Vol. 7, No. 1• November 2002

CPS: Implications for Foster Parents

Some people dream of visiting Vegas or the casinos in Cherokee and striking it rich. Foster parents are gamblers of a different kind. Rather than betting money on the slots, foster parents risk their time, resources, and love in the hope of winning a better life for foster children.

Clearly, it’s a risk worth taking. Under their attentive care, foster children often stabilize, grow, and blossom. By opening their homes foster parents give families time to heal and reunite, and they make it possible for new families to form through adoption. Every day, foster parents put themselves and their families on the line, and our society benefits.

Yet some foster parents are unaware of all the risks they take. Although no one goes into fostering blind—to become a licensed foster parent in North Carolina one must have 30 hours of preparatory training—many foster parents never realize just how vulnerable they are until someone alleges they have abused or neglected their foster children. To be prepared to face this challenge, they must understand the implications child protective services (CPS) investigations have for foster parents.

Always a Possibility

Unfortunately, being investigated by CPS is a real possibility for every foster parent. According to the N.C. Division of Social Services (2002) foster parents are more than twice as likely as other people to be the subject of a child maltreatment investigation. Most of these investigations do not result in a finding of abuse or neglect. Indeed, allegations of abuse and neglect by foster parents are found to be unsubstantiated (that is, untrue) at least as often as are allegations against other parents and caretakers.

Yet some foster parents do commit child abuse and neglect. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services believes that of the estimated 826,000 children who were maltreated in the nation in 1999, 1.5% (approximately 12,390) were maltreated by “substitute care providers,” a category that includes foster parents, residential care providers, and child care providers (USDHHS, 2002). Though it accounts for only a small portion of the child maltreatment that occurs, this figure is alarming simply because foster care is a place specifically designed to keep children safe.

Why do some foster parents abuse and neglect foster children? There can be many reasons. For example, the exceptional stresses involved in fostering may be too much for some individuals or families, especially in cases where foster parents are overburdened by several children with serious difficulties.

nsufficient training and support from DSS can contribute to these situations. In other instances, foster children who want to provoke an abusive reaction from their foster parents may succeed in causing a foster parent to lose self-control. Another factor can be DSS’s lack of information about a child at the time of placement, which can cause foster parents to accept responsibility for a child when, had they known all the facts, they would have known they could not handle the child.

Most Investigations Unsubstantiated

For every abusive foster parent there are many more who are reported to have maltreated their foster children even though they have not done so. In a way, these foster parents are simply part of a larger trend—most maltreatment allegations in this country are not substantiated. For example, in 1997, fewer than one in three North Carolina child maltreatment reports was substantiated (ACF, 1998).

Yet some credible sources say that foster parents are at greater risk than other people of being reported without good cause. These sources include the N.C. Division of Social Services, which addresses this topic in its Child Protective Services Manual (2002), and the National Foster Parent Association, which asserts in a position statement on this issue that in 1997 foster and adoptive parents had a 1 in 8 chance of having false abuse or neglect allegations made against them—a level of risk much higher than that faced by the average parent.

The N.C. Division of Social Services explains some of the reasons for this increased risk in its Child Protective Services Manual. For example, children who have experienced abuse and neglect, as well as the uncertainties and insecurities of years in foster care—often with many moves—may be wounded in ways that influence their behavior. These children may use an allegation to get out of a placement, as an act of revenge, as a way of distancing themselves from caretakers because they fear intimacy or are unable to trust, or because they believe an investigation of foster parents will enable them to return to their biological parents.

Reports of abuse may also stem from a general misunderstanding of foster parents and their role in society. Many people outside the child welfare system do not understand why someone would choose to be a foster parent, especially for children with difficult behaviors or handicapping conditions. Some community members, well-intentioned but uninformed and suspicious of foster parents’ motives, may make baseless reports to DSS.

Birth parents are another possible source of maltreatment allegations against foster parents. Birth parents may report their child’s foster parents out of jealousy, resentment, or as a way to justify their own past behavior.

Investigation Procedures

All North Carolina foster parents should understand CPS policies and procedures. Below is a brief overview, but we encourage you to learn more by following the links we give and by talking to your licensing worker.

Steps/Issues in a CPS Investigation

  • The report must meet the state’s legal definitions of abuse, neglect, or dependency. If it does not, no investigation occurs.

  • For reports of abuse, investigation must be initiated by the county receiving the report within 24 hours; for cases of neglect or dependency, the county must initiate an investigation within 72 hours. Initiation includes face-to-face contact with all children living in the home.

  • CPS must interview people thought to have knowledge of the alleged maltreatment.

  • Following the information-gathering phase of the investigation, CPS must decide whether or not the foster family harmed the child through their action or inaction. (This is the phase where DSS decides whether to substantiate the report.)

  • Report the outcome of the investigation to the Central Registry and, in the case of a substantiation, other parties.

For much greater detail about this process, please consult “Investigative Assessment in Out-of-Home Living Arrangements” in the N.C. Division of Social Services Children’s Services Manual <http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/csm-60/man/CS1416-01.htm#P49_8964>.

It is also worth noting that Casey Family Programs and the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) are in the process of developing national practice guidelines for social workers investigating foster parents for abuse and neglect. It is still too early to say whether this effort, which is a work in progress, will influence policy or practice in North Carolina. To learn more about this Casey/CWLA collaboration, go to <http://www.casey.org/cnc/policy_issues/allegations_of_maltreatment.htm>.

If You Are Investigated

The following suggestions are designed to inform foster parents of what you should do if you are investigated by CPS in response to a report of child abuse, neglect, or dependency:

Remember that when a report is made all the children in a home are considered alleged victim children. This includes your own children. North Carolina law requires this.

Remember that DSS is not only your partner in providing care for foster children, but also required by law to conduct investigations of reports of abuse, neglect, or dependency in all circumstances where children reside in out-of-home care. North Carolina general statutes, administrative code, and policy also mandate certain activities and interviews must take place during such an investigation. It is a conflict of interest for your licensing agency to conduct the investigation. Another, unbiased agency will be assigned to conduct the investigation.

Cooperate with both your licensing agency and the investigating agency to complete the investigation and resolve any issues of concern.

  • Ask questions about the allegations and the process of the investigation until you understand to your satisfaction. It may help to write down the answers to your questions.
  • Make sure you and all children living in your home are available to be interviewed by the CPS social worker. These interviews are required by policy and administrative code, since all children living in a residence are considered as alleged victim children. Interviews with children may be held in private.
  • Allow CPS to visit your home. Law, policy, and administrative code require this.
  • Make any records or documentation you have kept concerning the child readily available for the social workers to examine.
  • Do not attempt to have the child examined by a doctor or other professional without the agency’s authorization.
  • Do not “investigate” the allegations on your own by questioning the child involved.
  • Provide a list of collateral contacts and witnesses the social worker may interview to gather all relevant information about your situation or alleged incident of child maltreatment.

Know and exert your rights, as you deem necessary.

  • Consult an attorney.
  • Document or record interviews and conversations with social workers.
  • Have witnesses present during every contact with the investigating social worker. It may be helpful if this witness is well-respected in your community.
  • Request copies of safety, risk, and strengths and needs assessments completed by the social worker.

Take care of yourself and your family.

  • Call for support from your local, state, or national foster parent association.
  • Join a support group or seek the emotional support of others (including professional counselors) as needed.
  • Use your licensing social worker as a source of support and information.
    Remember this is not a “win-lose” situation and the agency is not your adversary. Together you and the agency can partner to maintain foster children in a safe, nurturing, permanent home.

Protecting Yourself

The following steps may help foster and adoptive parents protect themselves from allegations of child maltreatment:

Before a child is placed into your family, write the placing agency and specifically ask that any history of physical or sexual abuse of the child be documented in writing. If the child has had several foster care placements, also ask whether the child has ever made an unsubstantiated report against a caretaker. Insist on a written response. Keep this response for your records.

Insist on written placement agreements. Do not accept a child into your home without a placement agreement stipulating the agency’s expectations, roles, goals, plans, and information on the child.

Develop a pre-placement “questionnaire” to be answered before you accept a child into your home. Information you should collect includes: the reason the child is in foster care, a description of the environment in the child’s home at the time of his or her removal, whether the child has been sexually abused, the child’s previous history and experiences in foster care, the status of the child’s siblings, words or behaviors to which the foster family should be sensitive, etc.

Keep written records. Take notes on the child’s progress and daily events in your home in a spiral notebook. Entries should consist of descriptive observations, not opinion (“His temperature was 102.5,” not, “He was very hot”). Use a new page for each entry, put a date at the top, and mark through the rest of the page at the end of the entry. Always keep a copy of materials you share with your agency.

Establish a relationship with birth parents. Developing a positive, respectful relationship may reduce the chances that birth parents will make baseless maltreatment allegations against you. A good way to demonstrate respect is to ask for birth parents’ advice as a means of giving them back some control—for example, ask them about the child’s food preferences, or how they prepare the child’s favorite meals.

Be part of the team serving the child. Get to know the names and contact information of other team members. Let DSS know when you have had difficulty with a child or the child is sick or injured in any way—this is especially important prior to family visits, when birth parents are most likely to raise allegations.

If a child is sexually reactive, acts out sexually, or has provocative behavior, the adults and older children in the household should always be sure to have another adult nearby or in the same room for the protection of the parent and the child.

Children who have been sexually abused can be more likely to become victims again. Even if a child has a history of making unsubstantiated reports, always take new allegations seriously. The child may truly become a victim of sexual abuse again.


Knowing how foster parents become involved with child protective services, the procedure investigating agencies must follow, and ways to prevent and survive an investigation are all critical pieces of information for North Carolina’s foster parents. For more information on this topic, see below.


Editor's Note: for space reasons, the following material did not appear in the print edition of this newsletter.


Ways Agencies Can Help Foster Families

Some North Carolina foster families who have been investigated for child abuse report feeling uninformed, abandoned, and betrayed by child welfare agencies. As a result of this experience, some foster parents choose to stop fostering altogether. Even those who remain involved with DSS may feel hostility and distrust towards the agency. Although county DSS’s must comply with state law, rule, and policy, there are things they can do to educate, prepare, and support foster parents investigated by CPS. These steps, adapted from a presentation by the N.C. Division of Social Services’ Donna Foster, Sherry Dillard, and Sara West, include:

Ensure Your Agency Understands and Correctly Applies State Policy. The Children’s Services Manual (Chapter IV, 1213, Section IV, G2b) states that “Although it is necessary not to contaminate a child abuse or neglect investigation, in most cases, it is important to support foster parents through an investigation of alleged child abuse or neglect.” The manual explictly states that agencies can and should maintain regular contact with foster parents being investigated by CPS: “The supervising agency may provide reassurance to the foster parents throughout the period of time it takes to conduct an investigation of child abuse and neglect by making regular contacts with the foster parents, offering explanations and clarifications for delays and other activities.” This section of the manual also lists several ways agencies can support foster parents.

Regularly review agency practice, policy, and procedures with all foster parents, placing special emphasis on any changes. Clearly communicate about the agency’s expectations of foster parents and the rules the agency itself must follow. Offer to support foster parents as they work to meet agency expectations.

Offer workshops to enhance foster parents’ skills. Ongoing in-service courses on a wide range of practical topics, such as the use of positive discipline, communication techniques, and understanding the child welfare system, will improve parents’ ability to cope with the challenges of fostering.

Be clear and honest about the CPS implications for foster parents. All foster parents should understand the following from the beginning of their relationship with the agency: child abuse reporting laws, investigative procedures, agency and state policies regarding reports of child maltreatment in foster homes, foster parents’ legal and procedural rights, and what legal assistance (if any) is available to foster parents undergoing CPS investigations.

Provide continual communication. Agency staff should provide support and communication with the foster family before, during, and after a CPS investigation. It may also be useful to cultivate a trained “allegation support” foster parent or other person to offer support to families, even if it is only listening.

Work with foster parents and foster parent associations. Foster parent associations that know how to provide objective support to foster parents under investigation—who can listen to them, comfort them, and inform them of their rights without taking sides—are perhaps the best way to ensure that families survive an unsubstantiated investigation and continue fostering.

Legal Services for Foster Parents

If investigated for child abuse or neglect, it advisable to consult your attorney. If you don’t have one, an organization such as Pre-Paid Legal Services can make legal fees much more manageable. This service makes it possible for ordinary foster parents to have access to an attorney to answer questions about their rights and to be at their side when they need legal help. The “Foster Parent Plan,” which is offered through Pre-Paid Legal Services, a national organization, provides timely legal counsel for all your foster and non-foster care (traffic violations, wills, etc.) related needs. Two representatives of this service operating in North Carolina are Amy S. D’Aprix (919/672-5914) and April Harris-Britt <[email protected]>.

Resources for Additional Information

The N.C. Division of Social Services Children’s Services Manual <http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/>

— Chapter IV 1213 Standards and Procedures for Licensure

— Chapter VIII: Protective Services Table of Contents

The N.C. Foster Parents Association

Kulp, J. & Howell, J. (Accessed August 29, 2002). Allegations of abuse: Prevention & survival

Leiner, B. (1996). Allegations: The Freddy Gruger of foster parenting. Foster Parent Community. Online

National Foster Parent Association

National Foster Parent Coalition for Allegation Reform

Allegation Innoculation, article Online at the New York State Citizens’ Coalition for Children


Foster, D., Dillard, S. & West, S. (2002, March). CPS implications for foster parents. Workshop presented at the N.C. Division of Social Services Annual Children’s Services Conference, Asheville, NC.

Minty, B. & Bray, S. (2001). Allegations against foster carers: An in-depth study. Child Abuse Review, 10(5), 336–350.

National Foster Parent Association. (May 2, 2002). NFPA position statement on false allegations of abuse in foster care. Online. <http://nfpainc.org/BoardBook/BB2.html#2-4o>.

N.C. Division of Social Services. (2002). Investigative assessment in out-of-home living arrangements. In the N.C. Division of Social Services Children’s Services Manual. Online. <http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/csm-60/man/CS1416-01.htm#P49_8964>.

N.C. Division of Social Services. (2002). Standards and procedures for licensure. In the N.C. Division of Social Services Children’s Services Manual. Online. <http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/csm-40/man/CSs1213.htm#P1179_64589>.

N.C. Foster Parent Association. (2002a). False abuse allegations. Online. <http://www.ncfpa.org/>.

N.C. Foster Parent Association. (2002b). Do’s and don’ts if you’re investigated for “serious” allegations. Online. <http://www.ncfpa.org/>

RindFleisch, N., Bean, G., & Denby, R. (1998). Why foster parents continue and cease to foster. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 25(1), 5–24.

U.S. Administration for Children and Families. (1998). Child welfare outcomes 1998: Annual report (North Carolina Context Data). Online. <http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/programs/cb/

Copyright 2002 Jordan Institute for Families