Mrs. Stevens: I promise, it'll never happen again.
Child Services Clerk: I hope not, Mrs. Stevens. Because next time we won't just take him away, we'll kill him!We all know that in fiction, There Are No Therapists and Social Services Does Not Exist. On the occasions when Child Services does exist, they are almost inevitably shown to be one of two brands of stupid, if not both:
- Genuinely caring parents and would-be parents will find it nearly impossible to adopt thanks to Child Services' strangling bureaucracy and ridiculously judgemental policies. Social workers will never care if something is Not What It Looks Like; anything that could possibly be construed as contributing to a less than perfectly ideal home life is grounds for rejection, regardless of context. Or worse...
- Child Services is completely incompetent at actually keeping children out of neglectful or abusive foster homes. No matter how horrific the foster home or adoptive family, once children are placed there, they're on their own. Whether Social Services just stops caring or it's only now that there's any paperwork or red tape involved. In real life, a person who offers their services as a foster parent will be investigated inside and out for months before they are actually allowed to take in any children at all. And the child staying there is constantly monitored to make sure the right foster home was chosen.
- Alternatively, Child Services may appear to have more power than the Repo guys, taking children away on a whim - a messy bedroom, missing homework, a scraped knee or just being tired in class is enough to snatch a child from a loving and usually safe parental household. In its strongest examples a mother might go out for fifteen minutes to get some shopping and return to find their kids gone. Normally the paperwork needed to fill in and remove a child can take weeks. In fact they might be focusing so hard on scraped knees that they don't even notice the child trapped in a truly horrible situation.
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Anime and Manga
- Higurashi: When They Cry: Satoko, an example which becomes plot-critical in the penultimate arc. The reason they won't help her? Satoko once made a call to them that she unfortunately ended up unable to support at the time. In the author's afterward for the arc in the VN, he even apologizes about his portrayal of social services, possibly to avoid breaking the aesop stated in the previous afterward for Tsumihoroboshi arc that you always need to ask for help rather than resorting to drastic measures.
- The plot of Witchblade anime ultimately springs from meddling of aggressive 'Child Welfare Agency', which starts as a bunch of obnoxious bureaucrats and turns out to be corrupted and infiltrated by a squicky biotechnological Mega Corp..
- In Gunslinger Girl, the Social Welfare Agency is directly responsible for brainwashing little girls into cyborg assassins, a process which guarantees their early deaths. Then again, considering what most of the girls experienced before entering the program, it is arguably still an improvement.
- Subverted in the Dragon Ball Z episode "Plight of the Children". While the social workers do get too heavy-handed in their attempts to bring in the orphans, at least some of them genuinely want to help them. The oldest orphan and leader of the group Pigero eventually realizes this and allows the younger orphans to be taken away.
- Tokyo Ghoul reveals that children orphaned by Ghoul attacks are taken in by CCG and sent to their Junior Academy. While their physical and educational needs are met, the organization makes no effort to find these children new families or even give them normal lives — instead, the Junior Academy is a Tyke Bomb factory where orphans are given preliminary training as Ghoul Investigators. Juuzou's back story also shows there is little focus on the psychological welfare of the children, since the organization wants them to be fueled by their trauma and hatred of Ghouls.
- In at least one version of the story Dick Grayson wound up spending three weeks in juvie after his parents' death because of an incompetent Social Worker
- In another, a social worker tries to have a Robin (presumably Dick but possibly Jason Todd) taken away from Batman (not Bruce Wayne, Batman) for child endangerment and the fact that he couldn't prove he had custody of the kid (both having secret identities). Batman, being Batman, actually has papers that state "Robin" is emancipated, which he calmly produces and the woman leaves. Which brings up a whole other host of questions as to how he got those for a masked vigilante kid...
- Black Panther: The Man Without Fear has a CPS social worker who grows so disillusioned with her own department's apparent inability to protect young abuse victims that she takes to murdering abusive parents herself.
- In one Spider-Man story, social services are portrayed as utterly horrible for putting a young girl in "the system", rather than letting her stay with either the split-personality supervillain father who killed her mom, or the grandmother who allowed said supervillain father to kidnap her.
- Even The Fantastic Four went through this. After numerous supervillain attacks on the Baxter Building, Child Protective Services accused Reed and Sue of being bad parents towards Franklin and Valeria. After much protest, they agreed to relinquish custody of their children; however, less than four hours after the officials publically announced they were moving the two children to a safehouse, the safehouse was attacked by an unknown enemy and it - along with everything in a half-mile radius - was reduced to a smoldering crater. Fortunately, Reed had thought ahead of time - it had been a "dummy" safehouse, a condition he insisted on before he agreed to the terms, and miraculously, there were no casualties. Humiliated, the officials rescinded their decision. Still, no-one ever found out just who had attacked the decoy safehouse, and it was hinted that maybe the Fantastic Four did it themselves as a ploy to get their children back. But even if that's true, the point still stands: If you think you know better than Reed does, he's going to prove you wrong.
- In Runaways After everyone's parents die the kids are put in the system. Karolina's foster family was implied to be drug addicts and too out of it to notice her gone, Nico ended up a group home that as she put was for "unwanted goth children", Chase was able to claim he was living with a relative that didn't exist by using a PO box he had previously set up to pick his Playboy subscription, and they took away Gert's dinosaur (although to be fair, from an outsider's perspective that one would have been a good call). The only one that ended up in a good place was Molly, who was with other mutants, but even then she was unhappy because they took her friends away that she considered to be like family. The group ends up running away again and child services never really catches back up with them despite the youngest of the group only being eleven.
- The Sonic the Hedgehog Alternate Universe Fic Prison Island Break plays this straight. Convict Shadow Robotnik was taken away from his eccentric father-creator Gerald, but Social Services itself accidentally knocked down his sister Maria while doing so, fuelling a life-long resentment towards The Man. He was then passed around a series of foster homes which had trouble coping with him due to his emotional trauma and the fact that he's the Ultimate Lifeform. He was finally passed into the care of foster parents who physically and sexually abused him, and who he eventually murdered. Different from many other abuse fanfics in that Shadow clearly avoids bringing it up and will try to change the subject if it does.
Silver: What... happened to you?Shadow: Nobody ever came when I screamed. Nobody sympathised with me when I did what had to be done. Why should I help you, knowing there's nothing you can do for me?!
- The My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic "Today, Tomorrow, and Forever" is about loving mother Derpy Hooves having her daughter Dinky taken from her due to being a single mother with physical and mental handicaps and unable to do her job properly. It is as heartbreaking as you'd expect. In response, one fan wrote a continuation (which contradicted the original fic's epilogue) where somepony (implied to be Twilight Sparkle) investigated the case and found that it had been grossly mishandled and misinterpreted, and the story ended with mother and daughter happily reunited.
- In the Tsubasa -RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE- fanfic Freefall, Fin and Sebastian go through hell in the foster system, as a parallel for the Sinners' Valley in the original manga.
- A lot of Harry Potter fanfics explore why Harry was not removed from the abusive aunt and uncle, explaining it using this trope. In My Nephew Harry, the reason was because of poor communication, excessive paperwork, and confusion over tough love versus abuse. But when Dumbledore does find out, he is not pleased, and Harry is put into the custody of Aunt Marge.
- In Cellar Secrets, this comes up in Chapter 14, when someone, upset that Ryuuko got into her plants (she's never seen flowers before), calls in a tip to CPS, to which they send someone to investigate. However, as Aikurou and Tsumugu (a lawyer) point out, regardless if there was no evidence of abuse and neglect, they could very well want to take Ryuuko away, based on the fact that she is considered a very impaired child and that Satsuki may not be considered a good enough guardian for her based on the fact (the inverse of the "Today, Tomorrow, and Forever" scenario). When a social worker does come in, she plays this to a degree, as she does things a social worker really isn't supposed to do, as she forces her way in and tries to interrogate Ryuuko without having a warrant or court order to so. Fortunately, due to the case being mishandled, it was dropped and Satsuki retains custody of Ryuuko.
- Arguably, one could say they are in full swing of this trope as how they manage or consider to not investigate Ragyo after Ryuuko's existence and her condition was brought to light is a mystery, as having a severely abused child with little to no legal documentation kept in a cellar and underwent severe abuse and neglect should have warranted their attention then.
- In Stars from Home, Xavier and Ruth have a hard time becoming foster parents and later adopting, falling into Type 2. Ororo is in a Catholic orphanage and they use telepathic influence to avoid issues raised by their being unmarried and not Catholic. (Although she's unhappy, the care she receives is basically competent.) Scott spent most of his life facing Type 1; when Xavier tries to adopt him, as a disabled single man, he's considered an unfit parent. It's perhaps even worse that he's able to adopt Scott through bribery.
Films — Animated
- Lilo & Stitch: Subverted. Cobra Bubbles initially seems unreasonable and scary with his ultimatum that Nani get a new job within three days, but he makes it clear that he's been called in as a last resort effort to salvage Lilo's problematic case. While he acknowledges that Nani loves Lilo and is certainly trying, from his point of view it's clear that she has no control over her overactive little sister, and the danger their new "dog" represents to them and everyone else only makes matters worse. Overall, Mr. Bubbles is a good effort at portraying Social Services as an antagonist while still remaining sympathetic and understandable: as he points out to Nani, as much as she and Lilo love each other, Lilo needs a safer and more stable environment than Nani is able to provide. Nani also mentions other social workers being by, suggesting that her and Lilo's situation had been under observation for some time before Cobra Bubbles showed up, subverting the whole "one bad day is enough to lose the child" issue. And when aliens intervene to ensure that Lilo, Nani and Stitch stay together he's completely reasonable and promises to figure something out. Since the issues ultimately come down to time and money, it should be easy for a government official with a logically unlimited budget to fix everything.
Films — Live-Action
- Subverted. Looked at objectively, it's arguably not the worst decision Child Services has ever made: in Raising Arizona, Hi and Ed are denied adoption because Hi is an ex-con, which, Truth in Television wise, would be a reason not to adopt out a child to anyone.
- In It Takes Two, Kirstie Alley's character Diane seems to be the only competent Child Service worker in the movie: her superiors won't let her adopt Amanda despite both their wishes because the former doesn't make enough money yet foist Amanda (who unbeknown to them, was switched with her doppleganger Alyssa) on a couple of yokels who have already adopted about half a dozen other kids with the purpose of forcing them to work in their junkyard. Diane manages to find this out simply by talking to one of their neighbors.
- Occurs in Lackawanna Blues, when the (white) social services agent comes to question the living conditions of the (black) main character. The social services agent is portrayed entirely unsympathetically.
- In Charlie Chaplin's The Kid the Social Service workers are again portrayed as villains, who want to take Chaplin's adoptive son away because of the poverty they live in.
- In Martian Child, Social Services seriously considers taking Dennis away from what is probably the first supportive adult influence he's had in his entire life. Their reasoning? He's taking more than a month or two to just get over his social awkwardness and the extraordinary coping methods he developed to deal with severe abuse and neglect— obviously this means his foster dad failed at "fixing" him and was unfit to be a parent.
- The Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy follows the Rule of Funny for 80% of the story and then tries to construct a meaningful ending out of nonsense, leading to a situation where even though we're supposed to want the main character to get the better of Child Services and keep the kid, all we've been shown about his qualifications is that he's a neglectful Man Child who can barely take care of himself, let alone a five-year-old, and has absolutely no legal ground to stand on.
- Wikus invokes this trope in District 9 to deal with an unusually clever prawn to get him to sign an eviction notice; that a slum isn't a suitable growing environment for his young, who will get shipped off and put in a little box for the rest of his life if he doesn't sign and agree to leave.
- Played with in Life as we know it. Their social worker turns out to be quite competent, but Messer thinks it was way too easy for him and Holly to get custody over Sophie in the first place.
Judge Gorling: I hereby grant joint legal and physical custody of Sophie Christina Novak to Holly Berenson and Eric Messer.Messer: That's it? You're not gonna ask us anything? How do you know we're not drug dealers or pimps?Judge Gorling: Are you drug dealers or pimps?Holly: No, ma'am! No.Later, at home:Messer: Done! Next case! "Here, take a kid. No, take two; we've got extra."
- Parodied in Moonrise Kingdom with Tilda Swinton's character, who is only ever referred to as "Social Services". She is a temperamental control freak who wants to put Sam in a "juvenile refuge", and give him electroshock therapy to correct his mischievous behavior.
- The basic plot of Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird: the "Bird Board" believes that Big Bird should be with an avian family, rather than being loved and cared for by humans and monsters. They eventually realise they're wrong.
- In the Mongolian melodrama My Beautiful Jinjiimaa, the local Communist party boss tries to have Jinjiimaa's daughter sent to an orphanage after Jinjiimaa is absent for an extended period for medical treatment. In this case there's a specific motive: the local party boss raped Jinjiimaa six years ago, and is the child's father.
- Averted in Adopting Terror. Child Protective Services remove Mona from Kevin's custody because his children have all suffered physical abuse and they take reasonable precautions when things look to be fishy with the Broadbents. It is, of course, spoiled by the abuser secretly working for CPS, which makes you wonder how their security check missed that.
- Child Services in the film, Frisco Jenny, want to take her son away because she works at a brothel.
- A Thousand Clowns: Naturally, the Child Welfare Board, personified by Albert the prick, recommends that Nick be taken away from Murray, because Murray is a goofy free spirit and also because he's been out of work for five months.
- Q: What's the difference between a rottweiler and a social worker? A: It's easier to get your child back from a rottweiler.
- The Sisters Grimm is the epitome of this trope. Sabrina and Daphne have been stuck with crazy man who is obsessed with his ferrets, people who locked the girls in bathrooms, and ex-convicts. That's just naming a few of the places they had to run away from.
- Circle of Magic plays this trope quite literally, with the temple system serving as the closest thing to social services—however, Winding Circle only took in any of them because of their magic. Without their magic, Briar would have been doing hard labor until he died (within a few years) and Sandry would have died hidden away in a closet.
- White Oleander deals with the trope, though the emphasis is less on the social workers and more on the foster care parents. Astrid is shuffled from bad foster family to bad foster family, putting her life in danger on multiple occasions, and she gets a grand total of one helpful intervention. And that's from a caseworker who's just doing the job so she can write a book about the system.
- Harry Potter is forced to live in a broom cupboard until he's eleven, has none of his own clothes, is malnourished, and bullied constantly at home and at school by his Spoiled Brat cousin. None of the Muggle authorities seem to notice (possibly because the Dursleys are above suspicion due to being middle-class). And while Harry must live there due to magical reasons, the only time wizarding authorities get involved is to punish him for 'unauthorized use of magic' without bothering to investigate if it was actually him. Mrs. Figg, who is monitoring Harry for Dumbledore, does report the abuse but it still falls to societal misfits like Sirius Black and Mad-Eye Moody to actually tell them off. Given all that, getting taken away by social services would have been a blessing, magic protection or no.
- Most of the plot of Circle of Flight is Ellie fighting to regain custody of Gavin after he is removed because there is dog faeces on their lawn, his bedroom is untidy and their dog is sleeping in there, and there is too much soft drink and too little milk in their refrigerator.
- A Series of Unfortunate Events uses this trope quite frequently with Mr. Poe, who places the Baudelaire orphans in one abusive home after another for the first seven books (with the exception being book 2).
- Especially in the first book, in which the sole criteria he uses to choose the children's guardian-to-be is how far out of his way he has to go to drop them off.
- Dante from A Rush Of Wings was deliberately put through this by the shadowy government conspiracy of mad science for the express purpose of turning him psychopathic. Ironically, he's the Messiah. Seems the government really can't do anything right...
- Elena's backstory in Bitten. Elena was horribly orphaned at five years old, and her mother's best friend volunteered to adopt her. She was rejected because she was single, and Child Services made sure Elena never saw her again, believing in "clean breaks". Instead, Elena spends the rest of her childhood being shuttled from foster home to foster home, in many of which she is sexually abused by her foster fathers and/or brothers.
- In The City Who Fought by Anne McCaffrey and S.M. Stirling, the space station's brain wants to adopt a daughter who managed to stow away. Unfortunately, the social services worker assigned to the girl's case proves to be an outright bigot, and denies the application on the grounds that "a shellperson can't possibly raise a child," apparently in complete ignorance of the Federation's anti-discrimination laws.
- In Men Who Hate Women, note the incompetent Social Services assigns the female protagonist Lisbeth Salander under the care of a rapist. Her first legal guardian was/is a Reasonable Authority Figure, though, and it's implied that after he had a stroke they were scrambling to find someone who could take her on very short notice—something that Bjurman took advantage of.
- One of the Baby Sitters Club Mystery Specials was about the girls investigating mysterious events while on a work experience trial at a shopping mall. They eventually discover that three young children are living in the mall because social services had threatened to separate them after their mother had to go into hospital.
- In Andrew Vachss's Burke books, the protagonist, after being left to the State when his (apparently?) prostitute mother abandoned him, experienced the horrors of an at best ineffectual, at worst actively malicious system firsthand.
- Jada of Young Wives is a perfectly good mom with a layabout husband. The husband manages to get the entire court system on his side in a spectacular manner, to the point where Jada is barely allowed to see her children and has to have a social worker on hand whenever she does.
- The social services worker assigned to Alcatraz Smedry never directly places him in an abusive environment, but she is part of a cult of evil librarians hoping to steal his inheritance. She's also his mother.
- The social services workers in Acorna aren't so much evil as they are incredibly stupid. They declare that the miners who have been acting as Acorna's guardians for well over a year without incident cannot possibly be proper guardians to the girl because if they were parent material, they'd be office workers like them instead of miners. They also cannot tell the difference between 'absurdly large number of harmless birth defects'' (Such as two-jointed fingers, hooves, no incisors or canines, horn on head...) and 'member of unknown species', and try to have the girl undergo large amounts of unnecessary cosmetic surgery to correct the 'defects'.
- Discussed in The Dresden Files, where Harry talks about his history as an orphan and getting bounced from one foster home to another. He notes that while there is a system in place to support children without families or suffering from abuse, it isn't perfect, and children can end up in poor homes as often as they end up in loving and caring homes. Unlike most portrayals, Harry doesn't seem to hate or disparage the child services system, but notes that it has its flaws. It's also probably not their fault that young Harry was put in the care of someone like Justin DuMorne, who was raising/training Harry to be a cross between an acolyte and a hired goon. Justin was a wizard, and one who didn't care about breaking the Laws of Magic, so child services would have been putty in his hands.
- The In Death series: Child Services in this series is so Type 1, as Memory in Death demonstrated. Eve Dallas and at least 10 other girls have been placed in the home of an abusive foster mother named Trudy Lombard over a number of years. Every single one of them ended up running away or being placed somewhere else. The story tries to explain that Lombard knew how to play the system and make it so that no one would believe the girls if they said that she was mistreating them. Unfortunately, that begs the question on how Child Services failed to notice the pattern that every child they put in that Manipulative Bitch's house resulted in them being worse off than they were before.
- In The Godmother by Elizabeth Anne Scarborough, Rose Samson, an idealistic social worker, is frustrated by the increasingly illogical regulations she has to deal with in Social Services, until she is aided by a professional Godmother. It's worse than she thinks; the policies are put in place by a board of evil city councilmen to ensure that more children either run away from home or are lost in the system, so they can become easy prey for the pedo-ring they set up!
- Subverted in The Rowan: No one, including child services, thinks giving custody of The Rowan over to Prime Siglen is a good idea, as Siglen was known to be horribly self-absorbed and empathy-free. Just the type of person you want to leave the care and training of a pre-teen girl (one with strong, untrained psychic powers) to. But they had no other viable option in this case, as Siglen was the only person on the planet qualified to train a Prime Talent properly, and she (The Rowan) was too young to be shipped to another world when a more empathetic Prime (any of the others) could teach (because of Prime Travel Sickness).
- Used in a few Jacqueline Wilson books. In Dustbin Baby, social services place April in a series of increasingly awful care homes for children: one where the staff don't notice that she's being viciously bullied by another girl, one where kids are openly committing crimes (leading to April being caught up in a burglary), and finally a home where most of the girls are serious offenders. In The Bed and Breakfast Star Elsa's family lose their home and are placed in an overcrowded, filthy "bed and breakfast" (cheap motel-style accommodation) despite the fact they have three young children, two of whom are under five. Another family in the bed and breakfast has a son whose asthma is badly affected by the damp, yet the authorities refuse to re-house them. Tracy's care home in the Tracy Beaker series is known as "The Dumping Ground" because it's where children end up when no one wants them. The staff aren't really cruel or abusive, but severely lack funding and resources, and usually fail to notice when the children are having problems.
Live Action TV
- In one episode that deals with this - they must depend on abused foster children to help solve a crime, and the good doctor complains about this to a CPS Agent.
- And of course, Bones herself had a rather nasty time in foster care as part of her backstory.
- This is also averted with Sweets, who at some point was taken away from his abusive parents and adopted by a family he was still close with until their deaths.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy's custody of Dawn was threatened in season six when a social worker visits their house. Buffy made it look like she was crazy to get her off their backs, which was Played for Laughs, but fell a bit flat because the social worker was actually being fairly reasonable. Buffy hadn't shown herself to be a capable guardian, carrying what she called "magic grass" around the house and lying about how many roommates she had, and Dawn had been struggling in school and had started stealing things.
- A go-to trope when the Law & Order franchise (especially Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) needs a non-criminal / non-FBI whipping boy.
- Justified in the early Law & Order episode "Indifference," when the detectives berate Child Services for not helping a young abused girl. The bureaucrat, annoyed, turns on a computer which displays a list of children in need in New York City alone which seems literally a mile long and notes that the state registry is ''even longer'', punctuated with "We have our hands full." The embarrassed detectives leave, having gotten the point.
- Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
- An episode has a Child Services worker who, after a distinguished career helping children reach good homes, is hounded to suicide after mistakenly trusting a child to a poor home, resulting in the child's death.
- But subverted in the episode with a mentally-abusive mother who pushed this trope so hard, her older son killed the younger to "save" him from Child Services when they started to investigate and later revealed he was going to kill himself as well but the gun jammed. It turned out there was an even older son who had been taken away, hadn't been beaten or raped in his foster homes at all, and was reasonably well-adjusted.
- Punky Brewster has more than one multi-episode story arc on the subject of government social workers wanting Punky to be taken away from Henry and put in an orphanage instead. In one arc, when Henry is in hospital, an Obstructive Bureaucrat takes the letter of the law to ridiculous measures; Betty Johnson is denied custody of Punky because Punky would have to share a room with her best friend Cherry. Betty complains that instead Punky will have to share a room with several strangers.
- The L Word (season 3) features a hellish social worker dead set against allowing Bette to adopt Tina's baby so they can be co-parents. Unfortunately, GLBT couples not being allowed to adopt is Truth in Television, although in this case it was somewhat justified.
- Subverted in Six Feet Under where Keith and David expect that the social workers will be examples of Type 2 of the trope and prevent them from having foster kids on account of their being gay, so they methodically hide all of their gay art and literature before the first home interview. In fact, the first social worker who comes to interview them turns out to be gay himself. Later on, Keith and David are having so much trouble managing their sons that they want to ask the social worker during a home visit about placing the kids with a different family. Instead, the social worker is so harried and overworked that she spends about five seconds determining that the kids aren't obviously covered with bruises, tells David and Keith they're doing a fantastic job, and then runs off to her next case.
- The Child Services of Judging Amy seemed to be an Obstructive Bureaucracy with a very low percentage of competent agents, forcing Maxine Grey to swoop in and save the day nearly every episode. Clearly someone in the chain of command think's she's the best; despite her age and un-retirted status she's offered the head of the department again once it's realized that in addition to incompetence, her current boss is likely an embezzler. (Special points to the higher-ups actually threatening to put the incompetent crook back in charge unless Maxine took the job.) Sometimes it seemed like she was the only one who actually cared about the kids; subverted with her mostly okay new boss.
- Subverted in Dexter. Rita panics about the visit of a social worker, so she asks Dexter to wait at the house while she isn't there. When the social worker arrives and Dexter tries to make excuses, she cuts him off by saying that Rita is a great parent, and that it's a pleasure to go by a house where someone cares. She mentions the only reason she comes over is that its a routine follow up to domestic violence cases, to make sure there's a stable home environment. Continued in that scene where Dexter talks about how great child services was to him, even though at that moment he doesn't know that child services had nothing to do with him, and that they did screw up with his brother. Or he was unfixable.
- House has a scene where a social worker comes to inspect Cuddy's house to determine whether she is fit to adopt a child. Cuddy panics since she did not have the time to fully tidy up the house. The social worker tells her not to worry since she obviously cares a lot about the child and with her job as a doctor and the administrator of a hospital she is more than able to provide for the child.
- He specifically says that feeling guilty about a little mess was a good sign, and she was
- The Cold Case episode "Fly Away" had a social worker who was actually a pedophile. "The Woods" had one who was a burglar. "Ghost of My Child" had one who stole her client's baby.
- In early episodes of The O.C., going into foster care is depicted as the worst thing that could possibly happen to Ryan, so that running away is preferable.
- The boys on Sons Of Tucson have a presumably correct belief that if Child Services knew that they were living without any parental guardian, they would be forced into some undesirable living arrangement. Because of this, they resort to hiring a rather immature man to pretend to be their father; not because they think he can take care of them better than they can take care of themselves, but primarily just so that they can keep on living in their current home rather than whatever Child Services would decide for them.
- A large part of Buz's backstory on Route 66.
- Criminal Minds
- The first victim of a Professional Killer hired to act as a Vigilante Man in the episode "Reckoner" was a child services worker whose extreme apathy in regards to her job resulted in the death of at least one child (a seven year-old who was starved to death).
- In the episode "Children of the Dark" where two foster brothers who were abused in their foster home are now serial killers, the team goes to investigate the family only to find that not only do they still have foster kids, but they still abuse them. This is incredibly obvious the first time they arrive, and one of the killers recalls his foster mother holding him underwater until he passed out, but Social Services says they'll have to run a full investigation first and the kids are returned home one of them with a gun. This is especially jarring because forensic psychologists (i.e. most of the main cast) often check homes for abuse. So Morgan having shown up and looked around was pretty much what their investigation would be.
- In many Lifetime Movie of the Week plots, social services will inevitably be portrayed like they are incompetent. Both types 1 and 2. Alternatively, it will be portrayed as way too easy to adopt children if it moves the plot along.
- Averted in the fourth season of Queer as Folk. When Ben and Michael are granted custody over teenage former prostitute Hunter, they are told that a social worker may show up unannounced at any time, and they spend quite some time worrying about not making a good impression. When she finally shows up, Hunter opens the door dressed only in his underwear (which is something they have told him to stop doing because of that very reason) and Michael and his mom are having the screaming match of the century. They are horrified, convinced that she's going to take Hunter away from them, but she comes back later and tells them they have nothing to worry about, since she realizes that a family that love each other enough to feel comfortable yelling like that is not necessarily an unhealthy environment for a child, and she compares them to her relationship with her own mother.
- Touch: Martin has to help a black kid from a corrupt social service worker, who forces the kid to commit petty crimes, or else he would separate him and his disabled brother.
- An EastEnders storyline has drawn criticism from the social workers' union for using this trope.
- One episode of Person of Interest involved a social worker framing ex-cons with children for various crimes so that he could take the children away as part of an embezzlement scheme.
- Longmire: Joseph Nighthorse accuses the DCF of being this in "Dog Soldiers" and accuses them of profiting off taking Cheyenne children from perfectly fine homes and he's right, though it also turns out that the "Dog Soldier" who's been abducting them back is Nighthorse himself.
- Family Matters: After experiencing parenal neglect, being moved in and out of foster homes, and being passed up for adoption, Steve Urkel and the Winslows are the first stable influences that 3J has had in years. The Winslows eventually foster and adopt 3J themselves. note
- Two and a Half Men : Walden's foster child, Louis, has a world-weariness about him, from having been shuffled between foster homes. He's only six years old, but it's pretty sad to watch.
- Touched upon in a Silent Witness episode where social services are called in to investigate a baby's mysterious bruises. Despite medical evidence proving that the bruising is caused by a genetic disorder, the social worker on the case testifies against the parents, and they have their son taken away. They are eventually cleared on a doctor's testimony and the child is returned to them, although the episode ends on a sad note with the parents finding out they missed his first steps.
- Daredevil: Matt Murdock took up vigilantism after overhearing the sound of a father who was molesting his daughter, and whom child protective services couldn't do anything about. Foggy, who had been up to this point tearing into Matt about his lawyer by day/vigilante by night hypocrisy, can only shudder in shock from what Matt implies.
Matt Murdock: Then one night, right after we quit Landman & Zack... I heard it.Foggy Nelson: Heard what?Matt Murdock: A little girl. Crying in her bed, in a building down the block. Her father liked to go to her room late at night…when his wife was asleep.Foggy Nelson: [horrified] Oh, Jesus.Matt Murdock: I called Child Services. Like you're supposed to. But the mom, she wouldn't believe it. Said it wasn't true. And the dad, he was smart. [scoffs] He made sure what he did, how he did it, didn't leave a mark. The law couldn't do anything to help that little girl. But I could. [In a flashback, Matt jumps the father and beats him to a bloody pulp] He spent the next month in a hospital, eating through a straw. And I never slept better.
- In Persona 5, Youji Isshiki files a complaint with Social Services against Sojiro Sakura, falsely alleging that the latter is abusing his adopted daughter Futaba and that the protagonist, a teenager on probation also staying with the Sakuras, assaulted a man. Futaba becomes worried that, thanks to her former status as an asocial shut-in, she would be mistaken for an abuse victim (which she is, but by Youji). Subverted when the investigators actually show up: already doubting the validity of the report, they quickly affirm that Sojiro is a capable parent and that the kids are happy with him.
- In Nip and Tuck, the Show Within a Show Rebel Cry features a boy whose father was declared unfit for being broke, even though he has a job now.
- In Dept Heaven Apocrypha, what serves for Social Services in Asgard proved so ineffectual that Nessiah, a victim of severe sexual abuse, was basically ignored until it was almost too late. It didn't help that the perpetrator happened to be a Villain with Good Publicity and considerable political power, who was pressuring them to keep out of his way.
- Even now, it's hinted that they might give in to that pressure; they've been investigating for a few months but can't seem to decide what to do with the evidence they have that Hector is a rapist.
- While social services may as well had been nonexistent for Toki, they were not for Jaynine and Sunflower, as they let her become their foster guardian, nevermind the fact that she has mental illness, a criminal record, and a long history of violence.
- Heroes Save The World: Hannah Johnson thinks that Child Protective Services is this because they separated her from her other siblings when they were moved into the foster care system. However, it's common practice to separate siblings from each other when one has been Promoted To Parent for so long that they wouldn't accept an actual adult's authority and might undermine it for the other children.
- The Simpsons: Though you could make the case that it was the right decision, Homer and Marge lose custody of their children for poor, circumstantial reasons. Homer and Marge take the day to go to a spa, leaving Grampa to take care of the kids. While at school, Bart gets lice, Lisa has her shoes stolen by bullies and loses a tooth when a dodgeball hits her in the head, and social services comes to the house to find stacks of old newspapers (gathered for a school project), Grampa asleep and Maggie drinking out of the dog bowl. So they snatch the kids away without asking another question when in real life they only have authority to do this in the most severe of cases, and need at the least a warrant to take the children. To Bart and Lisa's utter horror, their foster parents end up being Ned and Maude Flanders. The Flanders are naturally very loving, caring and competent if rather repressing parents so that choice at least makes good sense. (Well, unless you take into account the fact that their house is right next door to the couple they claimed were criminally abusive, and used nothing more than police tape to separate the two houses...) Not to mention how paranoid and presumptuous Principal Skinner was being. Statistically speaking, a single weird day doesn't equal a trend. Then again...
- South Park:
- The kids manage to get all their parents arrested by claiming they were molested by them. The Department of Child Disservices never shows up, even as all the adults in South Park are taken away when the kids make further accusations, and apparently the state of Colorado never bothers to care even as the town dissolves into chaos (since the kids aren't capable of taking care of themselves).
- Of course, this is South Park, where the adults are often worse than useless...
- Zig-zagged in the episode "Poor Kid". Kenny and his siblings are taken away from their alcoholic, neglectful parents, which is the responsible thing to do. Their caseworker Mr. Adams however is a dimwit who tells bad Penn State jokes rather than actually helping Kenny's younger sister adjust. When their foster parents turn out to be terrible abusers, Cartman calls Mr. Adams, who not only pulls the children out of that home, but is very distraught by having put them there. He ships the kids back to their original homes however, but he felt the system was too incompetent to help the children find good guardians.
- The kids manage to get all their parents arrested by claiming they were molested by them. The Department of Child Disservices never shows up, even as all the adults in South Park are taken away when the kids make further accusations, and apparently the state of Colorado never bothers to care even as the town dissolves into chaos (since the kids aren't capable of taking care of themselves).
- Family Guy did this twice both inverting and playing it straight:
- There was an episode devoted almost entirely to this where Meg took a part time job and milked her customers' sympathy to get bigger tips by claiming to be the unwed mother of a crack baby (with Stewie playing the part of her "son"). One of said customers was a Social Services agent, and interestingly enough, said social worker actually conducted an investigation (interviewing neighbors, which gave horrible testimony because of an unrelated feud), though she removed Stewie and had Peter and Lois' parental rights terminated without any actual evidence, or for that matter knowing who his actual mother was. Additionally, they take only Stewie away, while if they believed Lois was abusive they should have taken all three children. Worth pointing out, though, the foster family Stewie is put with isn't bad per se, just annoying as all get-out by virtue of being such Strawman Liberals that they've adopted one child of each major ethnicity. Stewie then manipulates the other children into fighting each other using ethnic stereotypes. This episode is also the source of the page quote, as seen when Peter and Lois go to the Child Services office to try and get Stewie back. In said scene, the worker then proceeds to ruffle through a filing cabinet and produces the kid, who is then returned to the woman.
- An inverted case is when Lois was hospitalized by Peter who was abusing his mentally retarded status, then a child service guy comes in to take Meg, Chris, and Stewie away from Peter because he was deemed mentally disabled and unfit to father them. And for once, they were probably right.
- Subverted in the pilot of King of the Hill, when a social worker suspects Hank of abusing Bobby under ridiculously circumstantial evidence, but when his supervisor looks over his report he rather quickly dismisses it and ends the investigation.
- Drawn Together bounces around with this, because while they do take children out of the neglectful and incompetent care of Toot and Foxxy Love, they refuse to put Toot's adopted baby with the same people Foxxy's children are with currently because they're horrible people.
- In one episode of Jem, after three of the orphaned girls run away from Starlight House, Pizzazz calls in a tip to Child Services claiming that Jerrica is mistreating the children there. The social worker who shows up in response does nothing to investigate the actual conditions at Starlight House or the details of why the girls ran away (one, Dierdre, ran away in a fit of adolescent pique after both Jerrica and Jem were too busy to talk to her; younger, more impressionable Ba Nee decided to tag along, and the more sensible Chrissie went with them to try to keep them out of trouble) he merely confirms that the girls are missing and declares that if they're not back by the end of the week, he'll recommend that all the Starlight girls be placed in new foster care and Starlight House be shut down.
- In the Goof Troop episode "Date with Destiny", Goofy's parenting is initially monitored because Max falls asleep in class for one day, turns in a report that was "not up to [his] usual level", and, due to exhaustion, has packed a bad lunch. He is then immediately taken away when his house is shown to be in disarray, even though that isn't even Goofy's fault. Then they move him in with Peg and Pete instantly just because Peg volunteers. While removing Max while Goofy fixes the house might be applicable, they are just as quick to move Max back in when Goofy's house is in an even worse state. And then Miss Pennypacker displays complete and utter unprofessionalism by asking Goofy out to dinner.
- After we know they exist, the world now has shades of the can't-keep-them-safe version, given the sorts of things Pete routinely gets away with doing to PJ, though not specifically in this episode.
- Dan Vs. zig-zags this trope in one episode. The foster home Dan visits do a thorough background check on him and seem to actually put some effort into placing children. But when Dan complains about the wait, the social worker takes him to a backroom where all the "problem cases" are in cage-like cribs. And they actually let him consider adopting one of them even though his background check hadn't finished yet. There's also the obligatory Straw Hippies for Dan to compete against.