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Know Your Rights When CPS Comes Knocking


This report helps domestic violence survivors understand their rights in the initial stages of a Child Protective Services (CPS) investigation, and Washington State’s policies regarding domestic violence and CPS.

These posters and postcards summarize your rights in both English and Spanish.

What domestic violence victims need to know about CPS investigations

It is particularly important that survivors of domestic violence understand their rights and how CPS handles child abuse or neglect cases when domestic violence is present. When CPS investigators contact you, their primary concern is your child’s safety. They may be worried about domestic violence or they may be focused on another issue. This information will help you know your rights before an investigation begins, as well as after CPS is involved, with a focus on domestic violence (DV).


What does the Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Families (formerly the Department of Health and Human Services – Children’s Administration) say about domestic violence when child safety is a concern?

In 2010, Denise Revels Robinson, the Assistant Secretary of DSHS, committed to increasing the safety of children affected by domestic violence by:

  • working with domestic violence victims to increase their own safety
  • respecting the protective efforts and decision making of adult domestic violence victims
  • holding domestic violence perpetrators accountable for their abuse and for becoming safe parents

Federal and state laws require the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) to make “reasonable efforts” to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of a child from the child’s home and to provide or offer preventative services when possible.

The Social Workers’ Practice Guide to Domestic Violence defines “reasonable efforts” include:

  • Consistent screening for DV
  • Conducting specialized assessments of identified domestic violence, which consider:
    • the perpetrators’ tactics of control (i.e. emotional, physical, economic, and sexual abuse)
    • the impact of DV on the children and on the non-offending parents (e.g. injuries, loss of housing, behavior problems, trauma)
    • lethality risks
    • protective factors (this means everything you have done to keep your kids safe, supports in their lives, and the potential that the DV abuser will change)
  • Making efforts to increase children’s safety by increasing the safety of adult DV victims
  • Holding perpetrators accountable (both in documentation and case planning) for the DV they commit. (This means that if you have been abused by your intimate partner, you should be seen as the victim of a crime, and not blamed for what the abuser did.)

Because DCYF defines “reasonable efforts” regarding domestic violence in this way, survivors have a right to expect that their social worker will ask about DV, work to understand how it fits into the bigger picture of the case, and make efforts for you to have the safety, security and stability to keep your children with you if you are a survivor.

Your rights

Your rights and what CPS investigators and social workers must do and should do are determined by a variety of sources. Processes specifically defined in federal law or state law must be followed. Additionally, DCYF policy informs child protective workers. Policy sets forth what they should do. Policy and practice guides set expectations for social workers, and define best practice, but do not have the weight of a legal requirement.

You have a right to know what DCYF investigators and social workers are instructed to do in DV cases. Check the Social Worker’s Practice Guide to Domestic Violence.

You also have a right to know DCYF’s policies and practice guidelines.

Throughout this document, when we say “You have a right to,” this refers to your rights that are defined and protected through law. When we say social workers “should,” “are expected to,” or “are instructed to,” this refers to information in the DCYF social worker’s policy and practice guides, which define best practice but also leave room for social worker discretion.

Is domestic violence child abuse or neglect?

You should know that when a child witnesses or lives with domestic violence, it is not in and of itself considered child neglect in Washington State. However, witnessing a parent or other adult brutalize one’s caregiver can have a negative impact on children’s emotional and social development. Children also can get hurt by abusers when they get in the middle of adults, attempting to protect their parent from abuse. Victims sometimes inadvertently harm their children as well. For example, keeping a child from witnessing domestic violence, a survivor might grab a child by the arm and put them in their room, leaving a bruise.

How does CPS become involved?

Friends, family members, teachers, and others may be concerned about you and your children; sometimes people will take those concerns to DCYF, the state agency charged with protecting children in danger of being abused or neglected.

Some people, including teachers, doctors, child care workers, and some counselors are “mandated reporters,” meaning when they think a child might have been abused or neglected, or might be in danger of being abused or neglected, they are required by law to report this to either law enforcement or CPS. As a parent, you do not have a right to know who reported their concerns.

When DCYF receives a call to the child abuse reporting hotline, they use a standard process to decide what action to take. CPS does not follow up on every call; many calls result in no action because the intake worker determines that child abuse or neglect is not taking place. If the intake worker determines a child may be in danger, a CPS investigator (and possibly law enforcement officer) will meet the child and their family to assess whether the child is safe. As a parent, you do not have a right to stop a CPS investigator from checking on the safety of your children. But you do have some rights regarding how the social workers conduct their investigation, and what happens after that. You have a right to request that social workers adhere to the laws, policies, and guidelines intended to guide their actions as they work to ensure children’s safety.

When someone reports concerns about your child

You have the right to obtain an independent documentation of your child’s physical and emotional condition, if they are in your care. These independent assessments may be useful to you as the CPS investigation proceeds.

If you want independent documentation of bruises or marks on your child’s body, or of your child’s health and well-being, You have the right to take your child to a doctor, and ask them to document the child’s physical condition (at your own expense). Like any parent, you have the right to take your child to a psychologist for an independent assessment of their emotional well-being (at your own expense).

During the initial investigation by CPS

You do not have the right to stop or prevent a CPS investigation. CPS has the right to contact your child and interview them outside your presence. Social workers are instructed to ask children if they would like another supportive adult in the room while they are interviewed, and your child has a right to request this. CPS investigators are instructed to grant these requests unless they think doing so would impede the investigation.

You (and any other legal parent of your child) have the right to know that CPS has investigated an allegation of child abuse or neglect, but not who made the allegation. CPS may delay telling you or the other parent about the investigation if they think that notification will negatively impact the investigation.

You have the right to have all your communications with CPS, including the initial investigation, take place in the language that you prefer. DCYF must provide an interpreter or a bilingual worker in the language you prefer; you do not have to pay for this. You can request interpretation even if you speak some English. Children should never be used as interpreters for CPS workers. You have the right to refuse to allow your child to function as an interpreter during a CPS interview, and to select another friend or relative to interpret if no other option is available. DCYF policy is to never use children as an interpreter for their parent.

Early in the process, the CPS worker will interview you and others to assess your family’s situation regarding your child’s safety. You have the right to talk to the social worker privately: separate from your children, your partner, any other relatives, and any other adults in the house. Social workers are instructed to conduct private interviews with all members of a family, particularly when DV is identified.

The CPS investigator has the obligation to provide you with a strengths-based family assessment. This means the social worker should find out what is going well in your family and the ways that you are a good parent, as well as any challenges.

You have the right to hire an attorney at any point in the process (at your own expense). If DCYF seeks to remove your child from your care, a public defense attorney will be assigned to you (if you qualify for this service); but you can hire an attorney before that happens. You can also choose not to use a public defender and instead hire an attorney at your own expense.

When you are asked about abuse or domestic violence

You have the right to decide whether or not to talk about abuse in your relationship. DCYF policy instructs social workers to ask you, your partner, your children, and any other caregivers about conflict in your family and violence or threats between adults in the household.

Be aware that CPS investigators and social workers have access to police records, Protection Order filings, criminal histories, 911 calls, and past CPS referrals, so they may have information about abuse even if you don’t tell them. Interviews with friends, family, teachers, or neighbors may also raise concerns about domestic violence.

A domestic violence advocate can help you weigh the pros and cons of revealing detailed information about physical or emotional abuse. Domestic violence advocates are mandated reporters, so they will report child abuse.

DCYF policy requires that when CPS intake workers, investigators, or social workers learn that an adult in the home has been threatened with or subjected to violence, they must conduct a domestic violence assessment. Policy instructs social workers to ask about:

  • strategies your abuser uses to control, scare or hurt you
  • the impact of the abuse on you and your kids
  • what you’ve done to try to protect your children from seeing or being affected by the abuse, or from getting hurt.

Investigators and social workers are also instructed to consider the level of danger you are in from the abuser by finding out if your partner is suicidal, keeps guns/weapons in the house, abuses drugs or alcohol, or threatens to hurt or kill you or the children. Even if they don’t ask, if you feel you are in danger from your abuser, you can tell the investigator or social worker that you are afraid and why. You can ask for help planning to keep yourself and your children safe.

Social workers are instructed to try to understand how abuse by an intimate partner towards a parent might affect your family overall. Even if they don’t ask, you can tell a CPS investigator about abuse in your relationship and how that impacts you and the safety of your children, and what you have done to protect and support your children. You can ask for help with addressing a partner’s abuse and its impact on you and your children.

Recognizing safety risks to yourself and your child, understanding the way DV affects your child, and knowing when to ask for help may be seen as strengths by the social worker.

As the investigation proceeds

If the CPS investigator determines your child is in danger of abuse or neglect, you have a right to know the specifically what the CPS investigator is concerned about.

CPS investigators want to find out about “safety threats.” The CPS investigator may be concerned about domestic violence that threatens the safety of children. However, not all abusive behavior towards an intimate partner threatens children’s safety, so you have a right to know how the investigator thinks the domestic violence affects your child’s safety or well-being. Some examples might be that the children get in the middle of conflicts, the abuser uses weapons, or the child is showing signs of emotional distress in response to the abuse.

Keep in mind that the CPS investigator may be concerned about something other than the domestic violence; for example, lack of supervision of the children or lack of proper medical care.

Planning to keep yourself and your children safe from abuse

If any safety threat is present, CPS investigators/social workers must complete a “safety assessment.” If the CPS worker determines your child is unsafe or if impending danger exists, their policies require them to create a safety plan with you for the children. A safety plan looks at each circumstance causing your children to be unsafe, and addresses those concerns.

You have a right for the safety plan to be well thought-out, doable, and reasonable. A safety plan may involve the help of friends and family to build your and your children’s safety; including specific roles and tasks for these supportive people. For example, a friend may agree to have your children at her house over the weekend, when your abuser is home.

You can ask for support services to make it possible to enact the safety plan, including assistance with transportation, daycare, and housing.

CPS social workers may suggest you file for a Domestic Violence Protection Order if you are experiencing abuse from your intimate partner. You have the right to decline to file a protective order if you think it will endanger you or your children.

When you know a protection order is not a good option for you, you will need to work with the social worker to identify other ways to address the social worker’s concerns about your children’s safety.

If you do decide to file for a protection order, you can ask your social worker for support and assistance. DCYF policy allows social workers to appear in court, write a letter to the judge stating concerns regarding the children, and make a recommendation about whether the child would be safe in unsupervised visits with the abuser. A domestic violence advocate can also support you in the protection order process.

If removing your child from your care seems likely

If the social worker does not think your children can be safe with you, you have a right to know exactly what safety concerns the worker thinks you cannot address.

A social worker cannot make the decision to remove a child from your home by themselves. By law, they must have a voluntary placement agreement signed by you, OR a court order, OR law enforcement must agree the child needs immediate protection.

If a social worker thinks your child must be out of your care to be safe, they will look for options where the child could live. Because accidents and problems may come up in anyone’s life, every parent should think about who could take care of their child if they are unable to care for them. If you have given this some thought, you have a right to suggest the people who might be able to take care of your child while you work to address DCYF concerns about their safety with you.

The social worker may not agree with you about the best place for your children. DCYF runs background checks on anyone who might have a child removed from their home, who plans to help with a safety plan, or who will take a child into their home to keep them safe. Some criminal convictions make a person ineligible to have a child placed with them. Convictions for misdemeanors usually will not prevent DCYF from placing a child with someone who otherwise seems safe and supportive for the child.

Voluntary Placement Agreements

A Voluntary Placement Agreement is when the parent and social worker agree the child would be better off in the state’s care temporarily. Voluntary Placement Agreements are meant to be short, and do not require a court order. As the name implies, they are voluntary. You have the right to revoke your agreement to a voluntary placement at any time by notifying DCYF in writing that you are doing so. DCYF then has 48 hours to return your child or get a court order to keep your child’s placement.

When your child has been removed from your care

You have the right to written notice regarding the placement of your child. You should receive a copy of the court order, the voluntary placement agreement, or police documentation of the need for protective custody.

You have a right to inform the social worker of your child’s special needs and interests if they are removed from your care. This includes any medical issues, allergies, religious observations, dietary needs or habits, special rituals such as a bedtime story, or anything else that would make being away from you easier for your child.

You have a right to know your children are safe and being cared for. If they are placed in foster care, you have a right to visit them. Social workers must make efforts to arrange a visit within 72 hours of your children’s placement.

Family Team Decision Making Meetings

If your child is removed from your care, a Family Team Decision Making (FTDM) meeting may be held to involve your friends, family, and supportive people in deciding how to keep your children safe, and where they should live until they are back in your care. You have a right to ask for a FTDM meeting, but your social worker has decision-making power.

The intent of FTDMs is to provide a safe and supportive context for thinking about your child’s well-being and safety. You have a right to tell your social worker who you would like at the meeting. You can invite friends, family, an advocate, a counselor, a teacher, or anyone else you think would be helpful.

You also have a right to exclude people from the meeting if you feel their attendance is not in the best interest of your child (social workers cannot be excluded). You have a right to express concerns about your physical and emotional safety from the abuser before, during, and after an FTDM to your social worker or the FTDM facilitator.

If you have a protective order, the abuser will not be allowed to attend the FTDM either in person or by telephone. In this case, if the abuser is a parent of your child, a separate FTDM will be offered.

If you do not have a protective order, but would prefer the other parent of your child not be present, you can talk to your social worker about this. You can request a separate meeting, but this request may not be granted. If you feel scared or intimidated during the FTDM, you can tell the FTDM facilitator about your concerns.

You have the right to know exactly what must happen in order make your living situation safe enough to be reunited with your child. The steps should be clearly explained in your case plan. DCYF instructs social workers to make case plans “focused, time limited, behaviorally specific, attainable, relevant, and understandable.” Case plans should be tied directly to identified safety threats.

You have the right to assistance addressing safety threats. If your children have been removed from your care, or you have signed a voluntary services agreement, you will be eligible for services to help address safety threats. These can include mental health, substance abuse, housing, child care, and other services.

When domestic violence is an issue

If the children have been hurt because of domestic violence committed against you, you have the right to be seen as a victim of a crime, and not be blamed for being a victim. DCYF social workers are directed by their policy and practice guidelines to place “responsibility for child maltreatment as a result of DV … on the DV perpetrator, not the DV victim” (Social Worker’s Practice Guide to Domestic Violence, pg. 17). If domestic violence is the reason your child is being taken out of your care, you have the right to services that will “alleviate the effects of DV” in order to make it safe for your child to come home. For example, DCYF might pay for you to get counseling if you need help recovering from trauma, or pay to have your locks changed if this will make your home safer from the abuser (pg. 69). In case where DV is a concern, social workers are instructed to avoid placing too many burdens on the victim in the case plan and creating plans that compromise victims’ safety (pg. 69-70).

You have the right to tell your social worker what you think would increase your safety, your ability to protect your children from harm, and your capacity to parent effectively. You also have the right to tell your social worker if a plan is not working for you or compromises your safety.

You may have different ideas than your social worker about what would be helpful. A domestic violence advocate or an attorney may be helpful in talking with your social worker.

You have a right to refuse “voluntary services.” However, it may be more effective to negotiate voluntarily receiving services that will be helpful to you and your child.

You have the right to ask that your address be held confidential if you think having your partner or the child’s biological parent obtain that address may compromise your safety. If your partner or the child’s biological parent is entitled to visitation, your can ask your social worker to develop a plan for exchanging the child that will be safe for all of you.

Reasonable Efforts

Reasonable efforts” is a legal term, and refers to the level of effort DCYF must make to keep your children in your home or make it possible to return them to your home.

You have a right to have your social worker make “reasonable efforts to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of your child.” This right is protected by Federal and State law. Regarding domestic violence, Washington defines these “reasonable efforts” to include:

  • repeated screening for domestic violence
  • thoroughly assessing domestic violence
  • efforts by your social worker and DCYF to increase child safety by increasing your safety
  • holding the perpetrator accountable for the domestic violence.

DCYF policy instructs social workers to make an effort to identify who is the victim and who is the perpetrator of an ongoing pattern of domestic abuse that results in coercive control.

The determination of the victim/perpetrator in a relationship should take into account emotional abuse, sexual abuse, economic abuse, isolation, and other controlling behaviors, not just individual acts of physical violence (Social Worker’s Practice Guide to Domestic Violence, pg. 30).

You have the right to expect DCYF will create a case plan that will hold the parent or caregiver who is a perpetrator accountable. This may include requiring attendance at a state-certified domestic violence perpetrator treatment program. Social workers are instructed to avoid referring domestic violence perpetrators to anger management courses, as these do not help with intimate partner abuse (Social Worker’s Practice Guide to Domestic Violence, pg. 77).

More about your rights

  • You have the right to keep your conversations with a domestic violence advocate private.
  • You have the right to a written case plan and child safety plan; You have the right to receive a copy of the case plan or safety plan every time it is updated or modified.
  • You have the right to access your records and know what your social worker has written in your records. Be aware that the other legal or biological parent of your child can also access these records.
  • You have the right to know what your social work can and cannot keep confidential from your abuser.
  • You have the right to say you think you’ve been treated unfairly:
    • You can go to your social worker’s supervisor, the Area Administrator, or the Regional Administrator.
    • You can tell the judge, if you are in a dependency process
    • You can call the DCYF office of Constituent Relations at (800) 723-4831 | TTY (206) 464-7471


  • Child abuse: sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, or injury of a child by any person under circumstances which cause harm to the child’s health, welfare, or safety
  • Child neglect: an act or a failure to act, or the cumulative effects of a pattern of conduct, behavior, or inaction, that evidences a serious disregard of consequences of such magnitude as to constitute a clear and present danger to a child’s health, welfare, or safety. Note that the Washington Administrative Code provides a more detailed definition of child abuse and neglect.
  • Child abuse/neglect: child abuse is generally understood to be actions which harm a child directly (hitting, sexual abuse) whereas child neglect refers to situations in which children are not properly cared for or are unsafe. These might include inadequate supervision, lack of medical care, poor nutrition, or allowing the child to be in an unsafe environment where they could be hurt or traumatized.
  • DCYF: Department of Children, Youth, and Family Services – the state agency in charge of child protection and welfare. Child Protection Services investigators, Child and Family Services caseworkers, and foster care are all housed under DCYF.
  • Domestic violence: a pattern of abusive and controlling behaviors perpetrated by an intimate partner. These can include threats, physical abuse, sexual abuse, economic exploitation, enforced isolation, using the children, stalking, monitoring, and other forms of intimidation. The pattern of behaviors results in uneven power between partners, a loss of autonomy on the part of the victim, and the abuser having coercive control over the victim.

Additional Resources

Social Worker’s Practice Guide to Domestic Violence

DCYF Practices and Procedures Guide

DCYF Case Services Policy Manual

DCYF Indian Child Welfare Manual

DCYF Parents’ Rights & Responsibilities

Washington Administrative Code regarding Child Protective Services