"Most of the time, I was taking their kids away for no good reason" --A New York City CPS worker.
All it takes to begin the potential destruction of a family is a call to one of the child protective "hotlines" in every state. The call can be made anonymously, making the hotlines potent tools for harassment. More often, however, false allegations are well-meaning mistakes made by people who have taken the advice of the child savers.
Though state laws generally encourage -- or require -- reports if you have "reasonable cause to suspect" maltreatment, child savers urge us to call in our slightest suspicions about almost any parental behavior. (And that sort of advice is not limited to adults. One group has published a comic book effectively telling children to turn in their parents to "other grown-up friends" if they get a spanking). The hotlines then forward the calls to Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies who send workers to investigate. These workers can go to a child's school or day care center and interrogate them without warning. Such an interrogation can undercut the bonds of trust essential for healthy parent-child relationships and traumatize children for whom the only harm is the harm of the investigation itself.
Workers can search homes and strip-search children without a warrant. Child savers insist such searches are rare. But in the course of defending against a lawsuit, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services acknowledged how common they really are. In its legal papers, the department said that any effort to restrict strip-searching "would immediately bring the child abuse hotline investigations to a halt." Such a statement can be true only if strip-searching is routine.
Then it is up to the worker to decide if the case will be "substantiated" and the accused will be listed in a state "central register" of suspected child abusers. Workers make these decisions on their own. There is no hearing beforehand, no way for the accused to defend themselves. (In some states, they can try and fight their way out of the register after the fact).
No proof is required to "substantiate" a case. In most states, "substantiated" means only that there is "some credible evidence" of maltreatment, even if there is more evidence of innocence.