National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts. Review of State CPS Policy. Disposition Categories and Definitions


All States included definitions of dispositions. These definitions were grouped into three broad categories--substantiated, unsubstantiated, and indicated--for analysis. Substantiated included such terms as "founded" and "valid" that are used by States to define a group of cases where maltreatment has occurred or where significant risk exists for the child. The term "indicated" is used by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) to define cases in which there is some reason to believe maltreatment occurred or risk exists, but which do not meet the evidentiary requirements for substantiated. (See table 4-B.) Additional categories included "unable to determine or complete" or "other."

  • Forty-eight States (94.1%) had definitions for substantiated and unsubstantiated. The remainder had alternate structures of classification, which included terms equivalent to substantiated;
  • Fourteen States (27.5%) included a definition of "unable to determine or complete;" and
  • Eight States (15.7%) included a definition of "indicated."

Definitions for substantiated and unsubstantiated were varied in the breadth or narrowness of focus implied in their wording. Such definitional differences may reflect underlying differences in how States balance concern for child safety with concern for the effects of intervention on the family. Definitional differences also appear to have implications for the proportions of cases that are unsubstantiated.3

Two themes concerning the definition of "substantiated" were also identified. Forty-one States (80.4%) mentioned only collecting information regarding the truth of the allegations or whether an incident of maltreatment had occurred. Seven States (13.7%) specified that substantiated could be based either on evidence of maltreatment or the risk of maltreatment occurring in the future.

Two themes concerning the definition of "unsubstantiated" were identified. Twenty-three States (45.1%) defined "unsubstantiated" broadly in terms of "insufficient evidence." These States defined unsubstantiated cases as failing to meet the standard of evidence for substantiated--"when credible evidence of abuse or neglect has not been obtained" or "fails evidence standard." Twenty-six States (51.0%) considered unsubstantiated more narrowly as cases where there is no evidence that maltreatment occurred--"clearly unfounded, erroneous, or incorrect," "worker is reasonably sure that child abuse or neglect did not occur," or "whenever facts obtained during the investigation provide credible evidence that child abuse or neglect has not occurred." (Some States had provisions for both types of definition.)

States had different typologies for classifying the results of investigations, although some of these also used terminology close to substantiated and unsubstantiated. While these can, at State discretion, be mapped to the more common typology, they are noteworthy because of the underlying philosophical differences. Some examples are:

  • Four categories of disposition--court petition is required, CPS required, community services are needed, community services are recommended;
  • Four categories of disposition--services required, no services required, services recommended, no services recommended; and
  • Eight categories of disposition--no assessment needed, assessment completed, family declined assessment, refer for investigation, assessment will proceed, substantiated, indicated, and unsubstantiated.

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