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Can You Sue Child Protective Services for Emotional Distress?

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

If you've ever been visited by Child Protective Services (CPS), you know just how stressful and distressing it can feel. Typically parents feel frazzled when someone with the legal authority to take aware their kids, like a caseworker, is present.

Unfortunately, unless your civil rights are violated, you likely won't have any legal claim against Child Protective Services. Typically cases don't come out of the agency's day-to-day processes or its representative's routine actions.

So, you likely won't be able to sue for emotional distress. However, when civil rights are violated, individuals can sue CPS, and these claims can be costly for cities.

When Is There a Civil Rights Violation?

When a CPS worker comes to your door to perform their job and investigate a complaint, it does not automatically create a civil rights violation. This is true no matter how distressing the situation may be for you.

In fact, if a CPS worker, in good faith, believes that there is a danger of immediate harm to your child, your child can be removed immediately without a court order. And this is still not a civil rights violation. Even if they are later proven to have been mistaken, it's their belief at the time that matters most.

Unfortunately, CPS may coerce investigation suspects into providing information or drug test via the threat of taking their children away. This, again, likely does not rise to the level of a civil rights violation.

What If CPS Crosses the Line?

If CPS crosses the line into violating your civil rights, then legal relief may be available to you. This can occur when overzealous or untrained social workers investigate a case without adhering to the constitutional rights of individuals, particularly those dealing with due process and search and seizure. Under 42 USC 1983, every person has the right to be free from constitutional violations caused by government actors.

For instance, if a child is removed without any basis for a worker's good faith belief that the child is in immediate danger, then that could be a due process violation under section 1983.

Parents may want to consider hiring an attorney to analyze these claims. A lawyer may be able to view them more objectively and discuss if they have a case. These claims are incredibly complex, specifically because they deal with a CPS worker's own subjective view of a situation.

Finally, if a parent believes that Child Protective Services acted with "discriminatory animus" because of the parent or child's race, national origin, gender, or other protected class, there may be other civil rights violations to sue under.

Other Reasons to Sue CPS

CPS exists to protect children and place them in safe care. In some cases, the people who are meant to help can be the abusers.

Aside from emotional distress, you should speak with an attorney if you believe you or your child experienced any of the following:

  • Child abuse from a caseworker or staff
  • Unfair removal of parental rights
  • Lack of child welfare in foster care or temporary housing
  • Undiagnosed or ignored mental health concerns
  • Sexual abuse or threats from a CPS employee
  • Endangerment of a child's life or child's safety
  • Unfair court hearings
  • Lack of advocacy or due process

Speak with an attorney focused on family law if you feel something was handled illegally. They can help you understand your rights and when you may want to consider suing CPS and its staff.

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