a weaponized false anonymous tip made by someone who is familiar with CPS practices.

  • The tip referred to five kids, and the bank was the only place where Bill and Kristy left their two older kids in the van.
  • The tipster knew that the parents had driver’s licenses from different states, something the bank teller also knew.
  • The false tip said that Bill was an “unrelated male,” which is a known risk factor for child maltreatment.
  • The false tip also said the children had bruises on their arms that appeared to be caused by grabbing, the kind of accusation that gets a quick response. (In fact, because it was a cool day and all the children were wearing long sleeves, whoever made the tip had not had the opportunity to see their arms at all.)

Reform Number 2: Ban open ended investigations. Bill and Kristy’s experience also illustrates the need for what I call “off-ramp” legislation—that is, the requirement that caseworkers terminate an investigation immediately once they determine the allegations made in the report are false.

A hotline tip should not be an invitation to fish around for additional details about a family’s life. A typical investigation includes private interviews with the children, “body checks” (in other words, strip searches), searches of the home, medical records checks, and more. And, contrary to common sense, it is understood by CPS investigators around the country that once they begin this intrusive process, they must complete it, even if they discover the tip is false.

Assailable logic

An after-hours call I handled a few years ago aptly illustrates the point. A homeschool mom and HSLDA member, calling from Virginia, told me that a CPS investigator was at her door demanding to come in and interview her children; the investigator was acting on a report that the mother frequently left her toddlers unattended by the pool in the backyard.

“But Mr. Mason,” she said, “there's two things wrong with this. First, my children are all teenagers.”

“What's the second thing?” I asked.

“Well,” she said (more calmly than I would have), “I don't have a swimming pool.”

Forgetting that I was in CPS-investigator-land, I momentarily thought that common sense would prevail. I told my caller to take the investigator to the backyard and show him that there was no swimming pool. Then I spoke to him, certain that my unassailable logic would lead to the conclusion that the investigator should move along because there was nothing to see here.

“As I am sure you will agree,” I began, “the anonymous report is false. There is no swimming pool to leave anyone beside unattended, even if this mother had toddlers, which she doesn’t.”

As if speaking to a young child—and a none-too-bright one at that—the investigator explained, “It doesn’t really matter that there is no pool. I have started an investigation and I cannot leave until I complete it. I still need to look inside the home and interview the children privately.”

It turned into a whole thing.

Imagine how much more sense it would have made for the investigator to be freed up to acknowledge that the tip was false and then go about his real business—helping children who were really in danger.

HSLDA handles this kind of call way too often. If our members involve us in the proceedings early enough, our attorneys are skilled at guiding investigations to smooth landings and avoiding some of their more unpleasant, intrusive, and damaging aspects.

COVID-19 panic

One possible interpretation of what happened to Bill and Kristy: a bank employee with heightened concerns about COVID-19 was offended by a large family invading her space and made the hotline tip as a form of retaliation.

It also appears that whoever made the call knew how to juice up the details just enough to cause and overreaction by CPS. This is why we are constantly pushing for CPS reforms—families should never have to deal with the stress and anxiety that result from false reports. And we’ll continue to represent families like Bill and Kristy’s.

In the meantime, keep calm, wash your hands, and call HSLDA. We’re here to help no matter what, pandemic times or not.