In the mid-1960s, C. Henry Kempe and his colleagues described the “battered child syndrome,” a pattern of unexplained physical injuries, apparently inflicted by parents or caregivers. His work helped to initiate a movement in the United States to protect children from child abuse and neglect. The 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (P.L. 93-247) furthered the child protection movement and provided legislation to create publicly funded child welfare agencies. Today, these agencies are most often referred to as Child Protective Services, or CPS.
CPS agencies attempt to protect children in four ways: by investigating reports of maltreatment, by providing treatment services, by coordinating the services offered by other agencies in the community to child victims and their families, and by implementing preventive services. This essay describes these complicated and intersecting roles along with several challenges facing a CPS system responsible for the monumental task of protecting children.
The Role Of Child Protective Services
The 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act mandated reporting laws as well as procedures for investigating suspected cases of child maltreatment. Today, various professionals (e.g., schoolteachers, medical personnel, mental health professionals) in all states are required to report suspected child maltreatment to CPS. Many state CPS agencies have adopted statewide telephone reporting systems (e.g., “hotlines”) whereby professionals as well as laypersons may report children suspected of being abused or neglected.
Although all states have uniform mandatory reporting laws, there are no standard guidelines for assessment and processing of child maltreatment cases. CPS workers generally investigate reports of child maltreatment within 24 to 72 hours in order to determine whether child maltreatment has taken place. The investigation typically includes conducting interviews with the child, family members, neighbors, teachers, and medical personnel. The CPS worker must determine the degree to which the child is at risk for maltreatment, whether the home environment is safe, what factors are contributing to the family’s difficulties, and whether appropriate services can alleviate the risk to the child. Caseworkers who conduct the investigations often visit the child’s home to identify risk factors by assessing critical areas of individual and family functioning such as the child’s age and physical and mental abilities; the caretaker’s level of cooperation and physical, mental, and emotional abilities; the family’s level of stress and support; and the physical condition of the home.
At the end of the investigation, CPS must assign a disposition to the case. The CPS worker must determine whether abuse or neglect occurred, whether the child is immediately at risk for abuse and/or neglect, and whether a reasonable likelihood exists that the child is at risk for abuse and/or neglect in the foreseeable future. In addition, the CPS worker also determines the need to remove the child or perpetrator from the home, the need to involve other service providers or community agencies (e.g., law enforcement, treatment providers, the courts), and the need for further agency monitoring.
In addition to its investigative function, CPS also protects children by implementing and coordinating treatment and prevention services for families. When child abuse and neglect has occurred, child protection may be implemented on either a voluntary or involuntary basis and may result in a child’s remaining at home or being placed in some type of out-of-home care. A child who must be removed from the home is placed in some form of substitute living arrangement, such as foster care, kinship care, or residential treatment, until he or she can safely return home. Several factors likely influence decisions about alternate care, such as the child’s age, the type of abuse experienced, and whether the child has been a victim of maltreatment in the past.
Whether or not a child is removed from the home, mandated services are implemented to address problems that threaten children’s safety. Sometimes social services are offered by CPS agencies, but more often these services are contracted out to other agencies. Over the years, CPS agencies have become more focused on the investigation of abuse and the coordination of treatment, largely serving as case managers rather than service providers. Referral services generally include emergency medical services and housing, substance abuse evaluation and treatment, daycare or respite care, counseling for children and parents, parenting education and training, home visitor services, homemaker help, transportation, and self-help or volunteer programs such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Parents Anonymous, and Parents United.
Challenges To The Child Protective Services System
Since the inception of mandatory reporting, CPS has witnessed a staggering increase in the number of children identified as possible victims of child maltreatment. These increasing numbers, combined with funding shortages and high turnover rates among social workers, have compromised the ability of many CPS agencies to investigate all of the reports they receive and to do so in a timely fashion. In short, CPS has become overwhelmed with the scope of its charge to protect children and its capacity to respond to this complex problem.
A related challenge to the CPS system is balancing its dual roles of child protection and family preservation. In the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, child welfare policy in the United States acknowledged the sanctity of the family, and the notion that strengthening and preserving families serves the safety interests of children. CPS must balance these family preservation goals with the more immediate charge of child protection, a difficult if not impossible mandate. On the one hand, CPS investigates allegations and collects evidence of abuse, essentially serving as a policing agency. On the other hand, CPS agencies are supposed to provide sufficient support and services to preserve family units. Many question whether it is feasible to expect that CPS can be both an investigative and social service agency. Even if such lofty goals are attainable, however, one could reasonably argue that with insufficient staff and excessive caseloads, CPS has become little more than an investigative agency, all but abandoning its initial charge as a provider of social services.
Many of the system’s problems can be attributed to the ways in which child welfare policy, funding, and resource allocation have evolved over the years. The growing numbers of children placed in foster care during the 1980s and early 1990s, for example, was in part due to state laws and regulations that created a process for removing abused and neglected children from their homes. Such laws and regulations said far less about how to support families or under what circumstances children should be returned to their homes. Funding guidelines have also contributed to the system’s problems because they often place restrictions on service delivery. Federal funding guidelines, for instance, often influence service implementation because states receive matching dollars for some expenditures regardless of the amount spent (e.g., foster care), whereas funds for other services (e.g., treatment and prevention) are restricted to certain amounts. As public policy initiatives and resource allocation decisions evolve, reforms to improve the CPS system will also evolve. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, for example, helped to address the problems associated with thousands of children living in foster care by limiting the amount of time children spend in temporary living arrangements. Additional changes are appearing to improve child protection decision-making processes so that they more validly reflect the risks children face, with the goals of minimizing inappropriate protective interventions and maximizing efficiency.
- Larner, M. B., Stevenson, C. S., & Behrman, R. E. (1998). Protecting children from abuse and neglect [Special issue]. The Future of Children, 8(1).
- Tower, C. C. (2004). Understanding child abuse and neglect. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Trotter, C. (2004). Helping abused children and their families. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families. Foster care and adoption statistics. Retrieved from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/afcars
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