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National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts: Findings on Local CPS Practices - Executive Summary

Publication Date
Apr 30, 2003




The National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts, under the leadership of the Children's Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, both within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has examined the current system of child protective services (CPS) from both a policy and a practice perspective. While there are five main components to the National Study, this report discusses the findings on CPS practice based on just one of the components--the Local Agency Survey (LAS) of the CPS agencies serving a randomly selected sample of counties in the United States.

The purpose of the survey was to identify the ways in which local agencies carried out the CPS functions across the U.S. Its design consisted of a mail survey to the CPS agencies serving a representative sample of 375 counties. The sample was designed to assure adequate representation of urban and rural counties, counties in both State-administered systems and counties in county-administered systems, and all census regions. An 80 percent response rate was achieved; surveys covering 300 counties were received.

After a brief description of the study, this report discusses current practice (as of 2002) related to the organization and administration of CPS, the screening and intake functions, the investigation function, the provision of an alternative noninvestigative response by many agencies, and the role of law enforcement and other agencies in CPS work.(1) In addition, changes being undertaken by local agencies and conclusions are presented.

Agency Administration and Staffing

There were an estimated 2,600 local CPS agencies throughout the country during 2001. These may be county-level agencies or State regional offices covering multiple counties. For 61 percent of agencies, workers could perform more than one CPS function. In larger agencies, specialized workers often conducted single functions. While there were differences between small and large agencies, on average a CPS agency screened 64 referrals and completed 43 investigations per month. The average number of caseworkers per agency was 17. Additional analyses indicate that one-quarter of agencies had approximately 4 or fewer workers, and another one-quarter had 15 or more.

It is estimated that only a small number of staff positions were vacant among CPS local agencies at the time of the survey. On average, each agency had 0.6 vacancies, of which 0.4 were social workers or caseworkers. More than 75 percent of agencies indicated that they had no vacancies at the time of the survey.

A majority of agencies operated with specialized staff in their screening and intake, and investigation functions, even though approximately 20 percent of these agencies had staff perform other functions when needed. The majority of children resided in counties that were served by agencies with staff who specialized in providing one CPS function.

This pattern of specialization is similar for agencies that offer other responses to abuse and neglect allegations in that almost one-half of such agencies had specialist staff in the role of screening and intake versus alternative response.(2) However, in most agencies (60%) the same workers who provided investigation also provided alternative response.

Most agencies believed that their workloads were excessive. Almost 70 percent of agencies thought this was the case for at least one CPS function. Three-quarters of the Nation's children resided in jurisdictions where CPS agencies reported excessive workloads. There is some indication that concerns about workload were especially prevalent among agencies serving larger child populations.

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Screening and Intake

CPS agencies received referrals from many sources.(3) Individuals, State or local hotlines, and schools were the most common referral sources. A substantial minority of CPS agencies automatically accepted referrals from certain sources such as specific agencies or mandated reporters.

Roughly two-thirds of local CPS agencies received State hotline referrals; however, most agencies had local authority in handling these referrals. For example, even though the State hotline might make recommendations regarding the local response, many agencies assigned their own priority status to the recommendation.

Very few CPS agencies made direct contact with the child, family, or reporter during the screening and intake process. In conducting screening and intake activities, a majority of CPS agencies indicated that they always searched CPS records for information on the alleged victims and alleged perpetrators, and that they used a safety assessment tool. Nonetheless, agencies undertook a wide variety of other activities during the screening process, including calls to collaterals, calls to family members, and establishing the credibility of the reporter.

A large majority of CPS agencies used various response options for screened-out referrals, including making referrals to other agencies. For all types of screened-in referrals, the most common response option was a CPS investigation; however, approximately one-quarter to one-half of agencies had several response options for screened-in referrals.

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.

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Collaboration with Other Agencies

While more CPS agencies claimed lead responsibility across all type of maltreatment for the screening function, very few had overall lead responsibility for the investigation and alternative response functions. The specific circumstances of the maltreatment also shaped the role of CPS agencies. CPS agencies shared lead responsibility more often for the more serious forms of maltreatment. CPS agencies shared lead responsibility for screening more often for physical abuse and sexual abuse than for neglect or other maltreatment. Similarly, while more than one-half of CPS agencies shared lead responsibility for severe physical abuse, the percentages for moderate physical abuse and at risk of physical abuse were much lower. CPS agencies were most likely to have lead responsibility when an investigation or an alternative response related to a perpetrator who was a family member or a relative. Approximately one-half of the agencies did not provide alternative response in cases that included foster parents, institutional staff, or minors.

The findings also reveal a distinction between the role of law enforcement and that of other agencies in CPS work. Across different types of maltreatment, CPS agencies reported sharing lead responsibility with law enforcement more often than with any other type of agency. While nearly three-quarters of CPS agencies shared lead responsibility with law enforcement for physical and sexual abuse, fewer than 20 percent of agencies shared with other, nonlaw enforcement agencies for these types of maltreatment. The same pattern holds true for different types of perpetrators with more sharing of lead responsibility with law enforcement agencies. While 41 percent of CPS agencies shared lead responsibility with law enforcement agencies when the perpetrator was a family member or relative, just 3 percent shared with other agencies for this type of perpetrator. Together, these differences emphasize the significant role law enforcement agencies play in CPS processes. Law enforcement agencies are the only other agencies besides CPS agencies that can receive mandated reports of child maltreatment, enforce the applicable criminal law, and remove children from their parents, if they are being maltreated or are at risk of maltreatment.

Changes in CPS Practice

Agencies' overall approaches to CPS were generally stable; more than one-half reported that their practices had been in place for 5 or more years. However, there were many areas of ongoing modification and adjusting. In the area of organizational changes, more than one-quarter had made changes to their use of information technology and nearly 30 percent had adjusted staff training during the preceding 6 months. Further, 13 percent of agencies had made changes to their philosophy of services, such as to include a stronger focus on either safety or family-centered services. With respect to community partners, 11 percent of CPS agencies had implemented changes related to their collaboration with substance abuse agencies, and16 percent had implemented changes in collaborations with domestic violence agencies. In the area of screening and intake, 17 percent had changed their use of assessments or other standard instruments in the screening process. Relatively few changes had been made to investigation processes, but the most common was the introduction or modification of multidisciplinary teams, noted by 9 percent of agencies.

This survey is the first to attempt an estimate of how deeply changes have reached into the CPS field. It appears that changes are not as deep at the local level as might have been assumed based on anecdotal accounts.

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Variation by Administrative Structure

Differences were examined across local agencies, based upon the administrative structure of CPS services.(4) In some States, the entire CPS program is managed by the State, while in other States, CPS is managed by county agencies. Three categories of agencies were studied--State-administered agencies, county-administered agencies, and State-administered agencies with strong county-level management structure.

Agencies in State-administered systems with a strong county structure had more expansive and flexible investigations than other agencies. These agencies were more likely to always extend the investigation response to all children in the household and to include such activities as discussing the case with a multidisciplinary team, as part of the investigation. These agencies also faced fewer obstacles to timely completion of the investigation. Agencies in State-administered systems with strong county structure rarely reported obstacles like preparing materials for the case or court record and handling language barriers.

For the screening/intake and investigation function, 43 percent of State-administered agencies were estimated to have specialized staff members, while 23 percent of county- and 32 percent of State-administered with a strong county structure had specialized staff. Differences between State-administered agencies and county-administered agencies suggest that county agencies might not have specialized in the screening and intake function to the same degree that State-administered agencies did. In general, it appeared that at least one-half of the staff assigned to this function at either the caseworker or supervisory level was assigned to other responsibilities.

In terms of the alternative response function, agencies in State-administered systems with strong county structure appeared more consistent in how they conducted alternative response than other types of agencies. These agencies had more required practices to perform before completing the alternative response.

Site Visits to Local Agencies

Eight site visits were made to localities ranging from suburban communities to rural communities. Three sites were in county-administered systems and the remaining five sites were in State-administered systems. The objective of the site visits was to gain a deeper understanding of the changes in CPS practice being undertaken. Activities included interviewing key stakeholders in the CPS system and obtaining documentation of the reform efforts underway.

Several trends were identified as a result of the site visits. Many agencies reported having undertaken broad-based changes in their philosophy of service. Seven of the eight sites had conducted organizational and administrative changes. One-half of the agencies had moved to conducting joint CPS and law enforcement investigations and one-half of the sites had changed the way in which the agency worked with families. Five sites had changed or were in the process of changing community collaboration efforts and one-half of the sites had adopted new practices for working with domestic violence programs.


The LAS provides a rich source of information about the processes and practices of CPS agencies. The survey's focus on the different functional areas as well as reform efforts within the agencies contributes to the overall study's ability to describe the status of the CPS system nationally and to characterize the reform efforts underway. With a unique national perspective lacking in other research efforts, the LAS findings can help both policy makers and practitioners understand how CPS agencies nationwide operate.

The LAS findings provide concrete evidence of both the commonalities and diversity of CPS practices throughout the Nation. The diversity is at the very core of CPS practice. While all CPS agencies investigated child abuse and neglect, they did not all have the same lead responsibility. To a certain degree, the more serious the type of maltreatment, the more likely they were to share the responsibility for investigating the maltreatment. This obviously requires clear lines of responsibility and collaboration to be effective.

Furthermore, the majority of CPS agencies conceptualized their practice as having different responses for different types of maltreatment. Not only were responsibilities shared, but the responses were different. In general, alternative responses were less focused on obtaining forensic evidence, but the clear difference was that they focused on different types of maltreatment than did investigation.

The LAS provides data on CPS practice as it existed in 2002. It is hoped that it will assist in planning for improved CPS practices in future years.

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1.  Intake refers to the assignment by the CPS agency of a worker to respond to a screened-in referral alleging child abuse and neglect.

2.  These other responses are called alternative response.

3.  Calls that are received by the CPS agency are considered to be referrals to the agency, which may be screened in or screened out by the agency. Screened-in referrals are considered reports alleging child abuse or neglect.

4.  Administrative structure refers to the method of assigning organizational authority for CPS among subjurisdictions in a State.