National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts. Findings on Local CPS Practices. 9.3 CPS Agency Practices


Overall, there was little variation across CPS agencies with how referrals entered the agency. Most CPS agencies screened locally, as opposed to only relying on State hotlines, and typically received referrals from individuals, schools, or hotlines. CPS agencies made widespread use of on-call staff to handle calls after-business hours, on weekends, and from non-English speakers. Some agencies were not at all able to accept referrals from non-English speakers because of a lack of appropriate staff or arrangements with interpreters to handle such calls.

CPS agencies had some flexibility in the processing of referrals. Agencies had multiple response options available for both screened-in and screened-out referrals. Further, agencies that received referrals from a State hotline were not bound to follow the Hotline's response recommendation or the timeframe for completing the referral. Agency screening activities generally involved paperwork; activities that required direct contact with the child, family, or reporter were conducted less frequently. CPS agencies almost always conducted such activities as searching CPS records, while they only sometimes conducted activities involving contact with individuals such as calling or visiting the family or calling collaterals during screening.

Once a referral was screened into the agency for further action, two-thirds of CPS agencies used an alternative response in combination with investigation. More response options were available for referrals on children with an open investigation or for referrals on children in foster care than for other types of screened-in referrals. Those referrals that were screened out by the agency were often referred elsewhere, many to the police, because they involved maltreatment by third-party perpetrators.

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 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, CPS agencies almost universally considered factors such as severity and policy standards during the investigation response. Fewer agencies required practices under alternative response related to imminent safety issues — such as removing the child — because such cases were handled by investigations.

Agencies carried out a wide range of activities while conducting both responses. During investigations, nearly all CPS agencies interviewed the child and caregiver, reviewed previous records, and interviewed witnesses. Some activities were less frequent during investigations, such as conducting family group conferencing and criminal background checks. During the alternative response, agencies almost always talked to the child and reviewed prior records. However, they focused less on gathering forensic evidence, and they less frequently used multidisciplinary teams, interviewed witnesses, gathered physical evidence, or conducted criminal background checks.

While a majority of agencies followed guidelines for conducting assessment during the investigation response, only a minority used formal assessment tools during the investigation to gauge the extent of risk, safety, substance abuse, or domestic violence. This finding may contradict what many in the field believe to be a more widespread use of these tools during investigations. Overall, there is less use of standard instruments and tools during the alternative CPS responses.

CPS agencies had access to a broad range of specialists while conducting investigation and other responses, particularly clinicians and substance abuse specialists. The analyses also revealed that the reliance on professionals might cause a bottleneck in completing the response. Access to professionals was frequently cited as a barrier to timely completion of both responses. These findings suggest that while CPS agencies may have had access to specialists, this access could be delayed or not prompt enough to fit into the timeline for responses.

Decisionmaking practices were similar for both responses where workers made decisions with supervisory review. At the conclusion of the response, notifications to the perpetrator and reporter were more common during the investigation response compared to the alternative response. For responses not completed during the required time frame, investigations typically remained open, while alternative responses had more flexible standards for concluding the case.