Coercion and Child Protective Services Investigations

Knock, knock. Child protective services.

The key role of the child protective services (CPS) investigator is to determine if a child is at risk of harm. When a child is in immediate danger, CPS and/or law enforcement work to ensure the child’s safety. Often a safety plan is developed which will keep a child safe at home. When that is not possible the child may be taken into protective supervision.

If the unequivocal assessment indicates a high risk of danger everyone agrees that the child may be removed on an emergency basis. When that determination is not so certain, and the evidence is not incontrovertible, the investigator may nonetheless believe it would prudent for the child, temporarily, to go elsewhere or for certain changes in the household to take place. Toward that end, the investigator may try to influence, encourage, or persuade the caregiver to take certain actions for the child’s betterment. If that influence, encouragement, and persuasion crosses the line into coercion has the investigator behaved unethically or illegally? Are all or just some forms of coercion unethical or illegal? With the strong caveat that the topic deserves a more in-depth analysis, this article attempts to briefly address the use of coercion in the CPS investigative setting.

Broadly speaking, coercion seeks to restrict another person’s options. Commonly though, we ascribe the term with a negative connotation. Merriam-Webster defines coercion as follows: “1) to restrain or dominate by force; 2) to compel to an act or choice; 3) to achieve by force or threat.” In the CPS context coercion may at times be viewed as having a neutral aspect: Coercive behavior by an investigator seeks to influence the caregiver’s decision-making by linking possible sanctions to the caregiver’s actions or inactions. Imagine a CPS investigator saying, “Unless there is enough food for your children, we are going to have to temporarily place them elsewhere.” While admittedly coercive in either the negative or neutral sense, is this statement unethical or illegal?

It is quickly evident that coercion is a highly subjective and contextualized term, and we are without the luxury of a consensually established precise definition in the CPS context. Resorting to coercion may occur when the worker believes 1) the potential danger to the child, though not presently obvious, is great, 2) the potential danger to the child is relatively imminent, and/or 3) their own powers of persuasion are insufficient.

Let’s look at each of these individually.

  1. The potential danger to the child, though not presently obvious, is great. There may be a history of abuse or neglect or there may be changes in the home’s atmosphere that are troublesome. There is no clear evidence, but the worker is concerned that there are some indications portending danger.
  2. The potential danger to the child is relatively imminent. There is a professional belief that within a short period of time the child may come to harm. Once again, the worker would like to see more compelling evidence but his or her professional judgment suggests something is amiss.
  3. Their own powers of persuasion are insufficient. Soft persuasion is not working. Even after consultation with his or her supervisor or other child protection professionals, the worker is unable to convince the caregiver to cooperate and act in the child’s best interest.

Because of the above concerns, some CPS investigators may conclude that, not only is coercion sometimes permissible, it their right and duty to use coercion in order to impose compliance with the child protection laws they have pledged to uphold. In other words, they are using their best professional judgment and concluding that the child’s well-being is at stake and some degree of coercion is necessary.

While the foregoing thinking may at times seem intuitively defensible, it may also occasionally lead to an unbridled, unauthorized, unethical, and illegal use of coercion. CPS workers must always hold themselves accountable to larger legal constitutional duties, including due process. These federal and state constitutional duties take precedence over every aspect of the child protective endeavor.

Fifteen years ago, in his commentary on the topic, How we can better protect children from abuse and neglect, Larry Pelton wrote, “The fundamental structure of the public child welfare system is that of a coercive apparatus wrapped in a helping orientation” (Pelton, 1998, p. 126). Agree or not, a CPS investigator cannot break the law in order to uphold it.


Pelton, L. (1998). Four commentaries: How we can better protect children from abuse and neglect. The Future of Children, 8(1), 126-129.

Daniel Pollack, MSSA (MSW), JD is Professor, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, New York City, and is a frequent expert witness in child welfare cases. E-mail:; 212-960-0836. This article originally appeared in Policy & Practice, 71(6), 30–31.

1 Reply to "Coercion and Child Protective Services Investigations"

  • Dawn Langer
    December 13, 2013 (12:34 pm)

    It’s about time someone recognizes CPS is not infallible. They did it to me!