At Cato Unbound: How Best To Reform Child Protective Services?

This month I’m participating in a Cato Unbound symposium on Child Protective Services and family rights. In its lead essay, attorney Diane Redleaf details some of the ways in which CPS agencies can arm-twist parents into so-called interim placements and safety plans that separate families with little or no judicial review.  Participant James G. Dwyer, in a response essay, takes a relatively positive view of the agencies’s work. My essay, by contrast, generally backs up Redleaf’s critique of CPS as a species of government enforcement agency gone wild: far too often, these agencies seize children from parents based on flimsy evidence, second-guess everyday parental behavior and decisions, or act on misguided Drug War zeal. 

Redleaf in her essay then goes on to raise distinctive objections about how the agencies negotiate with parents before a judge has ruled on their cases, which I paraphrase thus: 

…what sorts of policy response should apply to agencies’ practice of proffering to parents ostensibly voluntary interim placements and “safety plans”? What happens when parents regret—the next month, or the next day—having agreed to those conditions? Can they reopen the concessions they made, and how? Does it matter whether the agency has withheld information from them or menaced them with worst-case scenarios?

In my response essay, I argue that the problems with these practices are real but that legal attack on the voluntariness of interim plans is likely to be of at best limited helpfulness because our courts follow a strong presumption of enforcing settlements as written. More promising in the long run, I argue, may be to impose direct obligations on agencies to respect families’ autonomy without attacking the settlement process as such. “Safeguarding every family’s rights will, as one of its benefits, shore up families against unwise surrenders of their rights.”