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Department of Child Disservices

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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:

  1. 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...
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

There are other complete fallacies too, like...

  • Taking away only one child.
  • Putting them right into a volunteering friend's house, without first checking to see if the new house is safe.
  • Putting them in a new house right next door, making it easy for the abusive parents to keep tabs on them and possibly kidnap them back.
  • Granting instant visitation rights, regardless of the facts.
  • Returning the kids as quickly as they were taken, without any apparent forethought or investigation.
  • Failing to ask the kids for their personal opinions on things, or asking them "Have your parents abused you?" while the parents are right there in the same room, glaring at the kid and implicitly threatening them to keep quiet.

Occasionally, there are the cases in which whatever department is handling Child Services turns out to be actively sinister rather than simply destructively incompetent and/or bureaucratic. Often this is formulated as a political cautionary tale. Depending on the outlet Child Services may be portrayed as heavily biased against devoutly religious, non-traditional families, single parents, or non-custodial parents. Sometimes a perfectly good parent has their children taken away for extremely stupid reasons and has a horrific time trying to get the kids back.

This is a common in-universe trope in many works of fiction as well. Characters may stay in abusive situations and even avoid or refuse to cooperate with Child Services because they have heard horror stories about the results of such intervention, regardless of how positively or negatively Child Services is actually portrayed in-universe (a good way to make use of the trope without passing judgment on the department itself). Abusive parents may actively promote the idea that Child Services is a horrible system, in order to discourage their children from reporting the abuse.

Given the derogatory implications it foists upon social organizations, you could say that this trope is firmly on the cynical end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism. On the other hand, the crusading parents or child advocates fighting the system might indeed be portrayed as idealistic.

Sometimes (usually in more cynical works) this trope is Played for Laughs as a Take That! at how sometimes CPS can at times be incompetent or too slow-moving to be of any real help. Often these are exaggerated for the sake of humor.

In Real Life, the wisdom and effectiveness of Child Services varies wildly depending on time and place. Some agencies may be too quick to intervene, or too slow. Some agencies are burdened with endless red tape, and some are quite efficient. Some agencies do a thorough job of investigating claims of abuse and vetting potential new homes for abused children, and some agencies do a slapdash job. The amount of money, authority, willpower, and compassion displayed by each agency (and each individual worker) varies from place to place.

In Real Life, it's quite rare for a Child Services agency to take children away from their parents permanently. Whether that's because the agency simply lacks the manpower/resources/authority/compassion to properly rescue all abused children, or whether it's because there are actually very few children who would truly benefit from a permanent separation, is a topic of heated debate.

Incidentally, not everyone who works at a Child Services agency is technically a "Social Worker". But fictional works rarely bother with the details.

See Don't Split Us Up, Promotion to Parent.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Cross Ange: Any girl found 'guilty' of Anti-Magic is kidnapped from their home by the police and sent to a penal colony, considered a mercy compared to being publicly executed. In truth, these girls are raised as Child Soldiers to fight an army of alien dragons from an alternate universe. It's as ridiculously fatal as it sounds. Not helping matters is how magic and propaganda thoroughly corrupts their former parents and friends into believing they are monsters.
  • 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.
  • In Gunslinger Girl, the Social Welfare Agency is directly responsible for brainwashing little girls into cyborg assassins, a process that guarantees their early deaths. Then again, considering what most of the girls experienced before entering the program, it is arguably still an improvement.
  • Higurashi: When They Cry: Satoko's uncle-turned-foster-father publicly treats her as poorly as the law allows, privately treats her even worse, and is well known to be a pimp, loan shark, Con Man, and extortionist. Social services never help because 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 MegaCorp.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman:
    • In at least one version of his origin story, Dick wound up spending three weeks in juvie after his parents' death because of an incompetent social worker. Back in the 1940s, there was an issue in which social services placed him with his criminal uncle George and aunt Clara for a time before Bruce exposed their scheme to extort him for a million dollars.
    • Jason's social worker Amanda Groscz had it out for Bruce from the start, and she jumped to remove him from Bruce's custody, only to place him with the supervillain Nocturna. She quickly realized the damage she did, however, and helped Bruce adopt Jason before Crisis on Infinite Earths.
    • In the back-up strip "House of Gotham" from the Detective Comics storyline "Shadows of the Bat", a young child sees his parents killed by the Joker. When Jim Gordon tries to contact child services, he's told to call back during business hours, and in the end, the only place which claims to have the experience to deal with this kind of trauma and is prepared to take him is freaking Arkham. Eventually Bruce Wayne steps in, unfortunately even then, the head psychologist at the Martha Wayne Orphanage turns out to be Jonathan Crane.
    • Flashbacks in the main story, however, reveal that Gotham's CPS did their best with Toby Wear, the future Big Bad of the storyline, he was just totally uninterested in their help.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Subverted in Runaways (Rainbow Rowell); after the team split up, Molly was adopted by her grandmother, while Klara was adopted by a gay couple. Both were shown to be far healthier environments than the Hostel, even when one factors in the fact that Molly's grandmother is a Mad Scientist.
  • 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.
  • In Teen Titans Academy, a social worker is shown dumping any kid he can't find a place for at the same filthy, overcrowded foster home, with parents who are clearly abusive and unfit even if they weren't secretly grooming the kids to be henchmen for Black Mask. One of those kids grew up to be Brick Pettirosso/the new Red X. The previous Red X, who was otherwise a selfish evil prick, is shown to be genuinely enraged by the whole thing, suggesting he also suffered from this.

    Fan Works 
  • Avengers and Trollhunters sees this Exploited and weaponized by General Ross, who forces the Trollhunters to "voluntarily" join the military and submit to his authority or else he'll have Claire's baby brother ripped away from her family.
  • 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.
    • Averted, in Chapter 33, where the social worker, being reasonable and competent, just talks to Satsuki and suggests taking measures to make sure that what happened in Chapter 32 doesn't repeat. To especially emphasize this, Ryuuko doesn't treat the social worker with hostility like she did with the previous one.
  • Child of the Storm explains the common question in Harry Potter fic of why social services never got involved. Part of it is implied to be that Little Whinging is a realistic Stepford Suburbia and no one talks about That Sort Of Thing, but the key part - which also explains why Mrs Figg never tipped off Dumbledore to the scale of what was going on - is that Sinister was involved and wanted Harry to remain in the custody of Dursleys so he could have unfettered access to him in the guise of the kindly family doctor, Nathan Milbury, studying the development of his various powers and abilities. Since he was a powerful telepath, it was relatively child's play.
  • 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.
    • Some Harry Potter fics even subvert this trope. In Harry Tano, its all but stated that the Dursleys kept Harry a secret from everyone during the early years of his life, to the point that the only (non-magical) people outside the Dursley family who knew about him was a single neighbor who saw him by chance. Once Ahsoka destroys part of the Dursley house as she's leaving with Harry, the police notice tell-tale signs of abuse and immediately arrest the Dursleys for child abuse while starting an investigation into Harry's "disappearance". Dumbledore also acknowledges that placing Harry with the Dursleys was a big mistake.
  • In the crossover fic If Wishes Were Ponies, Dumbledore accidentally caused this trope when, to prevent any Death Eaters from finding the Dursley home while Harry was there, he placed a special charm on their house to keep anyone from removing Harry from the Dursleys' custody. He thought that the Dursleys would at least provide Harry with a stable upbringing in honor of Petunia's sister...not realizing that he was completely wrong and left Harry in an abusive household for eight years that no one could remove him from because they lost the desire to do so the second a thought of helping Harry crossed their minds. Fortunately, the spell did not prevent Harry from removing himself from the Dursleys, which he did when he wound up in Equestria. He tells his new mother, Twilight, about what he went through, and she tells a Muggle lawyer, leading to the Dursleys losing custody of both Harry and Dudley and spending the next several years in prison.
  • Zigzagged in The Loud House AU fanfic Meeting A Loud. Here, Lincoln is an orphan unrelated to the Louds. He was well-treated by his Child Services agent, who is decently competent, admits when he makes mistakes, and even took Lincoln into his home and got Charles to act as a therapy dog for the traumatized boy. However, he was also the one who put Lincoln into a house with 10 boys based on the "One of the Boys" versions of the gender-flipped Loud sisters who were not only as rough as the Loud boys from the episode but outright abusive. Lincoln specifically mentions getting his shoulder dislocated for Loki's cell phone being broken (which was Loni's fault in the first place), which was traumatizing enough that having Bobby, who's Loki's age, ruffle his hair is flinch-worthy. Another trauma is the events of "No Such Luck", which come to pass only with the whole "he's bad luck so let's kick him out of the house" plot (which probably would have improved Lincoln's situation here) being replaced with Lyle, Lynn's counterpart, choosing to beat Lincoln to a pulp with a hockey stick while one of the other boys holds the kid down for his loss, which again was traumatizing enough that Lynn holding a hockey stick proves a trauma button. Lincoln ultimately runs away from that home when some of his foster brothers decide to abuse Charles.
  • Implied in One More Time, One More Chance, as Ryuko was sent or adopted out to terrible homes (chapter 6 mentions her being "kept in a basement for someone's entertainment") and said orphanage was abusive to her. Unfortunately, this has had terrible effects on her psyche, as, when Satsuki claims her as her sister and takes her to live with her, she has a hard time trusting her and is quite afraid of being sent back to the orphanage.
  • Played with in The Outside, as this is averted for the most part, as they do place her in foster care and tries to find her mother (or a more stable guardian), but, earlier, when the situation is made known, Ryuuko is immediately taken away the same day, when usually this would happen if the situation was severe or if they had a warrant. However, because she had an untreated injury and her situation was already iffy, it could be said that removing Ryuuko was a must.
  • Papa Bear: Averted. When Tom reports what Marinette and Adrien have told him about Gabriel's abuse, he calls Child Services. They're as concerned as Tom, and immediately launch an investigation (partially because domestic disputes are breeding grounds for akumas and are looked into as quickly as possible). Said investigation reveals Gabriel's abuse and removes Adrien from his father's custody. The social workers also give the Dupain-Chengs the useful advice to carefully lock up the bakery at night to avoid retaliation from Gabriel.
  • 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, fueling 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?!
  • 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.
  • A Tale of Two Suns: Played straight with Circinus, who seeks to rip Sunset away from her life in Canterlot and dump her with a wealthy, but loveless, family. Justified, as she is working for her sister, Abacus Cinch, who wants revenge on the Rainbooms for destroying her hold on Crystal Prep.
  • 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.
    • There's also a Dead Fic called "Derpy On Trial" that has Twilight Sparkle five seconds away from dismantling the Foal Protective Services and their pet crooked shrink.
  • Zig-zagged in With Pearl and Ruby Glowing; the social services in this universe aren't perfect, with kids getting placed in even worse homes or being taken from parents who are capable of caring for them. However, there are plenty of great social workers, such as Mary Poppins, Bagheera, and Cobra Bubbles, that do their jobs well.

    Films — Animated 
  • Miss Hattie, who runs the girls' orphanage in Despicable Me, makes the girls go out and sell cookies; anyone who doesn't meet the sales quota is made to sit in the box of shame. When Margo, Edith, and Agnes ask Miss Hattie if anyone wanted to adopt them, she cruelly replies: "Hmm, let me think... NO!" Also, she allows a complete stranger to waltz in and adopt the girls in an adoption process that takes about ten minutes and takes no precautions to see if Gru would in any way be a suitable guardian.
  • The Iron Giant: Kent Mansley traps Hogarth and subjects him to Perp Sweating. When Hogarth does not give the information he wants, he threatens to use his power as a government agent to separate the boy from his Struggling Single Mother. Mansley offers no proof he has the power to do this, and probably can't — a Meaningful Look suggests he's improvising a lie. But it doesn't matter: Hogarth believes him and is intimidated.
    Mansley: It's difficult to raise a boy alone. We can make it more difficult. In fact, we can make it so difficult that it would be irresponsible to leave you in her care... and all that that implies. You'll be taken away from her, Hogarth.
    Hogarth: You can't do that!
    Mansley: Oh we can. And we will.
  • 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 to be a good guardian, 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, especially if Nani doesn't have a source of income. 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.
    Cobra Bubbles: Let me illuminate to you the precarious situation in which you have found yourself: I am the one they call when things have gone wrong, and things have indeed gone wrong.
  • Mr. Peabody & Sherman: The main villain, Ms. Grunion, is dead set on having Sherman removed from Peabody's custody just because he's a dog.
  • The Willoughbys has Orphan Services. While they are wholly dedicated to finding good homes for kids and try and put the Willoughby children with families that suit their interests, they're also cold The Men in Black-types who put children who don't get adopted or who escape too many times into solitary confinement. It's also shown that they're unaware of how horrible the Willoughby parents are to their kids. They do, however, willingly give Commander Melanoff and Linda full joint-custody of the kids in the end.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • 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 Manchild 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.
  • Mildy, in The Evil Within, is constantly badgering John about claimed unsuitability to take care of Dennis. Ultimately, she's right, but for the wrong reasons.
  • Five Nights at Freddy's (2023): Averted. After Mike and Abby's family fell apart after the death of their mother, Mike was given full custody of his little sister. However, one of the conflicts in the film is their aunt trying to get full custody of Abby. Luckily for Mike, despite his checkered past (having lost his last job due to a violent misunderstanding), Child Services still see him as the best guardian for Abby (even though their aunt has hired a lawyer and several goons in an attempt to better her odds). [[spoiler:She's killed by Golden Freddy near the end of the film, though, so we never really see a court battle.
  • Parodied (maybe) in Freddy Got Fingered. Gord claims in a therapy session that his father molested his younger brother, the eponymous Freddy. Freddy is instantly removed from the home by DCFS despite being an adult.
  • In Frisco Jenny, Child Services want to take her son away because she works at a brothel.
  • In Hunt for the Wilderpeople, New Zealand social services aren't portrayed as malicious so much as neglectful, though it's debatable with Ricky's case worker.
  • Subverted in Instant Family, where social services are depicted as reasonable and genuinely wanting to help the kids under their care. The film also averts the idea that DCFS are always eager to take kids from their parents, and explicitly states that their mandate is to keep biological families together whenever possible, even if the kids would be better off with their foster parents.
  • In It Takes Two (1995), 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 their tight bond because the former doesn't make enough money yet foist Amanda (who, unknown to them, switched places with her doppelganger 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • Modern Times: After her father is killed in a riot, the Gamin is chased by officers of the truant police to drag her to an orphanage with a zeal most people would associate with bank robbers or serial killers. They are directly responsible for the film's ending going from happy into a "Ray of Hope" Ending.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Raising Arizona: Hi and Ed can't have a child because Ed is barren, and they can't adopt because Hi has a long criminal record. They try to argue that Ed's exemplary career as a police officer would "balance out" Hi's past, but the adoption agency isn't moved. Not that you can really blame them.
  • Salaam Bombay!: Krishna and Manju are picked up by the cops for no obvious reason—Krishna is a Street Urchin but he was just walking around, and his younger friend Manju has a mom at home. They are then both held in a nightmarish youth hall that's basically a prison for children. Rekha, Manju's mom, tries to reclaim her daughter, only to be told that because she's a prostitute she can't have her daughter back.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • After The Promise (1987): The entire plot is widower Elmer Jackson vs Child Services. Elmer discovers the nanny of his sons is neglecting them and using his house to have sex with her lovers. After being fired, the nanny reports him to Social Services for being abusive and neglectful. The goverment immediately believes the accusations and takes away the boys without bothering to hear his testimony or theirs. Elmer's sons are placed in various abusive homes and institutions where children are abused, starved, tortured and even killed, while Child Services adamantly claims the boys are in good hands. After Elmer marries his second wife, he fights for the custody of his sons only to discover severe psychological scars in his sons after the hell they were put through.

  • Q: What's the difference between a rottweiler and a social worker? A: It's easier to get your child back from a rottweiler.


By Author:

  • Anne McCaffrey was fond of this trope:
    • 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'.
    • In The Ship Who... Sang, Helva's class is investigated by several people who wanted to make sure that "shelled children" like her weren't suffering, having been physically paralyzed and shut into metal "shells" where they can't see or touch anything directly. The narration paints their concern as ridiculous, but unlike most examples the investigators decide the children are doing just fine and move on.
      • The City Who Fought by 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.
      • Various strawmen who opposed young Tia's unusual living arrangement at the start of The Ship Who Searched are portrayed this way, though given what happens to her it's hard to say they don't have a point. No matter how independent and prone to Troubling Unchildlike Behavior a child is, no matter how nice a library she has, leaving a seven-year-old alone for weeks on end, technically able to contact her parents but knowing that if she does they'll withhold time with her as punishment, is not good parenting.
    • Subverted in The Rowan: No one, including child services, thinks giving custody of "the Rowan child" 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 to, one with strong, untrained psychic powers, to boot. 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 sent to another planet, where a more empathetic Prime could teach (due to Prime Travel Sicknessnote ).
  • 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 doesn'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 Story of Tracy Beaker is known as "The Dumping Ground" because it's where children end up when no one wants them. The staff isn't really cruel or abusive, but severely lack funding and resources, and usually fail to notice when the children are having problems.

By Title:

  • Alcatraz Series: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • 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 not. There is also a common fan theory floating around that Dumbledore actively prevented the Muggle authorities from investigating the Dursleys and their treatment of Harry, as being taken from his aunt's custody would end the protection from his mother's Heroic Sacrifice.
  • 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 had a Promotion to Parent for so long that they wouldn't accept an actual adult's authority and might undermine it for the other children.
  • In The House In The Cerulean Sea Linus is a social worker of DICOMY, the Department in Charge of Magical Youths. While Linus clearly cares about doing a good job for the children in his caseload, it becomes evident that DICOMY and its sister organization in charge of magical adults are focused on controlling the magical populace, as opposed to actually caring for the children. Abuse is rampant in the system, and even when people like Linus take an interest, the kids in the sub-standard orphanages Linus shuts down wind up shuffled around in the system, usually winding up at the DICOMY run "schools" (which are presented as being ... not ideal).
  • 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 of 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.
  • The Kid: After his mother's death, Abdul is sent to a foster home, where he is beaten and raped by another boy, only being removed after he murdered his foster mother's dog in retaliation and is discovered to have a concussion due to the beating. He is then supposed to be given to his grandmother and great-grandmother, but due to the former being hospitalized, he is sent to an orphanage as an emergency placement but remains there for four years and is raped several times by the priests there. The priests only realize this fact after Abdul started raping other boys and they need a convenient reason to send him away so his (and their) behavior won't become public.
    • The original book, Push isn't much better; by law, hospitals are required to report instances of child molestation to the police. Despite becoming a mother at 12 and admitting to a nurse that her own father also fathered her daughter, Mongo, she's never removed from her home.
  • In the Peter David novel Mascot To The Rescue, social services (as well as a school guidance counselor) are the villains for trying to take the protagonist, Josh, away from his mother. This mostly falls into Type 3 above, but it also comes with a strong degree of Informed Wrongness: Josh clearly has some sort of psychological issues (as his delusions about being a superhero border on a Split Personality) and his mom, at least initially, is actively opposed to him getting help for them. Trying to take him away after a five-minute meeting is unrealistically harsh, but readers may well agree that in Real Life Josh would need some sort of outside intervention.
  • Millennium Series: 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.
  • The Rules of Survival: The main character and his sisters use this trope as their reason for not telling any adults about their mentally and sometimes physically abusive mother Nikki. Murdoch, the first adult in their lives to actually help them, agrees with their beliefs (as he spent some time in the foster system). Child Services only becomes involved after Nikki ends up in prison for six months for doing something terrible, and only so they can make sure that the kids' new guardians (Matt's father and the kids' aunt) are adequate caretakers.
  • 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...
  • In Jessamine Chan's The School for Good Mothers, CPS removes Frida's daughter from her custody because she left the toddler home alone once. During the investigation, she is allowed supervised visits with Harriet, which would be fine, except her social worker often cuts them short or reschedules them without warning, and makes her presence during those visits so intrusive that little Harriet often acts up, making the worker blame Frida for the result. She is also subjected to Sinister Surveillance, with cameras inside her home and her internet and phone use watched. Based on all this, the judge concludes that Frida is a danger to her daughter and sends her to a year-long program at the school. It all goes From Bad to Worse.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events uses this trope quite frequently with Mr. Poe, who places the Baudelaire orphans in one unhappy 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.
  • Sirena Selena: Sirena's grandmother dies and there are no family members who could take himnote  in. Rather than go to a group home where he would be unsafe, he chooses to live in the streets and hustle.
  • The Sisters Grimm is the epitome of this trope. Sabrina and Daphne have been stuck with a crazy man who is obsessed with his ferrets, a woman who swore her toilet was haunted, a man who made them sleep outside in his truck, 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. It gets to the point that their social worker willingly leaves them with the first person who claims to be their family and wants to take them in, not even asking any questions about her ability to raise kids.
  • Sleeping Beauties: One of the many characters is a psychologist named Clint Norcross, who recalls how he was taken from his drug-addicted, teenage mother, and put through various foster homes. All of which were at best forgettable, and at worst downright horrible. In one of them, the foster parents even made the children under their care fight each other for a McDonald's milkshake. He also remarks how the majority of the children put in foster care end up in prison or worse later in life, and that he himself is one of the few exceptions to this rule. The trope is slightly subverted as well since Norcross admits there are good foster homes, even more now than back in his own childhood; he just never landed in any.
  • 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, never mind the fact that she has a mental illness, a criminal record, and a long history of violence (things that would normally keep one from being a foster guardian). However, in later stories, we have this with Beryl, whose prior foster parents ran a meth lab (one of the reasons as to why she ran away) and, the story after that, plays with this more, as Nine had gone through so many foster homes that placing her with Toki came a last resort (no other homes would take her).
    • We have this as well in Toki, Jinx, and Spin in the Bronx, as, ordinarily, social services would have become suspicious of the titular trio living with, in a sense, complete strangers and being enrolled school by said strangers.
    • According to several stories with Toki in them, there tend to be orphaned children roaming the streets and Toki does take them in (and has, on a few occasions, enrolled them into school), social services not intervening then, in which case, this might be a case of Social Services Does Not Exist or some kids "fell through the cracks".
    • Averted for the most part with Doki, as we learn in Doki's Chronicles, where social services did work with Cornelius and Euphemia to let them have custody of her, said arrangement going well (besides the 6 mean foster sisters).
  • The Tomorrow Series : 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.
  • 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.
  • Women of the Otherworld : 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.
  • 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.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Bones:
    • 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, this was averted when Buffy's custody of Dawn was threatened in Season Six. The social worker who visited their house was shown to be fairly reasonable, even if poor timing played a part in making things look worse for Buffy than they really were. In the end, Buffy was able to make it look like the social worker was crazy to get her off their backs, which was Played for Laughs.
  • Burden of Truth: Millwood Family Services is revealed to be very corrupt, removing children without good cause and ensuring they stay separated from their birth parents, through fake tests done by a lab claiming they use drugs or alcohol. It turns out their funding is tied to removing children, which of course means a huge incentive to do this whether or not it's needed.
  • Averted on Caitlin's Way: Caitlin's social worker is shown to be fairly reasonable in her one appearance. She is rightfully concerned about Caitlin's home life, especially as her visit coincides with Caitlin being the prime suspect in a theft, but when it turns out that Caitlin is innocent, she lets her stay, concluding that her placement with the Lowes is good for everyone involved.
  • In the 1960s BBC teleplay Cathy Come Home, the famous (and hard to watch) ending scene in which Cathy's children are taken from her when sheltering in a railway station. Whilst the social services might claim to be acting in the childrens' best interests, considering the family's homeless status, the generally bureaucratic and uncaring treatment said family had from the authorities earlier in the play acts against this. (The play overall had a major impact on the British public and how society saw homelessness, such as with the founding of the charity Crisis, though had little impact on public policy.)
  • Charmed (1998):
    • Season 4 is a subversion for the most part, as Paige is in the process of becoming a social worker. It's shown in only her second episode that she's far too impulsive and trigger happy when assuming a father is abusing his son that the Source nearly influences her to kill him. Not only had her boss warned her to let him deal with it, but it was the mother who was abusive and the father was covering for her.
    • Season 8's "Hulkus Pocus" has a subplot where one of Henry's parolees ends up in prison and he wants to hide her baby with Paige so he has time to find the father before social services shows up to seize the child. It should also be said that the father doesn't even know he has a baby, but Henry speaks from his experiences in the foster system that it's the least ideal scenario. It's worth noting that the family are Latino, suggesting that social services would be less trigger happy with a white family.
  • The Cold Case episode "Fly Away" had a social worker who was actually a pedophile. "The Woods" had one who was both pedophile and a burglar. "Ghost of My Child" had one who stole her client's baby.
  • Coronation Street:
    • Probably the worst example was in Kylie's attempts to get her son Max back, where Becky took her aside and talked about "playing their game" as if social services were an evil entity preventing mother and son from being together - never mind that the mother lost him because she was a neglectful alcoholic in the first place.
    • A misunderstanding led to social services taking Asha and Aadi off Dev, assuming he was abusing them - seeing a bad bruise on the boy's forehead that he actually got when he and Russ fell off the couch and Aadi hit his head off the table. This assumption came from seeing Dev grab Aadi out of the way of an oncoming car because that's how trigger happy social services are in Weatherfield.
    • Invoked by Gail Platt when she was trying to force Sarah to move back in with her. Bethany got into an accident with unknown faulty wiring in their flat but was otherwise unharmed - so Gail phoned social services in an attempt to get Sarah checked out. The social worker however found nothing wrong and even when she returned (only after Gail lied to say that Sarah was regularly leaving Bethany alone in the flat), declared Sarah a capable mother. And Sarah was only barely eighteen and living with her boyfriend the same age!
  • 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.
    • At one point, Ellie, a Victim of the Week Morgan had stayed in touch with, was able to steal her foster mother's credit card to buy a plane ticket from California to Virginia to see him. She did so because her foster brother was watching her shower and the rest of the family was neglectful. She winds up being reunited with her previously-unmentioned Missing Mom, because the foster system cannot be trusted.
  • Daredevil (2015): 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.
  • 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.
  • An EastEnders storyline has drawn criticism from the social workers' union for using this trope.
  • ER. Susan Lewis is this close to adopting her niece when her sister reappears. The judge immediately halts the adoption, allows her sister to visit, and eventually returns the baby to her. This despite the woman's history of addiction and irresponsible behavior, which included abandoning the baby, and the fact that she's only recently gotten her act together.
  • Family Matters: After experiencing parental 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 
  • The Handmaid's Tale:
    • Averted in Aunt Lydia's backstory. She is the one who reported Noelle to CPS and got her son taken away, but only by mentioning all her flaws and shortcomings over her persistence and trying to do better. When asked whether she was sure, Lydia stuck to her guns and did not mention anything good about Noelle. The CPS officers were only going off of what she told them.
    • Could be seen as played straight in the main present storyline. After the Republic of Gilead is established, a different kind of Child Protective Services was created. The new government took away children being raised by parents who had "lived in sin", such as being gay, having children out of wedlock, being divorced, etc. These people were deemed "unfit" to be parents, and the children they seized were placed with "proper" parents who were loyal to Gilead and its values.
  • 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.
    • In another episode's sub-story, House helps two young parents whose baby had pneumonia, blaming it on the vegan diet they were using. The parents are apologetic and eager to make the necessary changes, but Cuddy calls child services because the baby had lost too much weight. House initially believed the vegan diet was to blame as well, but when the parents tell him they consulted a licensed nutritionist to ensure that the diet wouldn't harm her, he starts to think it may be something else, and spends much of the rest of the episode trying to prove it; he eventually finds that the baby actually had a hormone disease, and the vegan diet had nothing to do with her weight loss.note 
  • 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 thinks she's the best; despite her age and un-retired 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 has multiple variations. Some are just lazy or power-hungry, while others are more along the lines of what was shown in the original: well-intentioned but massively overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases. However, they probably avert the trope at least as often as it's played straight; in particular, if Child Services isn't the focus of the plot but a social worker shows up for a scene or two (like if a victim is in foster care or something), that person will probably be depicted as generally competent.
      • One episode ("Careless") 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. The tragedy is that by all accounts, she was generally a good social worker, but she made one mistake that turned out to have horrific consequences (this in spite of her explanation that, at the time, she'd been removing another child from a home where the child's father had beaten his mother to death with a hammer, and thus was distracted to put it mildly).
      • But subverted in the episode ("Home") 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, had ended up with good, caring foster parents, and was reasonably well-adjusted (what few problems he has are from his aforementioned abusive mother), but the mother had lied and told the kids he was raped and killed in foster care to further their fear of the system. When the surviving boy learns that his brother is not only alive but was never raped or abused at all, he finally realizes how messed up his mother's view of the world is.
      • In another episode ("Dolls"), a man impersonated a child services worker to kidnap two little girls. Compounding the tragedy is that one of the girls in question was in Child Services' custody, but the foster mother bought the lie, and the caseworker's laziness in not making home visits meant that no one realized there was an inconsistency between the records (that said girl was in one place) and what the foster mom believed had happened (that a Child Services worker had moved the girl to another placement) until several weeks had passed.
      • In another episode ("Institutional Fail"), a severely neglected little girl dies. It turns out that the family's social worker hadn't been to the home in weeks, but this itself is because of how incredibly overworked he was. It turns out that the real problems in the department go way above this one social worker, who was doing the best he could given the impossible amounts of work he was expected to complete. Learning of this, his superiors falsified records to cover themselves, and they end up being the ones charged.
    • Law & Order: Criminal Intent:
      • Invoked by the Monster of the Week in one episode, a pure harpy of a woman that wanted her daughter-in-law gone and convinced the family's adopted sons (who came from an Eastern Europe orphanage in a country that had suffered a Ceausescu-style regime of horror) that the family was getting fed up with them and Child Services system would come take them away and send them back to that orphanage unless they did something about it. One of the children killed the daughter-in-law for the sake of protecting his brother, who had been treated horribly back there.
      • In "To The Bone", Chesley Watkins (Whoopi Goldberg), a longtime foster parent, clearly has some issues and probably should never have been allowed to take in children, but flew under the radar for years because her past history as a case worker exempted her from having to take a psychological evaluation until recently, and her rapport with the social workers due to being a former colleague prevented them from recognizing that she was unstable. What's more, the caseworker that Logan and Barek talk to has clearly missed all the red flags (including the fact that she keeps "forgetting" to schedule the evaluation she now needs) and practically thinks Watkins walks on water — they've even left one child in her custody despite the fact that she's not supposed to be allowed to foster at all until she has the evaluation done.
  • 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.
    • In Seduction In A Small Town, a newcomer calls CPS on a Happily Married couple after the husband rebuffs her advances. Despite there being absolutely zero signs of abuse or neglect, the social worker (who is clearly compensating for having failed to remove a child from a genuinely abusive situation) takes their children away from them, thanks to the woman also managing to Gaslight the townspeople into believing her and testifying against them. They don't get the kids back until the mother finds out that the woman has a history of behaving like this and had her own children taken away.
    • A particularly egregious example shows up in The Captive Nanny; the titular nanny sets up the woman whose hiring her to make it look like she's alternatively abusing and neglecting her children. CPS not only awards custody to the nanny while they sort things out but force the mother out of her own home.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Once Upon a Time:
    • Emma's traumatic backstory has a good deal to do with her experiences in the system, where she was in and out of group homes and was either abused or neglected.
    • The episode "True North" revolves around the Storybrooke counterparts of Hansel and Gretel risking being put into the system if their birth father doesn't take them.
  • Inverted on One Life to Live, when the social worker doing a home study on Cassie and Andrew is made to look like a villain for her completely reasonable questions about them having lost their own baby less than a year earlier, and Cassie's nervous breakdown when the birth mother changed her mind about letting them take her baby—the very baby they are trying to adopt now!—to the point where she tried to kidnap the child and had to be hospitalized because she believed the babies were one and the same.
  • 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.
  • On Promised Land (1996), a social worker takes Nathaniel Greene away from his uncle Russell and aunt Claire (they are his legal guardians while his father is imprisoned) after she deems that they are neglecting him (Nathaniel has been expressing problems with anger management regarding his father being in jail) due to their unconventional, nomadic lifestyle. Aside from the fact that the viewer knows full well that the Greenes are not abusive, it's strongly implied that she's just ticked off that Russell has rebuffed her advances.
  • 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. Though in the end said social worker coincides that he's unfit for the job and backs off.
  • Averted in the fourth season of Queer as Folk (US). 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.
  • A large part of Buz's backstory on Route 66.
  • The Sandman: Jed's foster care caseworker refuses to give his sister any information on where he is or his well-being; while she does have some points in that it would be very difficult for Rose to take care of him if he wanted to leave with her (as Rose is currently in debt and unemployed), she clearly hasn't bothered to check in on him either. Jed's foster father is only interested in him for the support payments, and is verbally and physically abusive; Jed has attempted to run away, been locked in a rat-infested cellar, and threatened with worse punishments, all while the caseworker is complacently assuring Rose that she's sure he's doing fine.
  • Shades of Blue: Struggling Single Mother cop Harlee is arrested by the FBI for being a Dirty Cop, but what they actually want is for her to be The Mole for them in her corrupt unit, and they explicitly use the threat of her daughter ending up in foster care if she doesn't comply and ends up in jail.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • That '70s Show: The reason the Foremans end up taking in Steven Hyde after his mother abandons him is because of this trope. Kitty, working as a nurse, has seen in person how overworked the child services system is, and even mentions how they have to house their charges in trailers because of overcrowding.
  • Social services in Titus are either completely incompetent or needlessly making a bad situation even worse. Titus and his whole clan may be a Big, Screwed-Up Family, but the introduction of social services usually makes all of them wince. The one time child services got called on Titus' niece, she was taken away by the social services worker despite her own protests that nothing was happening.
  • Touch (2012): 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.
  • 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.


    Video Games 
  • In Persona 5, Evil Uncle 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 him. Futaba becomes worried that, thanks to her 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, leaving without anyone getting arrested or taken away.
  • The Social Worker in The Sims 2 will take away a child for a number of legitimate reasons, such as them being starved to near-death or being orphaned. They will also take the child if they get an F on their report card, get too hot or cold, or even if they're a latchkey kid whose parents don't get home fast enough. Luckily, the social workers in later The Sims games become more sensible.

  • In Jupiter-Men, Mrs. Jones, a social worker for child services, places Binny as Nathan's interim guardian after Daejung's disappearance. Nathan correctly pins Binny as a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing and a Gold Digger who wants nothing more than to gain access to the Mun fortune, but child services does not. In the end, Nathan is stuck with Binny as his guardian and has to bribe her with his personal funds to get her to stay out of his life.
  • 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.
  • Twice The Triplets: Since Fred is the legal guardian of his six nieces, he frequently gets visits from an inspector named Mrs. Zellner, who clearly does not like him and constantly tries to find reasons that Fred is unfit to look after the girls. In "After After" she even tells herself that it is "time to go break up some families". At the comic's Darkest Hour in Volume 3, she actually succeeds and has all the girls moved to a different foster family where, for various reasons, they are worse off than they were with Fred. Eventually subverted when Fred succesfully appeals his case with Mrs. Zellner's boss, who is far more reasonable than she is (and that he's a huge fan of Fred's movie also helps), and overrides her decision, after which the girls are allowed to return home and Mrs. Zellner is taken off the case.

    Web Original 
  • Can You Spare a Quarter?: The Department of Child Welfare is understaffed, overworked and underfunded. Jamie's parents successfully manipulate it into not believing his complaints and sending him back home with only counselling proposed as a solution. His caseworkers do not really care about their charges and just take the parents' claims at face value with no investigation at all.
  • Mommy Sleeps in the Basement: Mrs June has this opinion of the local CPS, saying they tend to pick and choose which cases to investigate, despite her encountering dozens of students suffering from abuse or neglect, and/or living in poverty.
  • SuperMarioLogan plays with this. On one end, they're practically nonexistent but, on the other end, Brooklyn T. Guy did play the role of a social worker (he's a police officer, ordinarily, letting Mario and Rosalina take in Jeffy, however, he doesn't intervene in Joseph's situation, as Joseph's mother faked her death to get away from him, and his dad is dead (he was a zombie and then became a ghost), on top of him living at home with no lights, running water, and that his roommate is pedophile, said things that, realistically, would warrant an intervention of social services (and police).

    Western Animation 
  • 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 back room 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, who 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 image and 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.
  • 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. All this despite the sorts of things Pete routinely gets away with doing to PJ, though not specifically in this episode.
  • 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.
  • Kaeloo: In-universe, Mr. Cat tells a Fractured Fairytale version of Cinderella where young Cinderella calls the police on the stepmother. While the police at least do arrest the stepmother, instead of finding a new guardian to take care of young Cinderella, they simply leave her alone in the house with no adult supervision.
  • Subverted in the pilot of King of the Hill, since the episode gives it a Surprisingly Realistic Outcome. Bobby gets a black eye from playing baseball, and an all-too-eager social worker immediately jumps down the Hills' collective throat about it. The social worker who claims that Hank and Peggy are abusing Bobby gets chewed out by his boss and sent back to the social worker office in California for jumping to conclusions. Said worker didn't even ask the Little League coach or any teachers to see if Bobby's black eye was caused by Hank punching him. It wasn't; it was from Bobby not watching the ball during a Little League game. The entire thing could have been cleared up by just asking a few questions. This was to set the tone for a recurring element of the series about various "experts" who have more self-importance than any actual competence in their supposed field of expertise.
  • The Simpsons: Though you could make the case that it was the right decision overall, 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 the 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 — except 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.
  • 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 it was because he felt the system was too incompetent to help the children find good guardians.
    • This trope was played in Season 23's episodes "Mexican Joker" and Season "Finale", satirizing how horrible ICE's treatment of migrant-families, especially the children in their detention centers. Said centers are run by officers who literal don't see anything wrong in what they're doing, only fearing if it "inspires" a super villain to get revenge on them for it. Then later, they are giving away children with legal citizenship to other families and NOT their biological ones who have been deported, all done in a way how one adopts a dog at a kennel...