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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!
Family Guy, "Love Thy Trophy"

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 if not both of two brands of stupid:

  1. Child Services is completely incompetent at actually keeping children out of neglectful or abusive homes. No matter how horrific the foster home or adoptive family, once children are placed there, they're on their own and can expect no intervention from social workers unless it's only to be moved from that situation to another abusive foster home. Even if anyone in Child Services is aware that the child is being abused, red tape will prevent them from being able to do anything about it. Alternatively, Child Services might spend so much time on scraped knees that they overlook a child trapped in a truly horrible situation. On the other hand...
  2. Genuinely caring parents and would-be parents will find it nearly impossible to adopt thanks to Child Services' strangling bureaucracy and ridiculously judgmental 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.

In the worst cases, both of the above apply, and children can expect to be summarily yanked away from genuinely capable and caring guardians only to be dumped into nightmares of abuse and neglect. Children may opt for Staying with Friends rather than their new families to evade the social workers.

Frequently the Social Workers seem to have more power than the Repo guys, able to snatch the kids away from their parents without another word, when in truth this is only allowed in the most severe of cases and most countries require at least a warrant (although this is sought after privately to keep parents from making a break for it with the kids), which can take days and even weeks to procure - one bad day isn't enough to grab your kids.

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.

Similarly to the Law of Inverse Fertility, the chances of a child getting adopted by a given family is inversely proportional to how good of a home it would be.

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).

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.

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

The tropes: Beleaguered Bureaucrat, Department of Child Disservices, and Social Services Does Not Exist; overlap since they all involve the same problems. The employees are often overworked, underpaid, lack resources, and suffer the public’s wrath. They then turn into the Obstructive Bureaucrat and use Bothering by the Book to slow down the workload or get revenge on the people who make unreasonable demands.

While the reality (and maybe idea) of the system is far from perfect, please refrain from listing Real Life examples.

Examples of Department of Child Disservices include:


Anime and Manga Edit

  • Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Satoko, an example which becomes plot-critical in the penultimate arc. The reason they wouldn't help her that time? Satoko had made a call once upon a time 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.
  • Umineko no Naku Koro ni. Maria gets beaten IN FRONT OF welfare officer and she does nothing except occasionally mentioning that it's not the right way to treat your child. (NO SHIT SHERLOCK.) We don't know what happens immediately afterwards, but apparently after a few years Maria is still with Rosa, and still gets abused.
  • 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 Dragonball 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.

Comics Edit

  • Batman: In at least one version of the story Dick Grayson wound up spending three weeks in juvie after his parent's death because of an incompetent Social Worker
  • 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.

Fanfic Edit

  • 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?!


Film Edit

  • 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.
  • Lilo and Stitch: Inverted. At first it seems kind of unreasonable to demand Nani get a new job within three days, not to mention the scene where Lilo has locked Nani out of the house (preventing her from getting to the burning dinner, etc) and the social services worker looks on with disapproval, keep in mind...
    • From Mr. Bubbles' point of view, Nani has no control over her overactive little sister. While she's obviously trying (he acknowledges this) she then loses her job so she can't support the family. Then the 'dog' turns up, and seems to be a danger to Lilo, Nani and everybody else (and technically he is). Social Services is likely aware that Nani loves Lilo so much, that giving her too much time would only risk her running away with Lilo, which would put both of them in danger - some Social Services might have already taken action in the circumstances.
    • The film outright states that Bubbles was called in to deal with Lilo's case because things have gone wrong before.
    • There's also the fact that, near the end when their house has been completely destroyed and Bubbles tries to take Lilo away, Nani protests that Lilo needs her, and Bubbles replies sharply, indicating the trashed house, "Is THIS what she needs?" and that, "You need her a lot more than she needs you."
      • It's an attempt to show Social Services in a positive light for once while they are still a definite problem. SS understands that even this caring sibling just can't handle her little sister on her own, and that Lilo has to go somewhere she can be taken care of.
  • In The Parent Trap ripoff 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. And Diane manages to figure 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 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."

Literature Edit

  • 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.
  • White Oleander is built around this trope.
  • Harry Potter lives in a broom cupboard until he's eleven, owns none of his own clothes, and is clearly overworked. He lives in an affluent enough neighborhood and his cousin is treated well enough so no one could find a justification like poverty. And yet, no one ever notices.
    • Possibly justified as Dumbledore wanted to keep Harry behind the blood wards and could take steps to make sure no one notices or ends up forgetting. On the other hand, would it really have been too difficult to him to make some threats to the Dursleys to keep them in line? This is one thing that gives rise to the Evil Dumbledore that seems to have invaded Fan Fiction.
      • Granted he did ask them to take care of Harry as if he were their own flesh and blood, and acknowledges that they didn't do as he asked in Half-Blood Prince.
      • And that book also pointed out that, at least in Dumbledore's opinion, the way the Dursleys shamelessly spoiled and indulged their own son Dudley was arguably even more damaging than the way they neglected Harry.
    • Dumbledore sent Mrs. Figg to spy on the Dursleys and report that they were abusing Harry.
  • 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 notable is 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, type 1 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 Babysitters 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 it's flaws.
  • In Death: 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 insure 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!
  • 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.


Live Action TV Edit

  • One episode of Bones 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 left with a foster family he was still close with when he joined the show, in his twenties.
  • 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 and Order franchise (especially SVU) needs a non-criminal / non-FBI whipping boy.
  • 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, 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.
  • The Child Services of Judging Amy apparently has the worst judgment in the world. Every episode, they mishandle a child's case in some way so that Amy's mother can swoop in and rescue the child.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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 OC, 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.
  • The first victim of a Career Killer hired to act as a Vigilante Man in the Criminal Minds 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 another 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 (ie 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 som 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.


Music Edit

  • Eric Bogle's "Daniel Smiling" is about this.
  • Black Metal band Panopticon wrote an entire album about this called Social Disservices.

Web Comics Edit

Web Original Edit

  • 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.

Western Animation Edit

  • 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 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.
  • 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).
  • Family Guy: 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, 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.