2023 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom finalist

Overpolicing Parents: How America’s CPS Dragnet Ensnares Families

About the Project

While reporting on Arizona’s frayed welfare safety net for the poor, Eli Hager was floored by two statistics he ran across. Budget documents showed the state spent far more on child welfare investigations, of mostly lower-income families, than on assisting them with childcare, rent and other necessities. Separately, recent academic research indicated that by the time a Black child in Phoenix turns 18, 62% of their families will have been investigated by CPS. How, Hager wondered, could it be more common for a Black child’s family to be investigated than not.

The child welfare system is involved in the lives of far more people than the public seemed aware. The justification that its work is necessary to keep kids safe belied another reality: CPS operates with far fewer checks on its power than police do. A broad investigation of the impact of this system seemed long overdue.

ProPublica and NBC News’ yearlong series revealed a system so staggering in its scope that it investigates the families of about 1 out of every 20 American kids annually.

But the work also went beyond the prevailing narratives about child welfare investigations — that state agencies either do too much or too little to keep children safe. Instead, we revealed that it deprives people of their rights in ways that neither protect children nor their families.

In the criminal justice system, the rights of those who are investigated or accused of crimes are clear. The right to a lawyer. The right to remain silent. The right to face your accuser. The right to refuse a warrantless search. But in child welfare investigations, none of these rights exist, even though parents face the immediate removal of children from their home and the permanent termination of their parental rights, sometimes within months. In many ways, the child welfare system is just as disruptive to the lives of families (especially Black, Native and poor families) as the criminal justice system — but with less recourse for those it ensnares.

Reporting by Hagar, Agnel Philip, Mike Hixenbaugh, Suzy Khimm and Hannah Rappleye spanned the country, examining mandatory reporting laws in Pennsylvania, home searches in New York, the impact of investigations on Black families in Arizona, and the permanent severing of parental rights in West Virginia.