National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts: Review of State CPS Policy - Executive Summary





The overall goal of the National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts (National Study) is to describe the current landscape of child protective services (CPS) across the United States and the future directions or systems improvement efforts underway within this landscape.(1) To accomplish this objective, the National Study collected data related to policy and practice from several sources--including a summary of the extant literature on changes being undertaken by CPS agencies; a review of written State policy manuals followed by confirmation interviews with State CPS administrators; a survey of local practices in a random sample of 300 counties; and site visits to a number of local CPS agencies self-identified as implementing new approaches to providing child protective services.

This Review of State CPS Policy report presents the findings from the analysis of State policies. Chapters on administration, screening and intake, investigation, and alternative response are included. Policy manuals covering these functions were reviewed for all States and the District of Columbia.(2) Forty-eight States participated in confirmation interviews designed to clarify policies identified in written materials.(3) Both traditional investigatory practices and the alternatives being explored in several States were included in the policy review. This review determined that although there is considerable variation in policy, there are common functions and features of CPS policy that seem to reflect the requirements of the Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) and practice principles recommended by professional organizations such as the Council on Accreditation and the Child Welfare League of America.


Although the level of detail varied, all of the State CPS policy manuals addressed the critical, key functions of maintaining a hotline, receiving reports alleging child abuse or neglect, screening these reports, conducting an investigation of the allegations, and conducting safety or risk assessments as part of the investigation or other responses to the allegations.

Locus of Responsibility

The American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) characterizes the administrative structures of human services agencies as either "State-administered" (38 States) or "State-supervised, county-administered" (13 States). However, State responses to policy review questions on administration of CPS services often indicated that the system was "State-supervised, county-administered" even though the classification by APHSA was that the child welfare system was "State-administered." These States were classified as "State-administered with strong county structure and discretion."

Regardless of the administrative structure, much of the responsibility for implementing CPS policy rests at the county or local level. In some States this responsibility was delegated, with the ultimate authority resting with the State; in other States the responsibility resided with the county agencies directly. Less than one-third of the States had policy that addressed sharing core functions with other agencies.

Screening and Intake Procedures

All States addressed the process of screening and intake in their CPS policies. While similar in many respects, there was considerable variation on some elements of policy.

  • Mandated reporters. Nearly all States required professionals who work with children--such as social workers, medical personnel, educators, and child daycare providers--to report suspected child maltreatment. In approximately one-third of States, such nonprofessional sources as family and community members were considered mandated reporters as well. Several States required a variety of other categories of persons, ranging from clergy to veterinarians, to report maltreatment. Thirty-two States accepted child maltreatment reports from anonymous sources.
  • Criteria for accepting referrals. The vast majority of States required that reports meet the State's statutory criteria for child abuse or neglect. Most also included such criteria as that the report concerns a child younger than 18 years or that the perpetrator is a parent, guardian, or caretaker. Beyond this, however, States' acceptance criteria varied considerably.
  • Receiving referrals 24-hours a day. Forty-four States specified in their policy manuals procedures that ensure referrals could be accepted at all times. Nearly all States specified timeframes for responding to referrals. Eighteen States specified one timeframe for forwarding all accepted referrals. Thirty States specified different response timeframes based upon the severity of the allegations.
  • Criteria for referring a case to another agency. Forty-five States indicated in their policies that reports could be referred to outside agencies for reasons including that the alleged perpetrator is not in a caretaking role, the case involves criminal investigation, the agency receiving the report does not have jurisdiction, or that the call represents a request for services or information rather than a maltreatment allegation.
  • Notifications of screening decisions. Forty-two States had written policy for whom or what entities should be notified of screening decisions. Of the States with such policy, law enforcement was most commonly included (26 States). Fourteen States had requirements that reporters be notified when cases are screened in, seven States required that parents be notified, and six States required that alleged perpetrators be notified.


Several core components of policy regarding investigatory processes were identified.

  • Maltreatment definitions.  Almost all States included definitions of the four major types of maltreatment that are specifically discussed in CAPTA--neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Forty-one States also included definitions of one or more additional forms of maltreatment, such as abandonment, lack of supervision, medical neglect, or risk of harm.
  • Investigation disposition options.  Forty-eight States had definitions of substantiated and unsubstantiated investigation dispositions. Fourteen States included a definition of "unable to determine or complete" as a possible investigation outcome, and eight States included an "indicated" category in which there was reason to believe, but not proof, that maltreatment occurred.
  • The role of law enforcement.  Virtually all the States specified in law or policy specific types of cases in which law enforcement should be involved in investigations. In most States, law enforcement had authority for the emergency removal of children from the home in cases of severe maltreatment.
  • Level of evidence.  In 23 States, policy specified that relatively high evidentiary standards (preponderance, material, or clear and convincing) must be met before an allegation may be substantiated. In 19 States, lower standards were specified (credible, reasonable, or probable cause).
  • Use of safety and risk assessments.  Most States specified the use of safety and risk assessments as tools to guide decisionmaking regarding intervention. Forty-two States specified the use of a risk assessment, 42 States specified use of a safety assessment, and 35 States specified both a safety and a risk assessment in policy.
  • Timeframes for completing an investigation.  Four States required investigations to be completed within 2 weeks; 20 States within 2-4 weeks; and 23 States allowed some or all investigations to be completed within more than 4 weeks.
  • Use of the Central Registry.  All States had policy regarding a Central Registry or other record keeping system to track reports of abuse and neglect. However, there was less uniformity regarding what is included in the registry. In 23 States, the Central Registry was restricted to substantiated reports. Fifteen States had State-specific restrictions, and 10 States had policies that enabled them to maintain all reports on the Central Registry. State policies also varied regarding the use of Central Registry information.
  • Provision of short-term services and service planning.  Just over three-quarters of States (39) had policy that specified that workers were required to provide short-term services during the investigation, if needed. Thirty-eight States had policies regarding workers to plan for ongoing services.

Alternative Response

For the purposes of the study, alternative response was defined as "a formal response of the agency that assesses the needs of the child or family without requiring a determination that maltreatment has occurred or that the child is at risk of maltreatment." By this definition, 20 States identified themselves as offering one or more alternatives to the traditional CPS investigation response; just over half of these States had implemented an alternative response statewide.

In general, alternative response options are intended to serve families with allegations of less severe maltreatment or lower risk of harm. States' policies often specifically disqualified certain types of cases from alternative response, including instances of significant physical injury, endangerment, or sexual abuse and cases that were criminal offenses.

Compared to the investigation function, the States' policies regarding alternative response tracks were quite diverse. State policies emphasized different (but not mutually exclusive) purposes including increased child safety, increased ability of CPS to respond, strengthening the family, and preventing child abuse and neglect. States also varied in their definitions of service options, decisionmaking roles, and the involvement of other agencies. The formalization of these approaches was relatively new.


This review of CPS policies in the States inventoried the major components governing front-end service provision by CPS agencies. These procedures and practices were described in great detail in the policy manuals of most States. Responsibility for decisionmaking was delegated to the local level regardless of whether a State's administrative structure was generally designated as a "State-administered" or a "State-supervised, county-administered" system.

While there are certain core policies that are common to almost all jurisdictions, there is also extensive variation in some aspects of policy. Such variation may be indicative of local standards or may imply that a systematic review of policy has not been undertaken recently by some of the States. However, variations in policy may contribute to significant differences in responses to children and families. For example, earlier research has shown that States with more disposition categories have higher rates of substantiation. This review may be helpful to States that choose to revise their CPS policies by informing them about the range of policies in place in other jurisdictions.


1.  Walter R. McDonald & Associates, Inc., and its partners Westat, Inc., the American Humane Association, and KRA conducted the National Study on behalf of the Children's Bureau, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Administration for Children and Families, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

2.  The District of Columbia is counted as a State throughout this report.

3.  The States that participated in the interview component of the National Study included Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.