SACRAMENTO - Child Protective Services is charged with a sometimes thankless mission, and CPS often draws hostility from families whose children are placed in protective custody.
Some of those families contact News10, but more often than not, when we try to investigate, confidentiality policies and strict courtroom rules block us from getting the whole truth. That's why we rode along with CPS as they investigated cases to get a rare look at how they operate.
Like many social workers, Christina Juarez says her job has become more intense in recent years.
"Our caseload has gone up and the calls have gone up. There's the domestic violence has increased. The physical abuse has increased. People have lost their homes, their jobs, and they're frustrated. They don't have the finances, and so a lot of times they're taking it out on the family," Juarez said.
Our first ride along was a typical day for Juarez. She was driving to meet with a young mother.
"It's a real basic type of common referral we get: domestic violence, and there's also allegation of mental health possible," Juarez explained en route to the home.
CPS learned of the case from police who are mandated reporters of potential child abuse, making it illegal for them to withhold information. CPS also receives tips from neighbors or other sources.
"This is what's called an IR, immediate response, and so this was made within the last 24 hours," Juarez said.
In this case, the alleged domestic violence was between adults, but because a child lives in the home, Juarez wanted to make sure the child is safe.
"Initial contact we try to do unannounced, so we go out to the home without them knowing we're coming," Juarez said.
We agreed to wait in the car to see if the mother would allow us to talk to her. The mother declined, but after meeting with the child, Juarez was satisfied with what she learned from the mom about the incident with her boyfriend.
"She's saying she's part of the problem, and that she wants both of them to get into services like anger management," Juarez said.
But it isn't always this straightforward. In April, CPS drew widespread criticism when they entered the home of Anna and Alex Nikolayev and placed their 5-month-old baby into protective custody, citing severe neglect of a potentially life-threatening medical condition. The case remains controversial, and the Nikolayevs have filed claims in preparation for a lawsuit. To this day, CPS refuses to discuss the Nikolayev case, but on News10's second ride-along, Juarez worked a case that also involved medical issues.
"Well, this case I went out on last night, and there's no prior Child Protective Services history," Juarez said on the way to the home of a 13-year-old girl with a connective tissue disorder.
"The school is concerned that she's not going to school. She's not getting proper care and perhaps it's something else going on, and that's how come we're involved," Juarez said.
In this situation, Juarez did not believe there was an immediate threat to the child, so she followed up with a county public health nurse who was able to get medical information from the child's doctor.
"We have a list of all the medications the child's supposed to be on and not be on, so I feel like I have a lot," Juarez said.
No one answered the door on Juarez's second attempt to make contact, so she called the police. Her goal was to convince the mother to sign a release to allow medical and psychological testing to create what's called an individual education plan, or IEP.
"But if the mother's not in agreement or accessing this resource, then that could be viewed as neglect," Juarez said.
Despite more forceful efforts by police, no one appeared to be home, so Juarez's next plan was to try to contact the child and her mother the next day at school.
"Best-case scenario is that I can build a rapport, and she's willing to work with me. I like to let them know we're not here to hurt you. We're not here to remove your child. We're here to help you," Juarez said.
We checked back with CPS about that last home the social worker visited. CPS said were eventually able to contact the family of the child. After talking to doctors and the school, they realized both the child's medical and educational needs were being met, and that an IEP was not necessary.