National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts: Literature Review. Overview of the National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts



This appendix provides a conceptual overview of the major areas of research to be addressed by the National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts, and the role of the five data collection methods that will be used in the study. The goal of the study is to describe the overall status of child protective services systems nationally, and any reform efforts underway. Given the state of change that currently exists within the field of CPS, and the dynamic nature of the relationship between policy and practice, the study will investigate CPS systems from the perspective of three main areas. The three main areas are the State policies that define CPS functions and specify how these functions are carried out; local CPS agency organization and the practices that implement CPS functions; and innovative reform efforts that seek to restructure, redefine, or reformulate the purposes and functions of CPS. These areas are discussed in more detail in the next section.


Three research areas will be pursued in this study. These are:

  • State and local CPS mandates and policies;
  • CPS agency functions and practices that are conducted in order to meet the mandates and policies; and
  • Innovative reform efforts that are being introduced and their impact upon agency functions and practices.

Each of these areas involves addressing a number of more specific questions.

Mandates and Policies

The overarching responsibility of the CPS agency (most commonly a division or unit within a child welfare department) is to provide the first response to the needs of children who may have been abused or neglected. As terminology in some states indicates, the primary role of the CPS agency is to conduct "an emergency response." This mandate is also described as ensuring the safety of children from abuse or neglect, because it undertakes to investigate whether children are safe or not. However, other activities of child welfare agencies that serve to ensure safety, such as placing children in foster care or terminating the rights of abusive parents, are not usually considered to be part of the CPS function.

Given the mandate to conduct the first response to potential critical emergencies, much of CPS policy focuses on what conditions require a response and what types of response are required. Thus, the following key questions related to CPS mandates and policies will be addressed:

  • What points of receipt of allegations from reporters are established?
  • Who are the mandated reporters?
  • What are the criteria for accepting an allegation of child abuse or neglect?
  • What are the definitions of maltreatment?
  • What are the criteria for screening-out allegations?
  • What types of responses and time frames are required?
  • What standard of evidence is used in determining the occurrence of maltreatment?
  • Who is responsible for conducting these responses?
  • What are the outcomes of these responses?
  • What information is maintained on the responses to the allegations?
  • What legal protections are provided to reporters, victims, perpetrators, and investigators?
  • What are the requirements for interfacing with other child welfare units?
  • What are the requirements for collaboration or coordination with other agencies?

While philosophical and service orientations have their roots in early turn-of-the-century settlement-house programs, State mandates and policies were developed in response to the first Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in the 1960's, which recognized the prerogatives of States and localities to establish policies within the broad framework established by CAPTA. As a result, State policies, and to a certain degree county policies where they exist separately, have variations on each of the above question areas.

In order to address these variations in State policies, State documentation is being reviewed on the main areas of inquiry and will be confirmed by State administrators. County policies will also need to be reviewed in county-administered localities. These procedures are discussed in the section on methods.

Functions and Practices

The second research area examines the functions and operational practices, which are conducted in order to meet the mandates and policy requirements of the agencies. Primary functions of CPS agencies include screening, investigation and, in many places, providing an alternative response to investigation that assesses the needs of the family or child without making a specific determination related to child abuse or neglect. CPS agencies also provide short term services and make referrals to community service agencies. In addition, a multiplicity of activities underlies the main functions of the agency. Each of these activities can be further broken down into such components as who, what, where, and how. For example, in terms of screening, the following questions are some of the relevant topics.

  • Who makes the referral?
  • Who receives the referral?
  • How are referrals handled after regular office hours?
  • What information is collected on the referral?
  • What are the criteria for screening-in or screening-out a referral?
  • What computer checks on reporters, children, or alleged perpetrators are made?
  • What information is recorded on the referral and how is it recorded?
  • How many workers conduct this activity at the State level?
  • How many workers conduct this activity at the local level?
  • How many calls are handled daily?
  • What qualifications do the workers have?
  • What training do the workers receive?
  • What are the supervisory roles related to this activity?
  • What qualifications do supervisors have?
  • What training do supervisors receive?

Innovative Reform Efforts

The third research area will examine innovative approaches being implemented in local agencies to address the mandates and policies of CPS and the degree to which policy is changing to include these new reform efforts.

One of the basic research quandaries is to identify what is innovative. Many of the tensions within the CPS system have been evident for the last 100 years, e.g., the tension between social support, social rehabilitation, and punishment; the opposing themes of child needs verses family needs; the concerns for privacy versus accountability, etc. As State and local CPS systems have evolved, they have tended to tilt in one direction or another. They have not all, however, tilted in the same direction at the same time.

In identifying innovative reform efforts, local definitions of innovation will be examined. Once a range of innovative programs and approaches has been identified, criteria by which programs can be assessed more objectively as being innovative will be determined. Some of the criteria that may be considered are: scope of the innovation, length of time that it has been in place, whether policy and practice have both changed, and extent to which impact of the innovation has been measured or evaluated. A number of programs that meet these criteria will be researched in more depth through the site visits component of the study.

The site visit staff will use a site-visit subject protocol guide, rather than a survey instrument, in order to take into consideration the uniqueness of each program. Some questions under consideration for the site-visit subject protocol include:

  • What problems does the reform effort seek to address?
  • What events or factors gave rise to the reform initiatives?
  • What are the critical features of the reform effort? What functions are being modified?
  • How widely is the reform effort implemented?
  • How long has the reform effort been in place?
  • What documentation exists in terms of policy and practice changes?
  • What difficulties have been identified in implementing the reform effort?
  • How well has the reform effort been integrated into the agency?
  • What evaluation will be conducted of the reform effort?

The site visits will allow for the most in-depth exploration of the functional features of the innovative practices being implemented.


In this section the major study methods that will be used to address the three research areas are described.

Literature Review

The purpose of the literature review is to provide a summary of existing information on reform proposals or initiatives that alter integral components of the mission, functions, and operational practices of CPS agencies across the nation. The first section of the paper describes the critiques of CPS practices that are being discussed in the literature. These critiques are reviewed in terms of their implications for the description of critical CPS functions. The second section of the paper identifies innovative programs and practices that are being implemented by States or local communities.

Policy Analysis

The purpose of the policy analysis is to systematically characterize the written State mandates and policies that dictate the organization, functions, and procedures for the CPS agency and its partners. The results of the policy analysis will be (1) the development of State policy profiles and (2) a report that provides an analysis of commonalties and differences in State mandates and policy. The State profiles will lay the groundwork for the State confirmation interviews described in the next section.

State Confirmation Interviews

The purpose of the State confirmation interviews is to verify the accuracy and completeness of the information on each State's CPS policy. The respondents will be asked to correct or clarify the information in a State Policy Summary Profile, that will be sent to them in advance, and to provide further elaboration when appropriate. They will be asked about current waivers from State or Federal policy that are being implemented in the State and any policy changes that are pending or in draft form. The results of the State interviews will be entered into the database on State policy and presented in updated State Policy Summary Profiles. These profiles will be made available to the field. In addition, the State interviews will provide an opportunity for State agencies to identify any reform efforts or innovative approaches that are underway in the State or in local CPS agencies.

Local Agency Survey

The purpose of the Local Agency Survey is to identify the operational procedures employed in carrying out CPS functions by local CPS agencies across the Nation. While the State policy analysis and State confirmation interviews components of the study will focus on policies that provide definitions and dictate specific procedures and classifications, the agency survey will focus on actual practices at the local level. The targeted sample size is all local CPS agencies that serve 150 county PSUs. The sample will be stratified by urbanicity and by type of CPS administration (state or county administered). In addition, a limited number of counties with particularly innovative CPS strategies will be selected with certainty.

The results of the local agency survey will be (1) a database consisting of quantitative data elements summarizing the operational practices for carrying out key CPS functions at the local level and (2) a Findings Report that will discuss commonalties and differences in how CPS work is carried out and national estimates of the number of local agencies that employ different operational approaches, thereby providing a comprehensive picture of the CPS system nationwide.

Local Agency Site Visits

The objective of the site visits is to observe, first-hand and in-depth, the innovative practices being integrated into CPS agencies on a local level. The site visits will provide the opportunity to ask more qualitative questions about new programs and the relationship of such programs and practices to former policy and practice than the other data collection efforts. The site visits will target 9 to 12 programs with innovative approaches to carrying out the CPS functions. The sites will be selected using a set of criteria that will ensure that a wide range of reform efforts and jurisdictions are included. The on-site data collection will include both key informant interviews and focus groups. The key informant interviews will be conducted with several primary respondents in each site, including the CPS agency director, program manager for the reform effort, and any other agency personnel who play a key role in the reform effort.

The products of the local agency visits will be a series of case studies, prepared in a standard format to facilitate across site comparisons. The format will include such items as the purpose of the site visit, identification of interviewees and roles, CPS reform efforts and factors driving efforts, results to date, a list of persons interviewed, and a list of documents reviewed. The case studies will delineate the operation of CPS functions, especially as related to innovative practices and programs from a systems perspective. The unique elements of each program will be highlighted, with an observations as to the strengths and weaknesses of the strategies being employed to carry out the agency functions.

Study results will be available in 2002.