Who Is and Is Not Served by Child Protective Services Systems? Implications for a Prevention Infrastructure to Reduce Child Maltreatment

Published date01 November 2020
Date01 November 2020
/tmp/tmp-17YTBiMtfxlS3d/input 980691ANN
The Annals of the American AcademyWHO IS AND IS NOT SERVED BY CPS SYSTEMS?
the majority of alleged abuse or neglect reports to the
U.S. child welfare system are either screened out prior
to an investigation (i.e., at the “hotline” stage) or inves-
tigated only to be closed with no finding of immediate
child safety concerns. Yet while many of these children
and families are at risk of subsequent incidents of child
maltreatment or child welfare system involvement,
they are not systematically offered services or benefits
intended to reduce this risk at the point that child pro-
Who Is and Is tective services (CPS) ends its involvement. this article
provides an overview of the “front end” of the child
Not Served by welfare system, commonly referred to as CPS, high-
lighting which families are served and which are not.
We then argue for a systematic and coordinated child
Child Protective maltreatment prevention infrastructure that incorpo-
rates elements of “community response” programs that
several U.S. states have implemented in recent years.
Such programs are focused on families that have been
reported to, and sometimes investigated by, CPS, but
no ongoing CPS case is opened. We further argue that
such programs need to pay particular attention to
Implications for economic issues that these families face.
a Prevention Keywords: child abuse and neglect prevention; child
maltreatment prevention; child protective
services; child welfare system; community
to Reduce
Although the federal government created
the Children’s Bureau in 1912, with the
Maltreatment mission to study and report on a wide range of
matters affecting the welfare of children, child
protective services (CPS) in the United States
were not formally codified by the federal gov-
ernment until 1962. In that year, Congress
passed amendments to the Social Security Act
Kristen S. Slack is a professor at the University of
Wisconsin–Madison School of Social Work. Her
research focuses on understanding the role of poverty
and economic hardship in the etiology of child mal-
treatment, caseload dynamics of child welfare systems
in relation to other public benefit systems, and commu-
nity-based programs designed to prevent child mal-
Correspondence: ksslack@wisc.edu
DOI: 10.1177/0002716220980691
ANNALS, AAPSS, 692, November 2020

that required states to establish statewide child welfare systems by 1975. Prior to
the passage of these amendments, child protection activities were a function of
nongovernmental entities, often called “Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to
Children” (SPCCs), which were not uniformly available within or across states
(Myers 2004). the title IV-e amendments to the Social Security Act established
a dedicated funding stream to states to partially support (along with state-
matching funding) the care and service needs of children who meet federal
eligibility requirements and are placed in out-of-home care (e.g., foster care,
institutional care) for reasons of abuse or neglect, and later for adoption and
kinship guardianship assistance.
Several other major laws influencing child protection practice have passed
since the early 1960s, but our approach to child protection in the United States
is now at an inflection point. After steadily declining from 2002 to 2012, foster
care caseloads have increased substantially since 2012 and are now at their high-
est level in more than two decades (Child trends Databank 2019; Radel et al.
2018; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2019). Moreover, they
may become more pronounced in the midst and aftermath of the COVID-19
pandemic to the extent that the pandemic creates or exacerbates economic stress
within families, a known risk factor for child maltreatment (Slack, Berger, and
Noyes 2017). this uptick may occur despite that child maltreatment reports
decreased substantially during periods of school closures and state and local lock-
downs due to a corresponding decline in children’s face-to-face interactions with
mandated reporters in schools, childcare centers, and other child-serving systems
(Stewart 2020; Welch and Haskins 2020). In addition, new evidence and new
opportunity afforded by policy combine to warrant a rethinking of the approach
to child protection in the United States, including research illustrating the strik-
ing cumulative incidence of childhood CPS system involvement (Kim et al. 2017;
Wildeman et al. 2014), the exorbitant economic costs of child maltreatment
(Peterson, Florence, and Klevens 2018), persistent disproportionality in CPS
involvement by race and ethnicity (Dettlaff et al. 2011; Drake et al. 2011;
Johnson-Motoyama et al. 2015; Wildeman et al. 2014), and the recent passage of
the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-123) to expand the
scope of child welfare systems further into the prevention realm.
In this article, we focus on the “front-end” of the U.S. child welfare systems,
which comprises CPS functions, where reports of abuse and neglect are screened,
and decisions are made to investigate and initiate services to address situations of
child maltreatment. We review who is currently served by CPS and how effective
these systems are in identifying maltreatment, and we attend to an important
overlooked population of families at risk for child maltreatment—those reported
to CPS, but that, upon further screening and investigation, are not ultimately
served by that system. We then propose a prevention infrastructure that attends
Lawrence M. Berger is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Social Work and former
director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His
research focuses on the ways in which economic resources, sociodemographic characteristics,
and public policies affect parental behaviors and child and family well-being.

to this population, and we highlight the multiple systems external to CPS posi-
tioned to influence rates of child maltreatment.
Whom Do CPS Systems Serve and Not Serve?
Currently, CPS systems in the United States have four primary functions: (1) vet-
ting referrals of alleged abuse and neglect incidents that an array of professionals
and the general public report, (2) further assessing or investigating the referrals
that appear to meet state statutory definitions of child maltreatment, (3) provid-
ing in-home services to families as well as services to families whose children are
removed for safety concerns and placed in out-of-home care, and (4) closing
cases of abuse or neglect through service plan completions or establishment of
permanent placements for children who cannot remain or be reunified with their
families of origin (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council [IOM
and NRC] 2014).
the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 established federal
regulations for “Child and Family Service Reviews,” which carried the mandate
of ensuring the safety, permanency, and well-being of children once they are
involved in CPS. Notably, none of these functions and mandates supports the
prevention of child abuse and neglect—rather, CPS systems are explicitly
charged only with responding to allegations of child maltreatment and attending
to the service needs of children and families once they are involved with CPS.
With the recent passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018,
states may now use title IV-e (as well as title IV-B1) funding for the purpose of
preventing out-of-home placements of children. testa and Kelly (this volume)
offer an overview of this new law and its implications for child welfare systems;
Haskins (this volume) offers an overview of child welfare funding.
Over the last 25 years, many states have established “alternative response”
(AR) (also called “differential response”) pathways within their CPS systems.
States established AR pathways primarily in reaction to traditional CPS system
practices that tended to treat families similarly despite variation in the level and
nature of presenting risk and protective factors. Families with fewer and less seri-
ous risks or child safety concerns could be placed on an AR path characterized
by greater collaboration between CPS and the family, and an “assessment” rather
than an “investigation” approach to developing a service plan (Maguire-Jack,
Slack, and Berger 2014). Under an AR model, families reported for less severe
situations of maltreatment or maltreatment risk are offered voluntary services by
CPS. the focus of the CPS caseworker’s initial contacts with a family is on col-
laborative needs assessment and developing a service plan to maintain child
safety in the home and reduce the likelihood of maltreatment risk escalating.
Under a traditional CPS model, an investigative approach is taken to determine
whether maltreatment allegations should be substantiated and whether to open
an ongoing case, remove a child from the home, and require services that are
typically court-ordered and thus mandatory. the distinction between the two

FIgURe 1
Family Pathways in Child Protective Services (CPS) Systems

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