Parents with mental health and/or addiction problems may have difficulty maintaining a safe and nurturing environment or providing for their children’s needs. Substance use and mental health disorders are both recognized as risk factors for child abuse and neglect, and involvement in the child welfare system. Some states have established child protection laws that address aspects of parental substance use, while others have expanded the definition of child abuse and neglect to include the parents’ or caregivers’ use of a controlled substance that impairs their ability to provide adequate care for their child.
When a report has been made for allegations of child maltreatment, Child Protective Services (CPS), a division of the Department of Social Services, responds and takes action if necessary to protect the child from continued or future harm. A CPS caseworker conducts an initial investigation — which may include measures of income stability, mental health, substance abuse and prior CPS reports — to determine whether any follow-up services are necessary. Parents suspected of child abuse or neglect are faced with the responsibility of rehabilitating themselves as well as proving to courts, social workers and other child care workers that they are no longer providing an unsafe or unfit environment for their child.
Parents dealing with an allegation of child maltreatment due to their substance abuse or mental health may have many questions about the process and what to expect. The following information is important for parents who are dealing with CPS for suspected child abuse or neglect:
1. What right does CPS have to interview the child? CPS can investigate all reports of suspected child maltreatment, including interviewing the child, without telling the parents and without their permission. Children may be interviewed anywhere that is convenient and comfortable for them, such as their school, day care or home. After a child is interviewed by CPS, parents or caregivers are notified
2. When do the police become involved? Suspected child maltreatment reports may first go to police, who then inform CPS about the suspected child abuse and neglect. Depending on the particular case, police may get involved if it is necessary to place a child in protective custody or there are concerns regarding the caseworker’s safety
3. What is protective custody? When the child has been seriously harmed or neglected, or is at risk of such harm, a police officer can place the child in protective custody for 72 hours. A court hearing is held within 72 hours of the time the child was placed into custody. Custody is then transferred to CPS, and the child is placed with a relative or a licensed foster home
4. What is a shelter care hearing? Shelter care hearings provide parents with the opportunity to tell the court why their child should be allowed to stay in their home.
5. What services are available? Some services are directly provided by CPS free of charge; other services may be provided within the community where the family lives. The caseworker may assist families in finding services, such as:
Children may stay in the home with their families, who may receive in-home services such as parent education, safety planning and counseling. Families may also receive community and other services, such as housing, food assistance, therapy, parent training and support groups. Children may receive out-of-home services when they are placed with relatives or in a group or residential setting. The court is required to hold a permanency hearing that establishes a permanent plan for the child’s residence within 12 months after the child enters foster care.
The court ultimately decides whether a child will be returned to a home or removed from the home. Fortunately, policies have been implemented by Child Welfare Services, treatment agencies and courts to improve the delivery of services and to support families in recovery. Parents in the child welfare system receive priority care for services, and now more than 350 family drug courts exist to include families with children. These specialized drug and mental health courts are designed to work with parents facing substance use disorders and mental illnesses.
CPS advocates keeping families together as long as this is in the best interest of the child. For further information about the programs available for substance abuse, mental health and co-occurring disorders at Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego, please contact our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Amanda Habermann, M.S. clinical psychology, Sovereign Health Group writer