National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts. Findings on Local CPS Practices. Investigation and Alternative Response


After the screening process, almost two-thirds of agencies nationwide handled referrals through both investigations and alternative responses.

Alternative responses were defined for study purposes as a formal response of the agency that assesses the needs of the child or family without requiring a determination that maltreatment had occurred or that the child is at risk of maltreatment. Overall, the investigation response was used for the more serious types of maltreatment, while the alternative responses were used for situations where children were at risk of maltreatment or where the situation could be remedied without an investigation. Further, alternative responses were less likely to be used for removing a child from the home, to include an assessment of safety needs of the family, to make a determination of whether maltreatment or risk of maltreatment had occurred, or to make a recommendation for court action.

Despite a different focus for the two responses, many of the approaches and practices used in conducting the responses were similar. Almost all agencies reviewed CPS records, interviewed or formally observed the child, and interviewed the caregiver during investigations. Slightly lower proportions of agencies conducted the same activities during alternative responses. Under both responses, a majority of agencies sometimes discussed the case with other CPS workers or with a multidisciplinary team, visited the family, and interviewed professionals.

Agencies had access to a wide range of resources during both responses. Nearly three-quarters of agencies used guidelines for establishing risk or safety of a child during investigations, and almost two-thirds of agencies also used such guidelines during alternative responses.

While a majority of agencies followed guidelines for conducting assessments 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 was less use of standardized instruments and tools during alternative responses than during investigation.

Certain professional resources were widely available during both investigations and alternative responses. For example, clinicians or psychiatrists, domestic violence specialists, substance abuse specialists, and child fatality teams were almost always available to assist workers during both investigation and alternative response activities.

CPS agencies also provided followup services to children and families as part of their responses. Almost three-quarters of agencies were allowed to provide services regardless of the result of investigations. The range of potential service offerings available to most agencies was quite extensive, with educational or therapeutic services most commonly available, and financial services less commonly available. Approximately one-quarter of agencies provided services only if a report was substantiated or did not provide followup services at all.