Advocates, lawyers, caseworkers and more would likely agree that the Texas child welfare system is complicated. But for the children and families involved with Child Protective Services (CPS) due to evidence of abuse or neglect, it’s more than just complicated. It’s overwhelming, and even scary.
The Family Helpline for Strong Families and Safe Children, a project of the Austin-based Texas Legal Services Center, was created to demystify the child welfare system by providing free, objective legal information, explanation and education for callers; as well as referrals to local resources.
The Family Helpline is staffed by experienced attorneys who can explain the CPS process in easy-to-understand, everyday language. All calls are anonymous – and although the majority of them come from parents or relatives of children involved with the system, anyone and everyone is welcome to call regardless of whether there is an open CPS case, explained Crystal Leff-Piñon, the managing attorney for the Helpline.
“Anyone in the community can call in and basically get a free class on child welfare law,” she said.
Far more families are dealing with CPS in the non-legal world than in court, and there is a “huge hole” for these families when it comes to access to legal services, Leff-Piñon said. Last year, CPS handled more than 100,000 investigations of child abuse or neglect, and 24,000 Family-Based Safety Services (FBSS) cases. Families involved in non-legal FBSS cases and CPS investigations are not entitled to any kind of free, court-appointed legal representation, she explained, even though kids are sometimes still getting placed outside of the home in voluntary out-of-home placements. The Helpline was created in large part to fill this gap.
“CPS is scary for families, and a lot of families involved in this system are already stressed for various reasons. Decisions get made out of stress, fear and sometimes misinformation,” she said. “If they were able to access an accurate service they might make a different decision.”
The Helpline is currently managed by six attorneys, one full-time managing attorney (Leff-Piñon), one full-time staff attorney and four part-time staff attorneys. Each attorney has significant experience with and knowledge of CPS matters – all have represented either children, parents and/or CPS; two of the part-time lawyers still handle CPS cases; and Leff-Piñon used to represent CPS as an assistant district attorney.
The call-in process is simple. Here’s how it works:
- Someone calls the Helpline and gets connected with an experienced lawyer right away.
- The lawyer explains the rules (that the calls are anonymous, and they cannot offer advice or legal representation), and ensures the caller understands that they are mandatory reporters of suspected abuse or neglect.
- The lawyer asks for generic, non-identifying information such as the caller’s first name and zip code – the caller does not have to provide this information.
- The caller can stay on the line as long as they need to until they feel satisfied that their question or questions have been answered. They can also call back anytime.
- If an attorney is not available to answer right away, callers may leave a voicemail which will be returned within one business day.
Though the Helpline fills a largely unmet need for certain families, Leff-Piñon emphasized that it is not the same as an attorney-client relationship, in that the attorneys only offer legal information on these calls, not advice or representation.
“We can’t tell [callers] what to do, but we can at least inform them of the law and their rights so that they can make an informed decision on their own,” she said.
You can call the Family Helpline at 1-844-888-6565, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Spanish-speaking services and additional languages are available.
Please download The Family Helpline’s flyer and help spread the news about this critical resource. The Family Helpline also has cards, bookmarks and small posters available for distribution to members of the community. If you would like to obtain outreach materials to share in your community, please contact [email]firstname.lastname@example.org[/email].