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What are unsafe living conditions for children in Texas?

When Child Protective Services (CPS) comes out to your house to initiate an investigation, they may do so based on a report that they have received stating that you have exposed your child to unsafe working conditions. This can come as a shock to you as a parent especially if you do everything that you can to maintain a certain degree of stability and cleanliness in the house. It can feel like a punch to your stomach when you hear from an organization that you are not doing something well enough when it comes to how you parent your child. 

Additionally, CPS has a reputation of sometimes being difficult to communicate with. Their case workers and investigators are oftentimes spread too thin between cases and as a result trying to get messages to your case worker or ask questions can prove to be harder than it really should be. It would be normal to feel helpless in a situation where your child's well-being is hanging in the balance. These caseworkers are your direct point of contact between yourself and CPS. In some cases, if your child is removed from your home then the caseworker may be your direct line of contact between you and your child. 

Being able to account for what is exactly considered to be an unsafe condition for your child may be the key to having your child returned to your home and ending the CPS investigation. While the CPS caseworker should be able to provide you with specific information about what needs to be fixed or removed in your home to have your child returned, there may be other factors in play that qualify your home as being unsafe for your child. 

What conditions may be unsafe for a child?

There are four factors that CPS will look for when determining whether your home is unsafe: 

  1. Emotional abuse/neglect
  2. Physical or sexual abuse
  3. The condition of your home
  4. Other forms of abuse or neglect

Let’s examine the home itself. The age and maturity level of your children will play a major role in determining what an unsafe condition is for your child. If your children are all in high school, then leaving the cabinets under the sink unlocked probably isn’t that big of a deal. However, if you have toddlers crawling/walking around the house then leaving those cabinets open for them to wander into is a big deal. 

CPS is going to judge your house based on how it looks at that moment. A lot of clutter, dirt, grease in the kitchen, dishes that need to be washed, etc. are not going to look great for you. If you consider conditions like that and couple them with allegations of neglect in other ways, then you are going to have to work to convince that CPS worker that your child should remain in the house. Keep in mind that the specific circumstances of your case matter. At a certain point, this becomes a subjective interpretation by the CPS caseworker. If it "feels" to him or her that your child is unsafe, or the house is just too dirty for a child to be safe then the caseworker may go with their gut and ask that your child be removed from the home. 

What does your child need to be considered well cared for?

The answer to this question is not much. The bar is low as far as what the State of Texas requires for your child to be considered well-cared for and safe. Does your child have a place to live? For most everyone reading this blog post the answer to that question is: yes. Whether that is in an apartment, single-family home, or even in the home of a relative if your child knows that he or she will have a home to return to at the end of the day that is enough for the State of Texas or any state in our country for that matter. 

Next, does your child have food to eat? Again, this is not something where you must prepare a home-cooked meal for every meal of the day or something fancy for your child to eat. Three meals a day is the next benchmark to consider. Remember that you may be able to obtain free meals for your child through their school- sometimes even on a year-round basis. Food stamps, WIC, and other government assistance may also be available to you and your child. 

For everyone else who does not qualify for government assistance when it comes to feeding your child, that just means that you need to be able to act intentionally when it comes to having mealtime set aside for your child each day. I won’t spend too much time getting into a discussion of what may be going on in your life that could pull you away from mealtime for your children. Assuming that your children are capable of fending for themselves from time to time is not an assumption that the State of Texas shares with you. If it becomes known to a CPS worker that you have not “fed” your children in a few days due to whatever reason that is going to be a tough argument to counter.

Take the time to sit down and eat with your children. This does not have to be a four-course meal right at five o’clock. It can be a 15-minute meal around the coffee table, breakfast bar, or wherever you and your family choose to eat. Work with your children to make sure they know when mealtime is and that they are expected to be present at the table when food is ready. Not only will this ensure that they can be fed each day, but it can help you to learn more about their lives. Asking questions and hearing about their days is a great tool for avoiding situations where your child may be a victim of abuse or neglect in another area of their life. 

Clothing is a requirement that does not come up too frequently in CPS cases, but I will mention it here, nonetheless. Clothing your child is sort of like feeding your child- it doesn’t take much. Making sure that your child has clothes that fit him or her is a good way to never have CPS approach your doorstep. One of the first things people notice about a child is the clothes he or she has on and the condition of their hair. If your child has clean clothes and combed hair then the scrutiny of your child may end at that point. 

There are clothing re-sale stores, charity outlets, and churches that can help you obtain clothes for your children if you truly cannot afford to purchase them new clothes every so often. This does not mean that your child needs to be at the forefront of style. What it does mean is that your child's clothes need to be kept looking decent. You can put yourself in a tough position if you do not care for your child's clothing. Tattering clothes or clothes that are too small for a child invites speculation about the parenting of that child. This isn't necessarily fair, but it is true. Children indeed tend to grow quickly at various times in their lives. As such, you need to be prepared to take care of that. 

The best interests of the child's standard

In Texas, the state assumes that you are acting in the best interests of your child when it comes to their life. What you do in terms of their living conditions, who you bring around your child, and what activities you engage in with your child all are a part of that topic. Grandparents can find out quickly that being denied time with their grandkids is not a violation of any law given that parents are presumed to make decisions in the best interests of their children when it comes to denying time with grandparents or any other person for that matter. 

It is difficult to make the argument that you are acting in the best interests of your children when you allow them to be around unsafe conditions in the home. Whether it is holes in the floor, bugs in the home, dirty conditions, no food, no clean water, or unsafe people in the home it is easy to slip into a situation where your child is not kept safe due to decisions that you have made. While it may not have been your intention to expose your child to unsafe conditions that may be exactly what is going on.

You need to have a plan in place when it comes to keeping your children safe. It is impossible to be able to always ensure that your child is perfectly safe from potential harm. The State of Texas acknowledges this. That’s how children who are injured at home typically do not end up being taken away from their parents. However, if your child repeatedly falls off the bed and injures themselves then it may be something where your children are removed from your home for a period to allow you to fix a dangerous condition or simply develop better parenting skills where you can keep your eyes on that child more frequently. 

Your child can be removed from your home if a CPS caseworker believes that leaving your child in the home will likely lead to mental or physical harm for your child. CPS will need to petition a family court judge for permission to remove your child from the home and to place themselves as a temporary managing conservator of your child. The judge will review an affidavit from the CPS caseworker regarding the condition of your home and decide whether to grant CPS temporary conservatorship of your child. This will allow them to remove your child from your home and to be placed them in CPS custody. 

Emotional neglect or abuse

Not paying sufficient attention to the emotional or physical state of your child may be grounds for removal depending upon the severity of your neglect as well as any actual harm suffered by your child because of that neglect. If your child has come to you with complaints of abuse or neglect and you disregard their thoughts or concerns, then you may be neglecting them. Important considerations about this sort of situation related to the age of your child as well as their maturity level. However, the more well-developed the child's allegations are the more serious you ought to take them. Addressing them with an adult who is familiar with the situation like a teacher, coach or another parent would seem to be prudent in most cases. 

An argument could be made that by disregarding the allegations made by your child you are positioning your child to be less likely to come forward again with allegations in the future. This could lead to a serious situation of abuse or neglect. You need to be able to take seriously the outcries from your child and expect that your child may not react like you think he or she ought to during this type of situation. 

For example, you and I, as adults, may expect a child to be distraught or experience other emotions while telling you about an alleged incident of abuse or neglect. However, your child may instead tell you about the incident in passing or at least not be overly emotional about the situation. You should not let that change how you judge the circumstances and should take your child at their word if you believe your child is being truthful. The potential harm you can avoid for your child by at least following up with another adult is enormous. At the very least it can help your child and you avoid a situation involving a CPS investigation. 

Physical abuse

One of the worst types of incidents involving children that CPS investigates every year involves physical or sexual abuse of a child. Intentionally causing the bodily injury of a child is noted as being physical abuse. Hitting, slapping, pushing, or kicking your child is an example of physical abuse. Sexual abuse of a child is a type of physical abuse. 

Neglect of your child

Neglect is a difficult allegation to fight against sometimes due to several factors. Often, when it comes to neglect, the allegation is as much about inaction as it is about action. Failing to provide your child with food, water or clothing can be an example of neglect. A major example of neglect can also be failing to provide your child with adequate supervision. Leaving your child home alone, allowing your five-year-old to cross the street without someone holding their hand, or letting your six-year-old go to the park with a friend and no parent are all examples of neglect, potentially. 

Is your child enrolled in school? Children need to be enrolled in school and if your child is not enrolled that may result in an investigation by CPS. Medical care is important for your child- well-child visits as well as other types of medical care if your child needs medical care. There are sometimes issues associated with going to the doctor and receiving care in some situations based on religious beliefs or other factors. However, for most people, you need to be able to allow your child to see a doctor regularly. Older children typically only need to see the doctor once per year unless there is an issue that comes up during the year like an illness. 

Unsafe environment

These are conditions that have caused the home to be an unsafe environment for your children. If you have not paid the water or electric bill, then this is a dangerous situation for your child to be living in a house that does not have running water or electricity. Cleanliness around the house is also important. Mold on food, bathrooms with feces or urine in and around toilets, and more can constitute an unsafe environment for children. It can also extend to leaving items unattended around the home like chemicals, appliances, and knives. 

It is also important to keep track of who is coming into the home. Even if these are not people that you invite into the home you should be aware of any person- adult or child- who enters your home. If you are allowing a friend to stay in your home but know that the friend tends to use drugs in their leisure time, then that is probably not an ideal situation for your child. Consider the ramifications of any person who enters your home on your child before allowing them the entrance for any period.

Questions about the material contained in today’s blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan

If you have any questions about the material contained in today’s blog post, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free of charge consultations six days a week in person, over the phone, and via video. These consultations are a great opportunity for you to learn more about the world of Texas family law as well as about how your family's circumstances may be impacted by the filing of a divorce or child custody case. 

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