National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts: Literature Review. Proposals for Change


Ever since the establishment more than 100 years ago of agencies that address the issue of child protection, there has been an ongoing goal of improving the service to children who have been maltreated. Private non-profit agencies as well as governmental agencies, communities, and advocates have sought to find the best means of assisting such children. Although there has been general agreement on this goal (see Kadushin, 1974), the appropriate response toward those who maltreat their children has been debated. Should parents who maltreat their children be helped with services that relieve the factors that contribute to their poor parenting; should they be ordered to accept services; or should they be prosecuted as offenders? Should all families receive the same response or should different families receive different responses? These issues seem to underlie many of the proposals for change found in the literature. Before examining these proposals, it is helpful to review the critiques being made in the literature of the "traditional" system.

The following components or activities are generally included as part of a "traditional" CPS system:

  • The local CPS agency receives a report of alleged child abuse and/or neglect.
  • The report is screened-in, or assigned, if it meets State policy criteria for defining a potential incidence of maltreatment.
  • The screened-in report is investigated.
  • The investigation determines whether the alleged maltreatment event occurred.
  • The name of the perpetrator of a substantiated incident of maltreatment is placed on a central registry.
  • Families may receive remediating services, and/or a child may be removed from his or her home.

This series of activities is questioned by a number of authors who suggest that it may not be appropriate for two reasons. First, over time, changing standards about what constitutes child maltreatment have made the range of family circumstances reported to CPS agencies too broad for a standardized approach. Second, it is hard for a standardized approach to accomplish two potentially contradictory objectives sanctioning perpetrators of maltreatment or providing services to families to remediate the problem.

For example, Waldfogel (1998b) argues that one result of such practices is that some families are inappropriately subjected to invasive CPS investigations. Orr (1999) supports this argument by noting that the percentage of substantiated investigations has dropped from a high of 61 percent of all investigations in 1973 to 31 percent in 1996.

Waldfogel (1998b) also argues that some families do not get access to needed services because the investigation finds that their children are at low-risk of maltreatment. Such families may be referred later with more serious problems. If the system of response does not include adequate assessment techniques, some children may even be at greater risk of having inadequate protection with tragic consequences.

One suggestion for addressing this problem is that the CPS agency should increase its flexibility in responding to families with different needs. For example, agencies could implement a differential response system in which only families with the most serious cases or those at the highest risk are subject to a mandatory CPS investigation, while other families with less serious cases or at low risk would receive a voluntary family assessment and service-oriented response. The American Public Human Services Association [APHSA] presents a more complex differential response schema in its model CPS system guidelines (1999, p.18). This schema has been reproduced in Exhibit 1 below.

Exhibit 1
Possible Responses to Families
Types of cases High risk Moderate Low risk
Responses suggested Intensive Family Preservation Services, Child Removal, Court-Ordered Services, Foster Care, Adoption, Criminal Prosecution Appropriate formal services coordinated through family support/safety plans and community support agencies Early Intervention, family support center, formal/informal services, parent education, housing assistance, community neighborhood advocacy
Persons Responsible CPS/ Law Enforcement CPS/ Community partners Community partners

While general agreement existed among authors that families should not all be responded to in the same way, differences emerged in what families and in what responses the authors' change proposals focused on. Different authors tended to focus on either narrowing the range of children and families who would receive an investigation or broadening the range of children and families who might receive voluntary services.

Suggestions for narrowing the response of the CPS agency have focused on improving the screening of child maltreatment reports with more precise and restrictive definitions of child maltreatment (Besharov, 1998; Orr, 1999; Pelton, 1998). Some models also suggest authorizing different agencies to be responsible for different types of cases. For example, Orr (1999) suggests that allegations of severe child maltreatment should be investigated by law enforcement agencies, and that perpetrators of these abuses should be sanctioned by the criminal justice system. The CPS agency would focus primarily on assisting families-in-need to find appropriate services on a voluntary basis.To the extent possible, distinct paths of involvement with government agencies would be more clearly differentiated for the responsible agencies and the families and children.

Suggestions for broadening the response of the CPS agency have emphasized the need to provide individually tailored remediating services to a wider range of at-risk families (Farrow, 1997; Larner, Stevenson, & Behrman, 1998; Shirk, 1998; U.S. GAO, 1997; Waldfogel, 1998a, 1998b, 2000). Advocates of such changes suggest that community indicators of child safety would improve if families at all levels of risk had better support systems. These models would improve service delivery by collecting more comprehensive information about families and by involving a wider range of informal and formal potential supports in service planning and delivery.

One suggestion for collecting more information and increasing participation is through the introduction of family assessments instead of, or in addition to, investigations. Historically, CPS agencies have considered both investigation and assessment activities as part of the same function. Within this broad framework, State or local agencies tended to emphasize one aspect of the role over the other in the formulation of CPS philosophy, policy, and practice at the local level. An emerging concept is that CPS investigation and assessment functions can be structurally distinct.

In particular, the following authors suggest that service planning should be based on information gathered through family assessments rather than through investigations. In order to draw a distinction between these two approaches, these authors have emphasized that family assessments tend to examine a broader range of topics, focusing on family strengths in addition to or instead of family problems. For example, an assessment would intentionally assess interactional dynamics within the family, the family's patterns of functioning over time, and family strengths. An investigation would primarily focus on the situation that led to the abuse or neglect report, covering some of the same topics as assessments, but from a different perspective (APHSA,1999; Combs-Orme & Thomas, 1997; Day, Robinson, & Sheikh, 1998; The National Child Welfare Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice [NCWRCFCP], 2000a).

Assessments not only increase the types of information that social workers have available to use in making services plans, they can also be useful in identifying familial or community-support systems. Expanding the range of participants in service planing and provision is the second goal of a broadly responding CPS system.

According to Farrow, broadening the response of CPS does not necessarily mean that CPS provides more services. Rather he describes the shift in emphasis as involving new participants in child protection systems. He writes:

The CPS agency must shift from viewing itself as the provider of all child protective services, and instead begin to catalyze, organize, and, in a variety of ways, provide leadership to the development of community partnerships for child protection and neighborhood-based systems of service delivery that achieve the result of child safety (1997, p.6).

Some of ways new participants are being included in child protection are as follows:

  • CPS workers are stationed in neighborhoods with other service providers such as health and employment department staff (AHA, 1997; Shirk, 1998).
  • CPS workers partner with nontraditional service providers such as domestic violence centers, local day care centers, churches, and "natural helpers," individuals in the neighborhood who are already helping families (Apple, et al., 1997).
  • Community members play a prominent role in decision-making (Farrow, 1997; Shirk, 1998; NCWRCFCP, 2000b). This decision-making role can be at the community level in the form of community boards that define service needs or citizens review boards that monitor CPS practice, or at the family level in the form of family-group decision-making (FGDM). FGDM emphasizes that families should have the responsibility of making decisions about how to safeguard their children (American Humane Association [AHA], 1997).

In sum, various proposals for change were found in the literature. These proposals suggest that each of the responses of  helping parents who maltreat their children find services to improve their parenting skills, mandating that parents participate in services, and prosecuting offenders of child maltreatment  are appropriate. They are not, however, all appropriate for all families. In addition, different authors focused their proposals on different sets of family/response combinations.

While this section reviewed theoretical proposals for change, the next section reviews actual change initiatives described in the current literature.