We had a CPS visit to our RV. Learn why, what we did, and what our advice to you is.
In order to get there, however, I need to pull back the curtain both on the potential downside of living in a non-traditional fashion and on some very personal family issues and situations.
I want to honor my family’s privacy - so rest assured that this has all been read by and approved by everyone in the Boyink trailer.
First - the legalese:
We are not lawyers and will not be responsible for any actions, judgements, lawsuits, claims, loss of money or property as a result of you reading this article.
On with our story.
Being long-term homeschoolers, and now-four-year veterans of life on the road, we have heard of and read horror stories of Child Protective Services (CPS) being called on families. Having this happen to us has honestly been my worst fear since beginning fulltime travel.
While there is nothing illegal about how we are living, it’s just that far outside the norm that a CPS agent or other representatives of “the system” might want to take action to end this lifestyle for us in a misdirected effort on behalf of our children.
Earlier this summer a nondescript government car pulled up to our site in the campground and we had the dreaded knock on the door.
Let me be clear - what led CPS to our door was not directly travel-related.
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What had happened was that, while parked at a rental cottage an hour or so away from our seasonal RV park spot we had a family argument involving one of our children that grew heated. There was a scuffle (with no physical injuries) that was broken up by an extended family member.
Our Child Walks Away
Out of that situation our child walked away. We thought it was a cool-down walk, but a couple hours later we received a phone call saying our child was with someone else and was “safe”.
As it turned out the safe place was with a friend’s family, and the friend’s father happened to be a Pastor. In the retelling of what had happened the Pastor felt compelled to report the incident to CPS - as he is legally bound to do.
This happened on a Monday. The next day - Tuesday - our time ran out at that cottage so we moved the RV back north to our seasonal spot. We were exhausted from the events of the week so were sleeping in late on Wednesday morning.
Shortly after 8AM we received a phone call from CPS asking “Where are you?”
Taken a bit by surprise and not knowing any different we told them where our seasonal spot was. About an hour later the car rolled up and the knock came.
We later determined they had initially gone directly to our legal residential address to find us. Since we don’t actually live there they had to call us first.
Surprise Attack Foiled
The hour between the phone call and CPS arriving was an absolute Godsend.
Most families don’t get that warning. You probably won’t if someone reports you.
If all had gone according to the CPS plan they would have been at our door first thing in the morning with no notice - a surprise attack.
I used that hour to research CPS, what the visits were all about, what our rights were, and initiated a membership with the Homeschool Legal Defense Asscociation (of which we had not previously been members).
That hour of notice was also terrifying. If you want to read some absolute horror stories and begin to question just how great America is any more, do some web searches on CPS visits. The stories you’ll encounter are heartbreaking.
What to Know About CPS Visits
While I wasn’t able to have a lawyer lined up before the CPS agent arrived, here are a few things I learned in my research and as a result of our visit:
- CPS seems to operate much like the IRS - you are guilty until proven innocent.
- Anyone can call CPS and make an anonymous report. CPS is required to investigate.
- If your kids are in public school CPS can be called in and your kids questioned without you being called or alerted beforehand.
- CPS agents will not apprise you of your rights in the same way a police officer will, but you still have those rights.
- Those rights include the right to remain silent. Our lawyer (later) advised us to say as little as possible because anything you say can be passed along to law enforcement and used against you if they decided to prosecute. We talked more in the first CPS visit than I would have preferred, but as it happened MsBoyink gave a recounting of the incident which meant I never directly “admitted” anything.
- CPS may or may not be forthcoming about the purpose of their visit. I was not told directly that I was being investigated for child abuse. I didn’t know enough to ask directly “what are the charges” - but did ask a general question about the overall process and his goals and I didn’t get a direct answer. He didn’t read me his report word for word, nor did I think to ask to read it for myself.
- You don’t have to allow them into your home if they don’t have a search warrant. MsBoyink and I met the agent outside and shut the door behind us. He didn’t directly ask to come inside, but did ask about our other child. We had that child come to the door so he could see that they were present and uninjured, but didn’t allow any direct questioning between the agent and the child. There have been reports that simple things like dirty dishes in the sink become “evidence” for a unsuitable environment for kids so it’s better to not go there if you don’t have to.
- The interview may use trickery. The agent tried to draw a response out of me by reading language from the report that we don’t believe was actually in there (our child later told us they never said such a thing). I think his hope was that by “reading” something over the top I would jump to try and correct it to exonerate myself.
- CPS agents are used to getting the jump on the people they are investigating. Our agent seemed surprised (and a bit perturbed) that we knew he was coming.
- CPS has a list of things the agent is supposed to investigate. We asked for and received a copy of that list (it did include things like ‘condition of the home’).
After reviewing the other items on the provided list I brought an end to the interview saying I wanted to talk with a lawyer before saying anything more.
The agent acted surprised at this, saying the lawyer would just recommend that we answer his questions (which is NOT what the lawyer actually recommended).
The agent left his card saying we should call him once we had contacted a lawyer.
Getting a Lawyer
It took a few days to get connected with HSLDA.
During this time our child came back home and we started some family counseling with a local provider. Once we got connected with HSLDA the lawyer recommended we not contact CPS, but instead wait for them to make the next move.
When they did return we were to just tell them the child was home willingly and that we had started family counseling.
Another CPS Visit
About a week later another government car pulled up and the original agent got out along with another man who was never introduced or identified. We again met them outdoors and I (nervously) told the agent that our child was home, we had started counseling, and on the advice of my laywer had nothing more to say.
The agent again seemed surprised at this saying;
If you have nothing to hide why would you not talk to us?CPS Agent
I just repeated that I was acting on advice of my lawyer, and the two men left.
After this second visit were several weeks filled with fear and dread. We looked at every car coming in the park.
Every time a siren sounded we had a momentary flickering thought of “are they coming?” Reading more stories of CPS action online only made my anxiousness worse - I had to make purposeful steps to avoid getting really fixated on the entire situation and be able to do any work.
We made efforts to keep the trailer cleaner and more picked up than normal. We didn’t restock on beer or wine. We tried to be up and dressed and productive at an earlier hour.
We very much found the line between paranoia and preparedness tough to identify.
We had a few hiccups trying to contact HSLDA for more advice, so this period of time went on longer than I would have liked.
What we wanted to know is was there a way to force resolution from CPS so that we knew the case had been closed? We were due to be leaving the state and didn’t want to get pulled back suddenly by a court summons, nor did we want to have to remain in the state during the cold winter months as a legal process dragged on.
We finally connected with HSLDA again and were advised that CPS can be a bit of a hornet’s nest that you don’t want to poke too much so it was best to just wait it out.
They have a period of time where they need to act if they are going to (which varies state by state) and we were close to that ending. HSLDA felt that if CPS was going to take action they would have done it already.
CPS budgets are known to be tight, the caseworkers overloaded, and our case didn’t have any signs of needing further involvement on their part.
So, we sat on our hands, tried to not think about things and continued with family counseling. It has gotten easier as time has gone on and other issues have needed our attention.
There was never any further contact with CPS either in person, in writing, or via phone.
Our Advice to You
Coming out of this experience our advice for all homeschooling and traveling families is:
- Know your basic rights. Practice your ‘Law & Order’ skills and and keep the Miranda Warning in your mind when it comes to a CPS visit. It still applies even though they aren’t flashing a badge.
- Do NOT consider CPS agents to be operating in your best interest.
- Teach your kids that they don’t have to answer questions from adults without you being there, even if those adults seem to be in positions of power or authority.
- Teach your kids to not open the door to someone they don’t know, and to certainly not let a stranger in.
- Join HSLDA or retain a lawyer (or be prepared to if the need arises). I know money can be tight - we looked at joining HSLDA over the years but never did because of the expense. Looking back we probably should have joined when we started traveling.
- Don’t let the fear of a CPS visit keep you from living the way you really want to. In our four years of traveling we’ve never even had the inkling of a vibe from anyone in the RV world that they didn’t like what we were doing. Pretty much the opposite - usually the first thing we hear is “how awesome that is for your kids!”
- Have a network of friends and family who will support and pray for you. We needed this like we never have before in our family - and are so grateful for those who took our phone calls, our text messages, our emails, and our social media posts while this was going on. You know who you are and we thank God you are in our lives.
Getting Past It
It’s been over a year since the events detailed here took place.
I won’t go all “Michigan-nice” and pretend we are the perfect happy family. We learned a few things about each other during the counseling. We have put plans in place to help resolve some of the issues underlying this whole event.
We have slipped, argued, and had to apologize and start over. We are hanging in there and doing fairly well at the day to day of getting along with each other.
I hope the same for you.
Godspeed to You
If you find yourself dealing with CPS, Godspeed to you and our prayers are with you.