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Child Protective Services Process

What is Child Protective Services?

If you're reading this there is a good chance that you have been involved with Child Protective Services (CPS). Whether that is your family directly, or someone you know, it can be a scary process for any family. I wrote this article to help families understand the role of CPS and what they might expect while working with their caseworker. While the thought of a CPS caseworker showing up at your home may terrify you, many caseworkers understand that families have their struggles, but, also their strengths. When a caseworker shows up to your home, it is typically on the worst day for a family. The caseworker's goal is to ensure that your children are safe and look at every angle that might put their safety at risk.

Child Protective Services is typically a civil agency that is mandated by the state to respond to allegations (reports) of abuse and neglect.


What is Abuse and Neglect?

Every state is going to have their own definition for both abuse and neglect as well as the various forms of them. Although I can't cite all 50 states statutes, I can help you better search for yours.

For example: I am unfamiliar with Texas so I go to Google.

I search: Texas Statutes Children Services.

I click the second search result:

I click the following link:

As a result we learn how Texas defines abuse and neglect as well as the investigation process.

Now, it is important to understand that every state is different because what may be seen as Neglect in one state may be Abuse in another. For example Ohio defines Domestic Violence as Abuse, where as in Colorado it is Neglect.

Abuse: My example of abuse is something that has physically happened to a child due to the actions of the parent or caregiver.

In one state any sort of bruising as a result of physical discipline may constitute as abuse. However, in another state if a mark is left to a "Non-Sensitive" area of the body as a result of discipline it may not be deemed as abusive. However, just know that some states Children Services are more gray and are able to use discretion in determining what is deemed as abusive or neglectful.

Neglect: My example of neglect is the actions and/ or admission's of a caregiver that places the child in an unsafe environment.

Types of Abuse and Neglect

So most people think "abuse" and think something has happened to a child. Most people don't understand there are many ways someone can abuse or neglect a child. So I'm going to run through a couple of types and give some random examples of each. This list is by no means exhaustive as there are many and will most likely vary by state.

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Physical Abuse: Benjamin, age 5, is disrespectful towards his mother. As a result he is spanked. Unfortunately, at the time of his punishment Benjamin moves and is hit in the leg which leaves a bruise.

The story may mean nothing if a mark/ injury is left in some states; depending on CPS criteria they may be forced to investigate if it meets their threshold or screening guidelines.

Sexual Abuse: Sally, age 11, reports to a friend that her mother's boyfriend has been touching her inappropriately for the past 6 months.

Emotional Maltreatment: Michael, age 14, informed his therapist that he is suicidal as his father has been yelling at him and screaming obscenities. The other day Michael was publicly shamed for having got a B on a test.

Domestic Violence (Depends on state): Natalie, age 23, and her husband Zachary, age 25, have been stressed out as a result of him having been laid off at his job. Zachary has since struggled to maintain sobriety. One evening Zachary pushes Natalie who had been holding their child, Eva 2 months old.

Environment Injurious: This can be any condition which had jeopardized the safety of a child. The previous example regarding 2 month old Eva could be considered neglect as the situation created could have led to her getting hurt. Environment Injurious is a catch all to any situation that created an unsafe environment for a child.

Medical Neglect: John, Age 43, fails to change his son's G-Tube despite knowing it is in need of replacement. As a result, his son, Jacob age 10, is diagnosed with sepsis.

Exposure: This is mostly related to drugs. For example: Timmy, age >0, was born exposed to; methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana, cocaine, as a result Timmy experienced withdrawal symptoms.

Witnessing may have been different, for example, say 3 years later when Timmy is a toddler his mother overdoses on Xanex in front of him.

Prospective Harm: This typically relates to sexual abuse. CPS is concerned because Ashley, age 9, has been inappropriately touching her 2 year old brother. Although CPS is concerned about Ashley's behavior, they are equally concerned where Ashley had learned this behavior and is concerned that she too may have been sexually abused.

Dependency: This is much like "Environment Injurious" in that it is something about the child's environment that warrants the need for state involvement; without saying the child has been "Abused" or "Neglected" by the parent. Ohio is the only state in the U.S. that still has Dependency.

What happens when CPS is called?

Calling CPS on anyone can feel like a lot, especially if you know the family. However, should you have a concern as it relates to the safety of the children you should not hesitate to call. When you call a "Screener" or a caseworker will take down your concerns. They may ask for your information, however, you can also remain anonymous. It should be noted that your information will never be shared with anyone, it is against the law for any caseworker to disclose a "Reporter's" information. So rest be assured your information is safe.

The Screener will ask a bunch of demographic questions as well as what the concern is. Most often there is a specific "Incident" that happens the prompts a call to CPS.

Some states may do things differently as far as jurisdiction's go. Some states may have a "State Hotline" you can call and others will be the County in which the child resides. If parenting/custody has been established through Domestic Relations Court the case may open with the residential parent with concerns regarding the non-custodial.

Don't worry if you call the wrong County, you'll either be transferred or your information will be taken and then sent to the other county for "Screening".

Screening: This is the process in determining whether or not a Report/ Referral will be screened in for the "Intake" process. Typically this is a supervisor or a supervisor and a group of caseworkers. If the call is determined to meet the threshold to be opened for "Intake" it will be assigned to a caseworker and given a response time.

The response times will vary by state; In Ohio every case is met with a response withing 24 hours. If it is an emergency the caseworker will need to make a face-to-face contact with the alleged child victim within 1 hour.

In Colorado each case is given a set period of time in which the caseworker can respond based upon severity. 5 Working Days, 3 Calendar Days, and Emergencies are within 8 hours. Although those are the requirement's best practice is the day of the referral.

You can read your states statutes as to when a caseworker is required to respond.

Screened Out: This is what happens when a case does not meet the threshold for assignment. The information will stay documented in the states State Wide system. Should the family move to another County, that County will also be able to see that information should a new concern be reported.

Although the a report may be screened out the information can help in determining whether or not something will be screened in in the future. For example, chronic neglect or abuse, or say substance abuse. Some states may document reports differently depending on their protocol, for example in Ohio it may just be documented as a "Information Only".

Some states may have what are called "Program Areas" based on what is the concern. Ie. Program Area 5 (PA5) deals with abuse an neglect, PA4 deals with your "Delinquent Children". In Ohio that is considered "Dependency".

Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act

Child Abuse Prevention Treatment Act are the federal guidelines created in 1974 which every state must follow. Also better known as CAPTA. If the state is in violation of those regulations the state may lose funding. Federal funding is then distributed; my guess would be the largest counties would receive more funding.


In the intake phase a caseworker will attempt to make contact with the family in the time frames. If contact can't be made initially, subsequent contact will continue to be made.

Now, a lot of states have transitioned to two types of case responses; Alternative Response (AR) and Traditional Response (TR). How a caseworker approaches a family may differ based upon how it was assigned. Alternative Response may start with a phone call to the family to address the concerns and to schedule a time to meet with the family. This approach is meant to be less invasive than a Traditional Response. Some cases are only screened in as TR, physical abuse that has led to a significant/ and/or moderate to severe injury, chronic abuse and neglect, sexual abuse etc.

If a case is assigned as TR, the caseworker may respond to the home "Unannounced" if exigent circumstances exist per CAPTA a caseworker may choose to interview the child at school. In some states this is common practice, however, a caseworker should follow up with the parents soon after the interview with the child to address their concerns.

In a TR case there is "Findings", essentially, the Agency is determining whether or not abuse or neglect had taken place. AR cases do not have findings. Now, it is important to note that an AR case can change to TR should the situation warrant such. If a finding is made and the determination of abuse or neglect is "Substantiated" through a TR case, this can impact your ability to work with children in the future.

Child welfare cases in most states do not show up on a background check. However, Daycare facilities and schools can ask the child welfare agency if any such records exist and their findings. If a substantiated case has been made, you may be barred from getting the job.

Minnesota has been pretty progressive regarding their child welfare process. In 2004 their final evaluation regarding AR Response was primarily positive which is why many states have also adopted such. Also important to note, a lot of states are "State Run County Administered" In other words, a lot of child welfare agencies differ between counties. Some counties may choose not to complete AR type cases due to the belief that it jeopardizes children's safety and that people need to be held accountable. If you have a desire to read Minnesota's final report it can be found here:


When a caseworker talks to a family about safety they are often looking at several aspects and have adopted what is called a "Safety Assessment". Safety assessments look at several area's or "Factors" within a family to determine whether or not a child is safe. This is completed at the first visit with the family as a caseworker needs to know whether or not there is an impending or present danger that impacts the safety of a child.

Present Danger: There are four signs of present danger,

  • Is active
  • Is specific and observable
  • Is out of control
  • Is likely to result in serious harm or risk thereof

Safety Factors:

There are several safety factors that target whether or not there is a concern present within the home that impacts the immediate safety of a child. For some states all "Present Dangers" need to be present for there to be a concern for safety. In other states this may not be a requirement, however, assuming there is enough to warrant a concern for safety then all present dangers should arguably be present.

1. Caregivers unable to meet a child's needs ie. food, water, clothing, shelter

2. Caregivers are unable to meet a child's medical needs.

3. Caregivers substance use impact the ability to supervise or protect.

4. Caregivers are unable to protect against a child's own self-harm.

5. Caregivers are engaged in domestic violence that puts the child/ren at risk of physical or emotional harm.

6. Conditions of the home are hazardous and/ or threatening to a child.

7. Caregivers lack of supervision is inappropriate based on age and ability.

8. Caregiver refuses access to the child/ren or they may flee.

9. Caregivers are unable to protect the child from sexual abuse.

10. Caregiver caused moderate to severe injury.

11.Mental health of a caregiver is impacting their ability to provide for the needs and/ or safety of the child/ren.

12. Other

The two states I've worked varied in how many safety factors were present/ listed within a safety assessment ranging from 10-15 safety factors. Although the literature may vary they are all essentially looking at the same things.

Interviews: When a caseworker speaks with a family they are assessing these factors. A caseworkers questions will incorporate questions regarding both safety and risk. An experienced caseworker is better at being able to tailor their questions into a more conversationalist tone. A lot of families are concerned that their child will "Learn" things from their conversation with a caseworker. However, all caseworkers have undergone countless hours of training in their ability to speak to children and their families in an age appropriate manner.

We first establish rapport with the child/ren. Typically this is asking about school and what they enjoy doing in their free time. It is at this point that we have already begun assessing as we are documenting any child vulnerabilities or contributing risk factors that we see present. If a child tells us they are on an IEP there may be a underlying cognitive delay or developmental delay or mental health. We wouldn't necessarily ask a 6 year old what their diagnoses are as they would not understand. We may however ask; "Who lives within the home" or "Tell me what you do from the time you wake up from the time you go to bed (Daily Routine)". This allows us to understand a broad scope of a child's life.

The state expects us to be able to complete the safety assessments upon first contact so we are either directly or indirectly asking questions that target all safety factors.

When we are unable to do so say for an Infant, we are looking at that child's vulnerability as well as the caregivers protective capacities in addition to any present dangers. We might ask a parent "Can you show me how you change a diaper" "Can you show me how to make a bottle" to better assess whether or not they are able to provide for the needs of the child.

As a caseworker I already had in my mind what I needed to ask outside of rapport building such as:

1. Who lives in the home?

2. What does safety mean to you?

3. Do you feel safe at home and at school?

4. Who can you tell when you don't feel safe at either school or at home?

5. Is there anything at home that scares you?

6. Can you tell me about: __(Incident)__?

7. Do you know what alcohol or "Adult drinks are" ie. beer, wine etc.

8. Do you know what drugs are?

9. What happens when mom and dad fight or get angry?

10. Are you ever left home alone or all by yourself?

11. Do you know you have places on your body that people are not supposed to see or touch? Yes/No Has anyone ever tried? Who can you tell?

Although that is very "List" like and we try to keep it as conversational as possible parents have a right to know (unless it jeopardizes their safety) what we are asking their children about. I wouldn't ask a teenager the same way I would attempt to ask a toddler.

In the states I've worked, caseworkers are in need to contact everyone within the home regardless as to whether or not the other children had been involved. If siblings live within the home the caseworker will also need to make contact with them.

Safety Plan

If a safety factor is deemed present due to the actions or inaction of a caregiver your caseworker will most likely try to complete what is called a safety plan. Safety plan's are meant to control the immediate safety of the child. Depending on the state there may be several types of safety plan's such as In-Home or Out-of-home. In some states safety plan's can utilize the non-offending parent as a person responsible for the safety of the child. In others, it had been the inaction of the non-offending parent that had allowed for the child to be injured. In other words a relative, good friend, non-offending parent etc. is put in charge of the safety of the child "Responsible Party" or "Safety Management Provider".

An In-Home safety plan attempts to being that responsible party into the home. An out of home safety plan takes the children out of the home and places them with a safe caregiver.

At no point does the parent lose custody. A safety plan is an agreement between the agency and the family which will keep the child safe until safety can be established. They are never meant to be permanent but can last up to several weeks depending on the circumstances. During the time of the safety plan your caseworker will be attempting to mitigate the safety concerns or identifying whether or not such concerns are present.

Respite Care

When a safety plan can't be established your agency may be able to offer what is called "Respite Care" respite care is short term/ temporary care of the child/ren in a foster home. During this time the parents still retain custody of their children, however, they are agreeing for a licensed foster home or caregiver to care for the children for a short time frame until safety can be established and/ or other arrangements are made.

One example of this might be Parent A is on vacation, Parent B is arrested. A safety plan can't be established as they do not have any responsible party's/ safety management providers who are able to care for the children. Parent A is unable to return home for another 2 days.

Rather than having the agency retain custody of the children the parents can agree to having the children placed in Respite Care for a short time frame. Parents still retain custody and have legal rights to their children.

Foster Care

Foster care is utilized when there is no other options for care left. Although this is certainly the worst case scenario, contrary to popular belief, your children can be returned home; however safety will need to be mitigated. I'm not saying it always happens, but, for example I had one child in foster care for one day. The agencies goal is always to return the children to their families, however, I can't iterate it enough, safety needs to be no longer a concern once the child is returned home.

So what does it take for a child to be placed into Foster Care? If a safety plan can't be agreed upon, and respite care is not an option, the caseworker will contact their supervisor and/or the on-call judge. At this point the caseworker will inform the supervisor, their attorney, and/ or judge as to what concerns are present and why it is necessary to remove the child/ren from the home. The judge will always make the determination as to whether or not the children should be removed from the home.

In most states Child Protective Service Worker's cannot remove the children from the home without a court order.

In some states law enforcement may be able to temporarily as well.

What Happens if I Don't Cooperate?

Theoretically you don't have to cooperate with a caseworker. You do not have to allow them inside of your home, you do not have to allow them to speak to your children nor talk to them yourself.

However, as we learned from the previous topics regarding the State Statutes, Safety Assessment's, and Foster care, a Caseworker has a job to complete in order to ensure the children are being kept safe and to follow the state statutes in regards to making sure that happens.

If there is enough of a concern, a caseworker is able to use their court to gain access; it can be called an Access Order or a Furtherance in some states. Furthermore, if exigent circumstances exist a caseworker could make contact with your child without your permission (or may be written into their states statute).

So although you don't necessarily have to cooperate, with them you most likely will need to explain yourself in front of a court as to why you have not been cooperative. Once the court order is given non-compliance could lead to "Contempt of Court".

Assuming you have nothing to fear it usually serves you best to be cooperative. Many caseworkers have worked with hundreds if not thousands of families where concerns are reported and nothing is found to be of a concern. Caseworkers also understand that people make mistakes or that their houses may not be the cleanest. What a caseworker should be worried about is whether or not a safety concern is present, if there is, working with the family to address the safety concerns in order to keep the children within the home.


Risk is everything that can impact the safety of the child. These may be called "Risk Contributors". When a caseworker is looking at risk they are looking at several aspects to include:

  • Child Functioning
  • Adult Functioning
  • Family Functioning
  • and Historical

Child Functioning: When a caseworker is looking at associated risk contributors of a child they will ask/and or identify their ability to self-protect. A 17 year old is much more likely to self-protect due to their age and understanding about what constitutes as abuse and neglect. Additionally, said 17 year old is much more likely to be able to remove themselves from a dangerous situation and self-report.

However, if said 17 year old has significant developmental delays and/ or mental health/ behavioral issues, this can generate as a risk as they may lack the ability of self-protection.

Adult Functioning: Associated risk factors can be similar to children, some include, cognitive abilities, physical health, emotional and mental health functioning, domestic relations, substance use, stressors, and parenting practices.

Not every family is the same, what might be a risk contributor for one family may not be the same for another despite having the same diagnoses. This may be due to having appropriate support and resources. However, it should be known that resources do not create safety. But, they can mitigate risk.

It isn't the diagnoses that makes the children unsafe, it is how that caregiver is able to cope with that diagnoses.

Let us create a fictional example of a report that may come in to the Agency:

Jane Doe, age 35, has struggled with depression her entire life. She has moments where she feels as if she cannot get out of bed in the morning. Jane had just recently given birth to her 1 month old son, Charles. Jane had been diagnosed with Post-Partum Depression in addition to having Major Depressive Disorder. There is a concern regarding Charles' safety within Jane's care. Referent states that Jane had suicidal thoughts 7 months into her pregnancy.

In this report/ referral, there is no information stating that Charles has been injured. However, at face value, there is a lot of perceived risk based upon the known information.

The agency may open a case/ assessment due to the associated risk and Charles vulnerabilities as he is unable to provide for his own needs and self-protect.

The case is assigned as an AR and the caseworker responds in the appropriate time frames. Upon meeting with Jane the caseworker learns the following:

  • Jane has since recognized that she needed to regain control of her mental health.
  • Jane has started attending regular therapy sessions and had changed her medication which has been working well.
  • On the days that Jane feels as if she is unable to get out of bed she contacts her grandmother who comes over to help care for Charles.
  • Jane has another child within the home, Elizabeth age 13, who is able to help out around the home and report concerns should any be present.

Although there have been several identifiable risk's, those risk's are being mitigated by the families strengths. It is not the diagnoses that is a concern, it is how that diagnoses impacts the caregivers behavior and functioning in relation to the child's vulnerabilities.

Caregivers behavior > Impact to child.

Often times much of the associated risks are interconnected. If depressive symptom's make it impossible for you to hold down a steady job and you resort to substance abuse which increases your aggression and irritability, there is a stronger likelihood that your child may become abused and/ or neglected. Your caseworker's goal is to help you identify the issue and use a strength based approach to helping your family resolve said issues.

Family Functioning: Family roles and interactions/ relationships, resource management and household maintenance, extended family, social and community supports.

Historical: Abuse as a child, victimization of other children and impact of past services.

Most states have what is called a Risk Assessment and/ or Family Assessment. The goal is essentially to compile all known associated risks into a "Social History". These risks have been identified by the state through research to increase the risk of future abuse or neglect to a child. Some more associated risks are history of homelessness, age of caregivers, more than 2 children within the home, volatile relationships, severe financial difficulties etc.

These assessments are essentially just tools implemented to help in determining concerns regarding the child/ren's safety.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long will my case be open?

During the "Intake" phase, if no concerns have been identified the case will be closed sometime during this time. This is typically between 30 and 60 days. However, just because a case/ assessment is "Open" doesn't necessarily mean that a caseworker is meeting you every week. Often times the caseworker is working with many other families and is bogged down by the bureaucracy. Although the caseworker had not identified any concerns within the first 2 weeks, the caseworker may not be able to close it out as they have various things going on with other families.

If concerns have been identified and cannot be resolved within the Intake phase your case may be transferred to "Ongoing" or "Permanency caseworker". Their goal is to mitigate risk and eliminate safety concerns. This is by using the various resources and providing case management services to ensure that families have what they need to be successful.

How long your "Ongoing Case" may be opened will most likely vary by state. If the case becomes court involved it may be upwards of 2 years if the concerns have not been eliminated within that time frame. If the Agency had been working with a family through a "Non-Court involved case" for a year and the concerns have not been eliminated, they may file court action. Theoretically at this point you could be involved with the agency for 3 years before a determination of permanency is established.

Termination of Parental Rights is typically a long process. Families don't just wake up and "Lose" their children and not have the ability to get them back. 2 years in a child's life is a long time, regardless of how quickly it goes for a family. But, that's 2 years you have to address the concerns within the "Case Plan" regarding the safety of the children. Children deserve a place where they know they are safe and can have their needs met.

How Long Will the Safety Plan Be?

Ideally, the shortest time possible. As much as families hate to hear it, caseworkers cannot give a specific time frame. A lot of this is because it may depend on the caregivers, or even the community. For example: Let us say a child is in need of a forensic interview which is to be conducted by a child advocacy center. However the appointment is made a week and a half from now. You can expect that at a minimum the Safety Plan would need to stay in place until more information is gathered. If more information is gathered and it is unlikely that safety can be established thereafter the safety plan may need to continue to be in place.

Do you get money for removing children?

No. I have never once seen an increase in my paycheck as a result of a removal. I imagine this misconception comes from a lack of understanding and/ or a perversion of what is called Title IV-E funds. This is money given to the states from the federal government to help support the cost of Foster Care. Title IV-B funds are funds to help in support of the removal of children from the home. Either way, the states are granted these funds by following the federal mandates such as CAPTA. These funds are in support of the families and the children, not to increase any workers paycheck.

In my experience the money that Foster Families receive have been around $12 - $20 daily depending on the age of the child and their needs. Rest assured foster families are not fostering children for "the money".

More information regarding Title IV-E and B funds can be found here:

Why hasn't my caseworker called me?

This could be for various reasons. The caseworker had gotten tied up in an emergency (or several), the caseworker had gotten sick, the caseworker is in court and has several other appointments. You should ask your caseworker what is the best way to get ahold of them; this might be email, text message, cell phone, office phone, office visits etc. It can be very hard to catch caseworkers at the office as often times they are responding to visits.


It is a common misconception that Caseworkers and Children Services are soulless baby snatchers that are in it for the money. Some of the most dedicated people I know have been caseworkers. And they are just that, people, like you and me, trying to make the difference in families lives so that they may succeed. I wrote this poem a couple years ago regarding casework which also has a hidden message.

I am a caseworker.

I work late. Most nights.

Every day is different. A new struggle.

My hair is graying. Sleep is precious.

And so are my kids for those whom I mold.

Every family. Every individual. Every child. Has their struggles.

The impact is everything. They cry. I cry.

I must be strong. And I am brave.

I come home. And every hour is a blessing.

Some days I want to quit. Sorrow. Defeat. As if it is my fault.

For my families faults. I am human. They are human.

I will fail. We will fail. We will rise. We will falter. Hopeless. Never. Hopeful.

Struggles. Strengths. I work late. Most nights. If it isn’t me. A caseworker.

A mother. A father. A brother. A sister. A son. A daughter. A grandparent.

Trying to give everything. To those who are struggling.

We will argue. We will disagree. Struggles. Always. But I am here. We are here.

To be the support. You didn’t think you had.

You are loved. And I believe in you. All of you.

I am a caseworker. And I am human. Hopeless. Never.


Social Workers as Super Heroes


The author of this article shall have no liability for the accuracy of the information and cannot be held liable for any third-party claims or losses of any damages. The information provided should not take place of your own caseworker, attorney, or court orders. This article is not a substitute for legal information and the author shall not be held responsible for any parties case and the outcome of all said cases. All parties should refer to their own state statutes, caseworker's, and attorney's regarding their case process.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Nicoli Clause

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