Time to End the CPS Power Trip

The Imprint, CalMatters Network
By Jessica Pryce

Power dynamics form the subtle backdrop of most child protective services interactions. At the very least, we should be ensuring the workforce understands and acknowledges the power that they have. Better yet, we should be training them on how to share that power with families. 

Powerlessness is defined as alienation and a lack of autonomy and participation. CPS-involved families feel powerless when faced with the loss of their children. The consolation prize, which befalls most families, is keeping their children, but only on the condition of continued state surveillance. Such mandates perpetuate a sense of failure and powerlessness among parents. In no other corner of social services will you find this level of power imbalance.  

Jessica Pryce
Jessica Pryce

Statutory mandates regarding child safety generate constant obstacles to the balance of power in most CPS cases. While some in the workforce appreciate the notion of sharing power with families, the perceived “risk” is often too much for these professionals to take on as individual case managers. 

If a child is egregiously harmed in a case, we all know the potential chain reaction. The systemic blame is laid upon a few individuals, and this creates professional risk aversion. When risk aversion guides case decisions, child welfare becomes about the safety of the system and its caseworkers, not the families. Risk-aversive child welfare practice does not create long-term safety and well-being, but it can result in short-term compliance that can look like a “win” to a system spinning from crisis to crisis. 

The child welfare workforce would do well to borrow from the parenting literature on the concept of “overprotection,” which suggests that there must be room for risk and responsibility. This will seem counterintuitive for CPS professionals, but sharing power with families is not the equivalent of relinquishing responsibility or compromising the safety of a child. Instead, it requires the establishment of shared influence to ensure that families are not passive subjects but active partners. In the most hopeful cases, individuals can be active drivers toward their family goals. 

There are three components of power theory that are worth mentioning:

  • Hierarchical power dynamics: power relations that are categorically imbalanced, often managing relationships through coercion and dominance. 
  • Negotiated power dynamics: power relations that pursue a redistribution of power through bargaining at some parts of the case. 
  • Shared power dynamics: power relations that create a balanced, consistent and reliable way for parents and families to collaborate throughout the life of a case. 

For many families involved with CPS, they lose the power to make decisions, effect change or have a meaningful impact on their own lives. When power is not consistently shared, this leads to a predictable set of behavioral consequences: conformity, fight or flight. 

To read more about power dynamics within child welfare and their impact on families, pre-order a copy of Broken: Transforming Child Protective Services.

Conformity, often seen as desirable by child welfare professionals, often leads parents to comply with tasks without much push back and certainly no meaningful engagement. Fight is seen in the parents who express anger, push back against the system and make their voices heard. Flight manifests when parents disengage, missing meetings and court hearings, with the added weight from CPS crushing their will to cooperate at all. This often results in punitive responses from CPS without addressing systemic shortcomings. 

Before we label parents as disingenuous, combative or absent, we must begin to acknowledge that these could be the side effects of powerlessness. Power is a commodity. In underserved communities, the feeling of powerlessness in familial life persisted through generations. For centuries, compliance and the imposition of regulations has been overpowering. When this system engages communities who are already under-resourced and historically oppressed, power dynamics over-determine every step in the case management process.  

CPS-involved parents most frequently experience their interaction with workers as a negotiation, and rarely perceive it as a shared power dynamic, according to a 2008 study on the subject. The authors concluded that while power sharing was rarely a starting point between the two groups, it did sometimes emerge out of a negotiated framework.

The good news from this study is that neither group saw their interaction as a hierarchical dynamic, since it is pretty easy to understand how harmful that is to families. But it is more difficult for people to grasp why a shared power dynamic is superior to a negotiated one. 


In a negotiated dynamic, professionals engage parents in a transactional way with an implied perception that parents are incapable of knowing what support they need. Within a shared dynamic, professionals take a relational approach that assumes parents do know what they need. Making an effort to share power with families means that the system must recognize that they do not have all of the answers and also that the way in which they view families will impact the power dynamic. 

We should be developing a workforce that receives training and coaching toward building relational trust with parents. Sharing power with families has the unique potential to decrease the weight of risk on professionals and cultivate partnerships with parents toward shared influence and enhanced trust, with hope of meaningful impact on child and family outcomes. 

One Comment

  1. Eyes wide open

    And let’s not forget the negative bias that long time workers have that leads to exaggerating or downright lying to make their case. Or the fact that they target young women with children under five, little or non-existent support systems, who despite jumping through all the hoops, lose their children to adoption because CPS gets bonuses from the feds for all the children adopted out. Bonuses they lose unless they increase that number every year. Look it up, federal health and welfare law. While older kids who truly need help are completely ignored because they are not adoptable. There’s a problem with an agency that has more power than the courts. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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