Journal Issue: Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1998
Overview of the Child Protection System
Today, state and local child welfare departments bear the primary responsibility for child protection. As the article by Patricia Schene in this journal issue explains, these departments identify and respond to cases of child abuse and neglect; they help maltreating families resolve their problems so they can keep or regain custody of their children; and they provide substitute living arrangements in foster care, residential settings, or adoptive homes for children who cannot safely return home. In most states, these responsibilities are divided among a CPS agency or unit, which responds to reports of maltreatment, and sister units that oversee family preservation programs, foster homes, and adoption proceedings.
The legal foundation for CPS intervention into family affairs comes from state laws that prohibit parents or caregivers from "harming or threatening a child's health and welfare by physical and mental injury, sexual abuse, neglected treatment, or maltreatment."15 (The article by Diana English in this journal issue discusses the varying definitions of maltreatment.) Professionals in all states and laypersons in some states are required to report suspected abuse or neglect to a CPS hot line. In 1995, more than half of the reports (53%) came from professionals such as teachers (15%), law enforcement personnel (13%), doctors (11%), and others. One-fifth (19%) came from family members of the victims, and the remainder were from friends and neighbors (9%), other reporters (7%), and anonymous individuals (12%).16 These reports are investigated by CPS caseworkers, sometimes working with law enforcement. Within 24 to 72 hours, the caseworker decides whether maltreatment has taken place and whether the child's safety and family ties can best be protected by immediate removal, agency oversight and mandated services to address family problems, or no intervention beyond referrals to voluntary services.
For CPS to place the child in substitute care or impose requirements on the parents, the juvenile or family court must grant temporary custody of the child to the state after weighing the details of the case, the rights of the parents, and the safety risks to the child.17 In many instances, however, the family voluntarily participates in services and no court involvement is needed. As the article by Schene explains, when the CPS agency "opens" a case for oversight and services, a caseworker and the court monitor the child's safety and the family's progress. A CPS case may be closed when the risk to a child who remained home subsides, when a child who was placed has been safely reunified with his or her family, when the court reassigns guardianship or terminates the rights of the parents to allow adoption, or when the child becomes 18 and is no longer considered a dependent.
Significant costs are associated with CPS activities and the child welfare system's efforts to help the victims of child maltreatment. As the article by Mark Courtney in this journal issue reports, direct government expenditures on child welfare amounted to about $11.2 billion in 1995. Federal funds accounted for 42%, state funds for 49%, and local funds for 9% of the total.18 Cost breakdowns showing the activities that child welfare budgets support are hard to come by. Extrapolating from data from Ohio and Texas, one report estimated that nationally about $1.7 billion is spent on investigations (at $813 per case) and $1.2 billion is spent on in-home services (at $2,702 per case).19 Courtney reports that the per capita costs of foster care placements, group homes, and residential treatment centers approach $22,000 per year. Protecting children is not only difficult; it is expensive.
CPS caseworkers are central players in the government's response to child abuse and neglect, but they are decision makers and case managers rather than service providers. By screening and investigating cases and making referrals to services, they open some doors to particular children and families, and they close others. In doing so, they act in concert with other entities: community members who report suspected maltreatment, the courts that decide outcomes in serious cases, and community agencies that provide services to families. In the past, child protection was not a government activity at all, but was undertaken selectively by private charities. As the next section explains, government involvement has expanded the scope of efforts to protect children, but it has also led to controversy.