Misunderstood – When Child Protective Services is Called

Misunderstood – When Child Protective Services is Called

My phone rang late one afternoon, the voice on the other end breathless and worried, “Cheryl I need you to come talk to the police, they are calling CPS on Kate again, some neighbor saw Mark outside without any pants on. I just pulled up in my driveway and saw the cops in here, can you come quickly? Thanks.”  The phone went dead before I had a chance to answer.  Kate and Mallory are two ladies who just happen to live on the same street, both have special needs children.  Mallory’s son has Down Syndrome and is grown, lives at home and helps his mother with yard work and likes to hang clothing on the line in the summer.  Nobody thinks twice about his special needs or the fact that his mother leaves him home alone while she goes to work fours hours a day. Grown adult Scott can be seen while his mother is at work, busy tending to her flower garden.  People smile and wave at Scott who often shares his home grown tomatoes with neighbors. 

On the other side of the street, things are not so calm, peaceful or understood.  While Scott has lived a life of full acceptance Mark has not. Mark is a teenager now, taller than his mother, stronger than his father and faster than his little brother.  Mark is profoundly autistic.  He does not understand even basic social skills and cannot connect with his family or teachers.  When the weather heats up, Mark strips.  Mark not only strips, he longs to run in the sprinklers in underwear the way he did as a toddler.  Mark does not understand this is a social “no-no”, nor does he understand the difference between his yard and lawn sprinkler or any other neighbor’s lawn and sprinkler.  Water is water to Mark and it’s meant for fun, stripping off your jeans and running in your tightie-whities fun.

Mark’s parents have spent a life time barracking their once pretty suburban home. A six foot fence surrounds the property complete with gates that close off the driveway.  City zoning ordinances would not allow a wooden privacy fence in the front yard, so chain link leaves the front open to prying eyes, and does little to keep Mark contained.  Alarms blare from doors and windows.  The front door has an intricate maze of different kinds of locks to keep Mark at bay long enough for someone to reach him before he escapes into the yard without an escort. 

I pull up in Kate’s drive way behind a police car, and jump out. Mark knows me well, and struggles to get out of his dad’s arms to run to me.  I say nothing to anyone but walk up to Mark and say, “Hey buddy, Mrs. Mallory called me and said you did some fence jumping today and got in some sprinklers down the street. I know, it’s summer and warm, and you and I like to play in the water don’t we.  John is in the car do you want to go see John and sit with him? Mark repeats John and glances at me for a half a split second. My heart is breaking, in that split half a second Mark and I connect and I can feel all his wisdom and intelligence wrapped in that glance.  Mark relaxes and stops fighting his dad. I smile to the police offer and say “this is the face of extreme autism, can we talk?” 

The officer and I walk back toward the house. He tells me he has already heard the autism plea and saw the sign in the front yard that reads “Autism, one in 88.” He then goes on to tell me autism or not, this kid cannot run free and strip. I agree and ask him what he suggest a family do. The have already turned the house into a fortress, talked to all the neighbors about Marks condition, but at some point, you cannot have your hand on him 24-7. At some point these parents have to work, cook a meal, help their younger son with homework, and it only take a split second for someone like Mark to pull a Houdini and slip out of the house.

A boy having fun in summer sprinklers

“He needs to be medicated or in a home for these kids.” The officer says.

“What do you suggest and what home, where, there are no services or homes here.” 

“I don’t know, but I have already called CPS and maybe they will do something, it’s their job to deal with abuse and neglect.”

“Do you honestly see neglect here, and physically restraining Mark would be abuse, but hey it would keep the neighbors happy wouldn’t it.” 

“I don’t know, my job is done, I got here when I was called, you’re the autism expert, you talk to CPS and work out something, all I know is, I better not get another call about this kid running through the neighborhood in his underwear again.”

I walked back to Kate and told her yes, CPS has been called again, and yes more than likely the case would be closed before she ever heard from them, but just to be sure I would make a call on her behalf. I told her to call me if she needed anything and that I was sorry it was summer and I was sorry Mark saw the neighbors sprinklers go off at 5 p.m. the way they would every summer day from now until fall. I offered to talk to the neighbors again and pass out autism information. I told her I would stick my head in at the police station and remind the Chief of Police where all the autism families live and to please let any new offices know if they had any issues to call me before calling CPS.

Two days later CPS called me to confirm the report of neglect of Marks care and I ask the worker to again review Marks’ plan of care, and school IEP with his parents. The case was swiftly closed that afternoon.  I bought Mark a water snake that twisted and flipped spraying out water when it was attached to a water hose.  Kate set it up in the fenced in back yard and dared anyone to deny her son some summer fun in the privacy of his own back yard. 

What do you as a parent of a disabled child need to keep in your home should you find CPS knocking on your door?  

  • Keep a copy of all of your child’s medical information.  If you can’t keep the actually records, keep a list of all doctors and hospitals where your child has been seen.  
  • Keep a copy of your child’s diagnose and what that means for your child. Autism for one child is not the same as autism for the next.  
  • Keep a copy of your child’s IEP, school records, or therapy sessions on hand.  Never ever leave home without documentation of your child’s disability or needs on your person . I keep a card in my purse at all times with contact information of both my son’s doctor and people who know me in the event issues happen in a city were I am unknown and someone questions my actions or son’s actions.  

Take a day to host a block party and invite the neighbors to get to know you and your child. Sometimes the best prevention is just letting people see into the windows of your life to know you have nothing to hide and are doing the best you can with the resources you have and the knowledge with which you are empowered.

Disclaimer:  I am not a legal advisor nor am I a social worker.  My contact with CPS has always been positive and helpful for both myself and for parents of special need children.  It is because I have been called into question on the behalf of other parents that I am choosing to write on this subject matter.  I know first hand how quickly parents of special needs children find themselves being investigated for failure to properly supervise educate, dress or even care for their special needs child.  This post is meant to be a guide and answer questions concerning parental rights where children are concerned.  All names, places and events have been changed to protect those involved.


(Photo by: The Lotus Carroll via Flickr)

About the Author:

Cheryl Bailey

Cheryl Bailey is a freelance/ghost writer who lives North Mississippi. She is the mom of two grown sons the youngest was disabled after a vaccine injury left him without any physical skills or speech. Cheryl now works to advocate for all persons of disability, and frequently writes about life with John, subject of A View in the Mirror. Her other passions include sewing, gardening, and spending time her dog Cindy and any stray cats that choose to call her back porch home. When not working as an advocate for persons with disabilities, she can be found working for Soldiers Angels in support of our troops.


  1. Katy Fink May 29, 2013 at 9:57 am - Reply

    I’ve had DFCS called twice on my daughter and I.

    First time, daughter went with my husband to the Girl Scout Father-Daughter Dance, where she fell against a table and bruised her face.
    When she went to school, they asked what happened, and must have asked if someone hit her, because she evidently told them her dad had hit her.
    DFCS called to make an appointment the next day for me to bring her in. I wasn’t too worried, we had plenty of witnesses, as well as before and after pics at the dance itself.
    That night we went roller skating, again with Girl Scouts. Dani fell while skating on the carpeted edge, wearing wrist and knee guards, and fractured her elbow. ~sigh~
    Luckily we were able to give them the names and numbers of several Girl Scout leaders who had been at both events, and everything was cleared.

  2. Suzann May 29, 2013 at 10:47 am - Reply

    I have had CPS called on me for my son. He had a blood draw and restraining him for the blood draw left a hand shaped mark on his arm. I work in health care and I should have told the daycare about the blood draw and my son who is autistic was non-verbal at the time, but forgot and they had to call CPS and I understand that but it is still difficult when they lbs how up on your door step to look into every part of your parenting.
    I am afraid that we may have to deal with them again because he likes to strip down to his birthday suit and run around due to most clothes irritating him and his tendency to wonder off on me. He did one day at the playground and after a 15 plus minute search of the playground with several adult we decided to call the police, he was spotted across a baseball field next to the playground while I was on the phone with the police. I am just thankful he is still really young and we live in a small town where everyone knows every one and looks out for each other and their children.

  3. Julie Sparks May 29, 2013 at 8:18 pm - Reply

    I am bawling as I read this. Those poor people. I am lucky (knock wood) that CPS has never been called for either of my boys but I can so see how it could happen. Both of mine have eloped (the younger on at least a dozen occasions!) and I have always been fortunate that someone found him (usually us, but not always) and returned him without involving CPS. Hugs to all!

  4. Cheryl Bailey
    Cheryl Bailey May 30, 2013 at 7:29 pm - Reply

    Thank you all for your comments! I honestly think families with autistic children are always under the gun for CPS to be called. I strongly suggest you get to know the police and fire department in your neighborhood. The more people know you, your child and what goes on in your home, the better off you will be. And yes, my sweet friend Kate has suffered greatly thanks to two neighbors who cannot nor will not try to understand her son. Slowly we are getting at least the police to talk to the neighbors and cool them off…

  5. nikki (@suburp) June 2, 2013 at 1:47 am - Reply

    I can’t fully imagine how this must feel for the parents.actually though, I am a bit confused by one thing – he was not even naked?! I suppose your in the US? What’s going on with this hysteria? Even with no special needs involved how does a teenager in underwear in his parents’ garden needs to be reported to the police? People are nuts.

  6. Cheryl Bailey
    Cheryl Bailey June 4, 2013 at 5:20 pm - Reply

    Thank you Nikki and yes USA. If you can see a child not properly dressed even if they are in their own yard, it can be reported as failure to care for or know what you child is doing. I know, sad world we live in when people don’t bother to get to know one another and help out.

  7. Autumn September 17, 2013 at 9:20 pm - Reply

    I really needed to read this today. We recently got new neighbors on both sides of our townhouse and up until a few days ago they had yet to be privy to one of my four year olds screaming episodes. He recently started a full day school program and the change in his schedule has thrown off his life enough to leave him on edge most of the time. We’ve worked really hard the past couple of years to figure out what works best to calm him down and eliminate some of his triggers. This past week however has felt like we’re starting all over. It’s nights like these that I just sit in fear of having the police and CPS come knocking at our door. I’ve talked to all our neighbors and we’ve been really lucky that they have always been understanding, but there is always the fear that someone will decide that our hard work is not good enough.

  8. Cheryl Bailey
    Cheryl Bailey September 20, 2013 at 8:42 am - Reply

    Autumn, I really encourage you to find a few minutes to meet and greet the new neighbors. I understand your fear, my neighbors knew us for years before John was born. Yet when he started screaming 24-7, the began to talk and poke around. It does not take long for people to think the worst!

  9. Robert July 14, 2014 at 9:04 am - Reply

    What I find shocking about all this is the fact that Autism is becoming more and more prevalent and we need to ask the reason why so many children these days are suffering from it.

    I would also suggest that you all go online and check out the links between injections given to babies and children and the links being shown to exist between them.

    Things are not all they seem to be. The medical field is not longer interested in keeping you healthy.

    Its only going to get worse unless steps are taken to change thing.

    Its up to you

  10. melissa September 9, 2014 at 9:08 pm - Reply

    Read this and cried I have had several people call cps on me because of ignorance last time I went with all medical records case was closed. Problem know my son refused to go to school, I was advised to call police for help. Once I get to school im told by counselor that police would have put him in juvenile department but since hehas autism I have to take him to a sr witwithin 48 hours or cps would be called. I do not understand. Does police have right to do that or is someone else trying to set me up?

  11. goldiesmom August 15, 2015 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    I understand how difficult it is to have a child who reaches outside of social boundaries. I also understand how difficult it is to be the neighbor who lives next door to 7, yes 7 autistic children. What about my rights? My son cannot go outside and play anymore, what about his rights? We cannot enjoy our back or front yards anymore, what about our rights? We NEVER have a moment where we do not hear children screaming. In the words of Spock, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few..or the one.

  12. D H March 13, 2017 at 7:14 pm - Reply

    My daughter, 6 years old and Autistic, is in OCS custody at the moment, going on 7 months. She wandered 40 feet next door and the lady who bought the property to convert to rentals called the police. The lady never introduced herself and has been a ghost on my dead-end cul-du-sac, only wants to make money off the houses. All of the other neighbors know my daughter has Autism.
    My wife, a Kindergarten teacher, lost her job last week because of this. The legal ramifications have been staggering. My family is financially going down the tubes trying to fight this. People are sympathetic, but it doesn’t matter because we have lost everything we have spent years working for. Poverty is just around the corner and we don’t even have the slightest clue of when our Lovey will come home.

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