National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts. Findings on Local CPS Practices. 4.5 Conclusion


The findings show that the majority of agencies nationwide handled referrals through both investigations and alternative responses. However, the circumstances under which the responses were used differed widely. Alternative responses were less likely than the investigation response to be used for removing a child, assessing the safety needs of the family, making a determination of maltreatment or risk of maltreatment, or making a recommendation for court action.

Despite differences in the types of referrals handled under the two responses, the survey found many similarities in the approaches and practices used to conduct the responses. The majority of agencies extended both the investigation response and the alternative response when it was available to all children in the household. In making determinations at the conclusion of the investigation response, most agencies made separate determinations for each child. Moreover, most agencies considered such factors as the severity of the case, policy-defined standards of evidence, and the family's need for services when making determinations during the investigation.

Agencies provided a lot of information about the activities carried out while conducting these responses. The vast majority always reviewed prior CPS records, interviewed or formally observed the child, and interviewed the caregiver as part of the investigation. These same activities were consistently performed during the alternative response. Nearly three-quarters of agencies used guidelines for establishing risk or safety during investigations, while nearly as many used this tool during alternative responses. Further, professionals and assistance groups were widely available during both responses. In particular, clinicians or psychiatrists, domestic violence specialists, substance abuse specialists, and child fatality review teams were nearly always available to workers conducting investigations and alternative responses.

Workers and supervisors had similar roles in conducting the responses. For the investigation response, agencies normally assigned a referral on a child or household currently under investigation to a worker experienced with the family. For referrals with prior substantiated or unsubstantiated reports, agencies typically assigned the next available worker to investigate. In almost all agencies, investigation workers made the formal maltreatment determination with supervisory review. This same decision structure held for service determinations during the alternative responses whereby the workers made the determination with supervisory review.

The investigation response and the alternative response also faced similar challenges. The most common obstacles to timely completion of either response included locating the family, spending sufficient time with the family, and obtaining the necessary expertise from other professionals.

More notable differences between the two responses emerged in a few areas. Agencies routinely notified perpetrators and entered their names in the central registry at the conclusion of investigations, while this was somewhat less common for alternative responses. When the response was not completed within the required timeframe, procedures differed depending on the response. For investigations, the case remained open with the original worker until complete. In contrast, for the alternative CPS response, the agency closed the referral when the time frame expired.