On the Frontline: Improving Child Protective Services Investigations

Posted June 12, 2014
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog onthefrontline 2014

When peo­ple are pas­sion­ate about pro­tect­ing chil­dren, they want to know that every pos­si­ble step is being tak­en to keep a community’s chil­dren safe. 

A crit­i­cal step in this work is ensur­ing that the front line of our child wel­fare sys­tems — the inves­tiga­tive work­force — is adept at know­ing when chil­dren need pro­tec­tion and when sys­tems should not inter­vene in the lives of kids and families.

Get­ting that bal­ance right is sig­nif­i­cant­ly hard­er than the pub­lic may real­ize. So while there is much good to acknowl­edge in today’s child wel­fare sys­tems, such as the decrease in the num­ber of chil­dren enter­ing care, we must redou­ble our efforts to make sure front­line staff have the exper­tise, sup­port and resources to do their jobs effectively.

Intro­duc­ing On the Frontline

The Foun­da­tion is respond­ing to this need by devel­op­ing On the Front­line, a three- to five-year effort through which Casey will part­ner with state and local juris­dic­tions to devel­op inno­v­a­tive approach­es to inves­ti­ga­tions. The Foun­da­tion will work with three to five local or state juris­dic­tions to install improved inves­ti­ga­tions process­es between Jan­u­ary 2015 and Decem­ber 2017

Mak­ing the right decisions

Dur­ing 2012, some 6.3 mil­lion chil­dren were referred to the nation’s child wel­fare sys­tems as poten­tial vic­tims of child abuse and neglect. Of those, 3.2 mil­lion received a response from their local child pro­tec­tion ser­vices (CPS) office. Mean­while, 1.2 mil­lion chil­dren received CPS assis­tance; trag­i­cal­ly, an addi­tion­al 1,600 chil­dren, known to CPS, died of maltreatment. 

In the face of such sad sta­tis­tics, research indi­cates that long­time CPS process­es such as sub­stan­ti­a­tion — deter­min­ing whether mal­treat­ment occurred — often fail to pro­vide the dis­cern­ment to deter­mine which chil­dren need pro­tec­tion or ser­vices. Mean­while, there is also evi­dence that poli­cies that involve CPS remov­ing chil­dren from their fam­i­lies just to be safe” cause trau­ma to chil­dren and fam­i­lies that is dif­fi­cult to repair.

These real­i­ties point to the need to sig­nif­i­cant­ly improve how agen­cies inves­ti­gate reports of mal­treat­ment and make deci­sions as a result of their inves­ti­ga­tions. As it hap­pens, more effec­tive strate­gies exist and more agen­cies have gained impor­tant skills through cross-sys­tem col­lab­o­ra­tions that involve a vari­ety of part­ners in improv­ing results for chil­dren and families. 

Part­ner­ing for improvement

Even in this promis­ing envi­ron­ment, how­ev­er, intro­duc­ing sys­tems improve­ments requires far more than sim­ply installing one or two new pro­grams. What’s nec­es­sary to help chil­dren remain safe — with nei­ther too much inter­ven­tion nor too lit­tle — is a mul­ti­level approach and agency will­ing­ness to effec­tive­ly incor­po­rate new strategies.

That’s what On the Front­line brings to the table. In a recent webi­nar, the Casey Foundation’s out­lines its belief that out­comes for chil­dren and fam­i­lies will improve when juris­dic­tions effec­tive­ly address three com­po­nents of CPS inves­ti­ga­tions simultaneously:

  • Work­force. Agen­cies need bet­ter process­es for recruit­ing, assess­ing, select­ing, train­ing, coach­ing, retain­ing and sup­port­ing CPS staff.
  • Work­er deci­sion mak­ing. With improved skills and more infor­ma­tion about the results of their actions, work­ers can make bet­ter deci­sions about whether and how to pro­tect chil­dren who are report­ed as being in danger.
  • Agency deci­sion mak­ing. Agency pol­i­cy and deci­sion-mak­ing sys­tems should pro­vide real-time feed­back to work­ers and agency lead­ers about the effec­tive­ness of poli­cies and practices. 

By address­ing these three com­po­nents, Casey expects agen­cies will experience:

  • A decrease in repeat indi­cat­ed reports with­in six months,
  • A reduc­tion in child injuries after con­tact with the sys­tem, and
  • Improved safe­ty for report­ed children. 

From ear­ly idea to scale

On the Front­line is in its plan­ning stage, with infor­ma­tion being cir­cu­lat­ed among child wel­fare lead­ers nation­wide. Devel­op­ment and instal­la­tion of new inves­ti­ga­tions process­es will begin in Jan­u­ary 2015. It is my hope that, after three to five years of inno­va­tion and learn­ing, On the Front­line will be ready to artic­u­late to oth­er agen­cies how they can improve front­line efforts, lead­ing to a mea­sure­able increase in safe­ty for chil­dren in fam­i­lies and across the country.

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