CPS system is changing for the better

Written by Victoria Berryhill

The Child Protective Services system is changing for the better, and the SAFE Prevention Advocacy program has been involved every step of the way.

When we hear CPS, we tend to think only about children who have experienced abuse. But children are not always the only victims. Often, domestic violence and intimate partner abuse occur alongside child abuse, frequently simultaneously. Victims of domestic violence have been experiencing challenges in the CPS system for decades.

Picture this: A mother and father are fighting in their home. The mother knows when the father gets violent, he throws objects. In order to protect the child from being struck by a flying object or hurt by broken debris, the mother picks up the child as the fight continues. When police arrive, the only context they have is a mother holding her child while fighting her domestic partner. That means criminal charges will likely be filed against the mother.

Problems with the old way of doing things

Adult victims of domestic violence have been classified as perpetrators of child abuse and neglect within the CPS system, instead of being recognized as a co-victim of domestic violence trying their best to protect their child from the actual perpetrator. It’s common for the perpetrator to disappear, refuse to participate, and/or to continue to conceal the violence they perpetrated. As such, it’s equally as common for the parent victim of domestic violence to be held to CPS service plan requirements while the perpetrator is not held to those same standards.

Child safety and survivor safety do not happen in a vacuum, they are often related and require a tailored approach to solving the underlying problem. This is precisely what led SAFE to create the Prevention Advocacy program—to work at the intersections of abuse and to challenge systems to do the same.

This has created serious challenges for survivors of domestic violence when working within the CPS system.

How CPS is improving the system

Today, there are positive changes happening within the CPS system concerning how CPS works with survivors of domestic violence and their families.

CPS, SAFE Prevention Advocacy, and domestic violence professionals have created new Disposition Guidelines for working with cases that involve domestic violence. The disposition is the “finding” after a child abuse case has been investigated. The disposition options are: Administrative Closure, Reason to Believe, Ruled Out, and Unable to Determine (click here for detailed descriptions of what is needed for each disposition).The Disposition Guidelines are intended to provide advisement when determining how a CPS case unfolds when domestic violence has been identified in the family.

This “finding” is placed upon the guardian of the child and can determine the custody rights down the road.

For many years, the disposition of a CPS case in which there was domestic violence was “Reason to Believe” that child abuse also occurred. The problem was that the “Reason to Believe” was frequently placed on the survivor of domestic violence, not on the perpetrator. As one might imagine, often the parent who is a domestic abuser is also the parent who will flee at the first sign of legal trouble. Conversely, a parent who is a victim of domestic abuse is often the same parent who is home with the children and opens the door when an investigative agency comes knocking.

What that means is that the individual marked as suspected of child abuse was the parent that was also subjected to domestic violence, not necessarily the perpetrator of the domestic violence. This is still happening to survivors of domestic violence, however the new Disposition Guidelines for Domestic Violence should change that practice.

These new guidelines are altering how CPS interacts with survivors by focusing on the root of the problem. Moreover, they signify a societal shift in the way we look at violence in the home, and violence in general.

What it all means

These guidelines show that CPS believes that domestic violence perpetrators ought to be held accountable for affecting the safety and well-being of children and adult survivors of domestic violence. They create a space for the survivor of domestic violence to not be held accountable for abuse and neglect of a child solely based on the individual being a survivor of domestic violence. Child safety and survivor safety do not happen in a vacuum, they are often related and require a tailored approach to solving the underlying problem. This is precisely what led SAFE to create the Prevention Advocacy program—to work at the intersections of abuse and to challenge systems to do the same.

Given that the Prevention Advocacy program was utilized as a model for the Senate Bill 434 recommendations, we were well poised to shape the way the community responds to the intersection of child abuse and domestic violence. That is how we Stop Abuse For Everyone.


SAFE’s Prevention Advocacy Program and their involvement leading up to these changes.


The Prevention Advocacy program is dedicated to the issue of systems change within CPS. In 2007, We began our work directly with the CPS caseworkers, supervisors, and directors in Travis County. We rode alongside CPS caseworkers as they completed their investigations. During this time we provided safety planning assistance, referrals, and education to CPS workers and administrators.


We began offering classes on domestic violence and protective parenting directly to survivors of domestic violence who were involved in the CPS system.


The Prevention Advocacy program became a part of the team that supports the adult participants in the specialized CPS court, Parenting in Recovery-Travis County Family Drug Treatment Court, because the court recognized the need for additional support from SAFE. Many of the adult participants were survivors of domestic and sexual violence as well as working on recovery from substance abuse disorders.


Senate Bill 434, a task force to address the relationship between domestic violence and child abuse and neglect, was announced during the 82nd legislature. SafePlace served as the co-chair for the domestic violence committee on this bill. The report produced by the Task Force addressed two major tasks: examining the relationship between family violence, child abuse, and neglect and developing policy recommendations and comprehensive statewide best practices for CPS and family violence service providers.

This task force brought together the Department of Family and Protective Services, family violence professionals, mental health professionals, the Judiciary, statewide organizations including CASA, CAC, TexProtects, TAASA and TCFV, and survivors of domestic violence who were involved with and affected by the CPS system.


Prevention Advocacy was chosen as a pilot program for Project SAFE. Our charge was to create a plan to implement recommendations from Senate Bill 434. SAFE chose to focus our efforts on training, revising internal policies, creating tools for CPS and SAFE staff to better serve survivors of domestic violence who have CPS involvements, and working alongside Travis County Family Court Judges and the National Center for Juvenile and Family Court Judges to create a tool for judges to aid them in making  rulings that support the safety of the victim of domestic violence and their children in their visitation, placement, and final court orders.