Case Process

Child maltreatment is a community concern, and every community has a legal and ethical obligation to promote the safety, permanency, and well-being of children. While no single agency has all the necessary knowledge, skills, or resources to provide all of the assistance needed by children and their families, it is Child Protective Services (CPS), along with law enforcement and the courts, who share the primary responsibility for responding to child maltreatment.

In this capacity, CPS often contracts and collaborates with other State agencies, private child welfare agencies, and community-based organizations to provide services to children and their families. These can include:

  • Family support services
  • In-home family preservation
  • Foster care
  • Residential treatment
  • Mental health services
  • Substance abuse treatment
  • Independent living services
  • Domestic violence services
  • Employment assistance
  • Financial or housing assistance.

The overall structure and approach of CPS agencies can vary tremendously among and even within States, but there are components common to all, particularly in the process by which a case flows through the child welfare system. A case typically begins with a referral of alleged maltreatment, although there are circumstances where a child may enter the child welfare system due to reports of a child’s behavior, a family voluntarily seeking assistance in hopes of helping their child receive needed services, or the actions of juvenile or family courts. In these circumstances there is no allegation of maltreatment and the agency’s involvement is because the child’s behavior, conduct, or condition causes a serious threat to his or her well-being and physical safety or to that of the family. These might include instances of juvenile delinquency, mental illness, or substance abuse. 

After receiving a referral, the CPS agency conducts an intake process that will result in the case either being accepted or not accepted into the system. When a case is accepted, the CPS agency must decide how to proceed based upon the information in the referral. This includes a determination of the approach that will be used to assess the family, the situation, and the required urgency of the agency’s response. The CPS agency may, depending on the case, decide on a differential response or launch a full investigation. In either event, it is the agency’s objective to minimize the factors that are negatively affecting safety and risk, specifically those that imperil the child’s immediate safety or increase the risk of his or her maltreatment in the future. In cases where the CPS agency determines that the child is safe and the risk of future maltreatment is not significant, the child may remain in the home. However, if there are immediate concerns for a child’s safety, or the agency assesses the risk of future maltreatment to be high, then the child may be removed from the home and placed into foster care. Removing a child from his or her home usually requires the involvement of law enforcement or a court petition.

Regardless of whether the child was removed from the home or not, the CPS worker assigned to the case will conduct a thorough risk/safety assessment and family assessment. The CPS worker may develop a safety plan with the family, the purpose of which is to control threats and provide for the child’s immediate safety.

When additional protective services are needed to address safety or risk concerns, the CPS worker collaborates with the family and child to develop a comprehensive case plan. Regardless of the case plan's specific details, its ultimate goal will always be to assist the child and family in achieving permanency. “Permanency” in this context is defined as a legal, permanent family living arrangement, and may involve the child's reunification with his or her family, guardianship, adoption, or another planned permanent living arrangement. Once the child has achieved permanency, case closure can take place.


In most States the Child Protective Services (CPS) agency, either through a local or statewide hotline, has the primary responsibility for receiving referrals, which are also called reports. The unit that receives the report about a suspected case of child maltreatment is often called the intake unit. Some State laws require that certain forms of abuse, such as sexual abuse or severe physical abuse, must also be reported to law enforcement.

The identity of the alleged perpetrator may also affect where reports are made. If, for example, the alleged perpetrator is a family member, the report usually goes to the CPS agency. Depending on the State, allegations of abuse or neglect by other caregivers, such as daycare providers or teachers, may need to be filed with law enforcement. In general, CPS agencies do not intervene in cases of harm to children caused by acquaintances or strangers. These cases are the responsibility of law enforcement.

  • Note: For a list of State-specific reporting laws and requirements, visit here

The more comprehensive the information provided by the reporter, the better the intake staff will be able to evaluate the appropriateness of the report for CPS intervention, determine the urgency of the agency’s response, and prepare for an investigation or differential response, if necessary. While the reporter may remain anonymous, agencies generally prefer that reporters provide their name and contact information so that the intake or investigation worker can ask follow-up questions or obtain clarification.

The intake worker will seek to obtain the following information from the reporter:

  • The name, age, sex, and address of the child
  • The type and nature of the maltreatment, including prior injuries or maltreatment and when observed, the length of time it has been occurring, and whether the maltreatment has increased in severity or frequency or objects/weapons were used
  • The name and address of the parent or other person(s) responsible for the child’s care
  • Any other information relevant to the investigation
  • Any actions taken by the reporter

It is also important that reporters provide as much detailed information as possible about:

  • The child, the child’s condition, and the child’s location
  • The parents and their location
  • The person alleged to have caused the child’s condition and his or her current location
  • The family, including other children in the home

If the alleged maltreatment occurred in a facility or institution, such as a daycare center, school, residential treatment center, or camp, reporters should provide information about the setting, including hours of operation; number of other children in the facility, if known; and identification of any others in the facility that may have information about the alleged maltreatment.

Once the referral is received, the intake process begins.

Intake Process

At intake, the CPS agency receiving the referral must gather enough information from the reporter, agency records, and State central registries to permit decision-making. This information must include whether the reported family is currently involved, or has a history of involvement, in the child welfare system. 

The agency must then make two primary decisions. First, it must decide whether the reported information meets the statutory and agency definitions for child maltreatment and guidelines for agency involvement. If the agency decides that the referral does meet the statutory and agency definitions and guidelines, it then confronts a second decision concerning the urgency of the required response: how quickly a caseworker must make contact with the family. Because definitions of abuse and neglect vary by State, intake caseworkers must be familiar with their State and county laws and regulations, since what is considered maltreatment in one location may not be considered maltreatment in another.

As a result of the intake process, the referral will either be screened out or screened in. A report may be screened out (not referred for investigation or differential response) for the following reasons.

  • It is clear from the information received that no child maltreatment occurred.
  • The allegation did not meet the State’s statutory or agency guidelines, or did not concern child abuse and neglect.
  • The report did not contain enough information to identify or locate the child and family.
  • The child in the referral was the responsibility of another agency or jurisdiction, such as a military installation or a Tribe.
  • The alleged victim is not a child.

What happens to screened out reports varies by States and depends upon the reason the report was screened out. The screened-out report may be closed with no further action, or the CPS agency may make a referral to another agency for other services or make a referral to the entity that has jurisdiction over the matter. In some States, the CPS agency may use a differential response to provide services that support family efforts to prevent possible maltreatment.

If the report meets the statutory and agency definitions required for acceptance, then it is screened in. When a report is screened in, it is assigned for an investigation or, if used by the State, a differential response.

Regardless of whether the CPS agency conducts an investigation or differential response, the caseworker must respond to a referral that is screened in within a set time period, usually defined in State statute or policy. The response time depends on the type of maltreatment alleged, the immediate safety concerns for the child, and the potential severity of the situation. For example, in cases screened in for alleged sexual abuse or severe physical abuse or neglect, the initial investigation will be more immediate and usually must begin within 24 hours. Otherwise, in most States, the initial investigation or differential response assessment usually begins within 24 to 72 hours after receiving the referral.

Differential Response

Increasingly, States are using a differential response system, also known as alternative response, multiple response, and dual tracking. Differential responses arose primarily from the recognition that families referred to the child welfare system often face numerous issues, including substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, or economic and food insecurity, and that in certain circumstances an investigation, which might be adversarial, may not be helpful in meeting the family’s needs. They allow Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies to be more flexible in how they respond to child maltreatment reports and engage families more effectively in using services that address their specific needs.

Actual implementation of differential response varies among and even within States. Generally, agencies use level of risk or need as the criteria to open a case, rather than a report of abuse or neglect. Therefore, depending on the practices of the State, differential response may be used in cases that are either screened in or screened out during the intake process. If a case is screened in and deemed to have no significant safety and risk concerns, the agency may choose to conduct an differential response in lieu of an investigation. In addition, some States employ various types of differential response. Some States may, in addition to differential response and investigation, also have a resource referral/prevention track for reports that do not meet CPS screening criteria but suggest a need for community services. In  these situations, a referral is made without opening the case for either an investigation or a differential response. 

Although differences exist among and within States, differential response practices do have some common characteristics. The Child Welfare Information Gateway identifies six of them. Differential responses are:

  • Assessment focused: The primary focus tends to be on assessing families' strengths and needs. Substantiation of an alleged incident is not the priority.
  • Individualized: Cases are handled differently depending on families' unique needs and situations.
  • Family-centered: A differential response uses a strengths-based, family engagement approach.
  • Community oriented: Families on the assessment track are referred to services that fit their needs and issues. This requires availability and coordination of appropriate and timely community services and presumes a shared responsibility for child protection.
  • Selective: A differential response is not employed when the most serious types of maltreatment are alleged, particularly those that are likely to require court intervention, such as sexual abuse or severe harm to a child.
  • Flexible: The response track can be changed based on ongoing risk and safety considerations. If a family refuses assessment or services, the agency may conduct an investigation or close the case.

However, a differential response track will still share many underlying principles with the traditional child protection approach. They will:

  • Focus on the safety and well-being of the child
  • Promote permanency within the family whenever possible
  • Recognize the authority of CPS agencies to make decisions about whether removal from the home and out-of-home placement is necessary, and when to involve the courts
  • Acknowledge that in some cases other services, including voluntary or community services, may be more appropriate than those provided by the CPS agency

Once the agency has decided to use a differential response track, it will conduct a family assessment to determine the family’s needs. Based on this assessment, the agency will provide the family with referrals to community providers. After services begin, the agency will continue to monitor the family’s progress, performing ongoing assessments to ensure that the family continues to receive appropriate services, and, if necessary, providing additional services.

If the family actively engages in these services and is able to resolve problematic safety factors and lower the risk that led to agency involvement, then the case can be closed. If the risk cannot be lowered or eliminated and the agency determines that the child or children cannot remain in the home safely, then the case may need to move onto an investigation track.

It is important to note that while the agency can attempt to engage the family in strengths-based services, the agency cannot usually force participation. If a family refuses to engage in services, case closure is likely to occur, unless safety concerns justify a shift in the agency's approach to a formal investigation track.


If a case is screened in during the intake process, the agency may choose to proceed with an investigation. The child protective services (CPS) worker assigned to the investigation begins to assess a variety of factors concerning the family’s situation and functioning, their strengths and needs, the circumstances surrounding the alleged child maltreatment, and special circumstances that may exist in the case.

The primary purpose of the investigation is to determine, within a set timeframe, if children in the home are safe, if abuse or neglect has occurred, and if there is risk of child maltreatment occurring in the future.  During an investigation, the caseworker gathers information from the child, family, and others as appropriate to determine whether or not child maltreatment occurred and if there is sufficient evidence to support this being a case of child maltreatment. If there is sufficient evidence, the caseworker must determine the risk of further child maltreatment by assessing the child’s and family’s risk and protective factors, and identifying the family’s strengths and needs.

Numerous other factors and considerations will determine whether CPS should remain involved with the family after the investigation is completed or if the case presents low safety and risk concerns that can be addressed in other ways, such as through referral to community services, or even closed. The following are some of the key factors that are considered.

  • The alleged maltreatment: duration and frequency of the maltreatment, physical and emotional indicators in the child; and caregiver actions and behaviors, including his or her attitude toward the child’s condition and the assessment process, as well as the explanation of the events and effects of the maltreatment
  • The child: age, developmental level, physical and behavioral health, temperament and behavior, current functioning, and his or her explanation of events and effects, if possible and appropriate
  • The parent or caregiver: physical and mental health; history of violence, incarceration, or substance use; current functioning; coping and problem-solving capacity; nature of relationships outside of the home (strong support network or criminal affiliations, gangs, etc.); and financial situation (employment, sufficient food, shelter)
  • The overall family functioning: power and issues of control within the family, interactions and communications among family members and with others outside the family, quality of relationships, and problem-solving ability

In addition, the caseworker must consider other factors, such as:

  • Is the child covered under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)? That is, does the family consider itself Native American, or is either parent Native American, even if that parent is not living in the home?
  • Does the family need an interpreter, and if so, is one available that is competent and trustworthy enough to ensure exact interpretations?
  • Are there other cultural issues which need to be addressed? The investigator should understand the family’s cultural identity and its effects.
  • Does the child have special needs?
  • Does the family have immediate needs that must be met, such as lack of food or shelter?
  • Does the caseworker suspect domestic violence? Is it safe for the non-offending parent to talk with the caseworker, and what safety concerns does that create within the family?
  • Should ongoing agency services be offered to the family to reduce the risk or to address the treatment needs of the child?

During an investigation, the CPS worker will gather information from many sources. This will usually involve conducting interviews with the child, any siblings or other children in the home, the alleged perpetrator, and any other adults who live in the home. Many CPS agencies run a criminal background check on all adults in the home to see if there was prior abuse or other illegal activity.

If at all possible, the CPS worker will engage the family to establish rapport and increase the accuracy of gathered information. In addition to being empathetic and developmentally appropriate with the alleged child victim about what to expect, the caseworker must remember that the alleged perpetrators and other family members may feel embarrassed, fearful, defensive, and helpless. Therefore, it is essential that caseworkers provide family members with clear information so that they can understand their rights and what to expect during the assessment process.

Other sources may also have information that could help in understanding family functioning and the nature and extent of the alleged maltreatment, and in assessing the risk to and safety of the child. These sources include professionals such as teachers, law enforcement officers, and physicians, as well as other community agencies, institutions, and caretakers. They may also include relatives, neighbors, and witnesses to the alleged abuse. To protect the family’s confidentiality, however, interviews or contacts with others should not be initiated without cause.

In addition to being familiar with the laws defining child maltreatment in that State, the caseworker must also be familiar with agency policies, including any State and local guidelines that may impose additional requirements on the conduct of the investigation. For example, some jurisdictions may require that interviews be conducted jointly with law enforcement or that forensic medical examinations be conducted in certain types of cases.

In cases where safety concerns for the child exist and he or she remains at risk of further maltreatment, the caseworker must initiate the investigation quickly, often within 24 hours. Examples of such situations include reports where:

  • The child’s injury is severe, or the alleged maltreatment could have resulted in serious harm.
  • Because of age, illness, disability, or proximity to the alleged perpetrator, the child is particularly vulnerable.
  • The parent or caregiver’s behavior, including an unwillingness or inability to take care of the child, is known to have caused harm or endangered the child or others, or his or her behavior is unpredictable and could result in serious harm to the child.
  • There is no person who is able or willing to act on the child’s behalf to keep the child safe.
  • The family is likely to flee the area with the child or abandon the child.
  • The report involves child sexual abuse, and the child remains in contact with the alleged perpetrator.
  • The child has current physical injuries that may require treatment and documentation, such as photographing injuries or measuring bruises.

Otherwise, the investigation can begin within a few days (usually within 72 hours). The length of time that an investigator has to complete an investigation varies by State, but it is typically between 30 and 90 days. As a result of the investigation, CPS will make an official determination of whether maltreatment occurred and whether or not it meets the criteria to be substantiated (sometimes referred to as founded) or unsubstantiated (sometimes referred to as unfounded).  


A finding of substantiated (sometimes referred to as founded) typically means that the child protective services (CPS) agency believes that an incident of child abuse or neglect, as defined by State law, has happened. In this case, several outcomes can occur. Case closure may occur with no services if the child maltreatment was a one-time incident, the child is considered to be safe, and there is no or low risk of future maltreatment.

In some cases where there is a risk of future maltreatment, the family may be offered in-home services to reduce that risk and strengthen the family’s protective capacities. If these are refused and the child is not safe, the agency may submit a court petition in order to mandate that the family cooperate with in-home services if it is believed that the child can remain in the home with a safety plan in place while the family addresses the issues contributing to the risk of future maltreatment.

If the child has been seriously harmed, is considered to be at high risk of serious harm, or the child’s safety is threatened, the agency may remove the child and/or petition the court, which may order the child to be removed from the home or affirm the agency’s prior removal of the child. The child may then be placed with a relative or in foster care.


If a child protective services (CPS) investigation determines that the allegation of child maltreatment is unsubstantiated (also referred to as unfounded), this means that there is insufficient evidence for the caseworker to conclude that a child was abused or neglected, or that what happened does not meet the legal definition of child abuse or neglect.

Note that a finding of unsubstantiated or unfounded does not always mean that maltreatment did not occur. Instead, it may mean that there is not enough evidence to support a finding of substantiated. If the case is determined to be unsubstantiated, the CPS agency may still provide services. In other cases, the family may be referred to a community provider for voluntary services. In some circumstances, the case may be closed with no further contact between the family and the CPS agency. 

Safety and Risk

Although the terms safety and risk sometimes seem to be used interchangeably, they actually refer to two separate but related aspects of family conditions. Safety refers to a current condition within a home or family and considers whether or not there is an immediate threat of danger to a child. A threat of danger refers to a specific family situation that is out of control, imminent, and likely to have severe effects on a child. A child is assessed to be safe when there is no threat of danger within the family or home, or, if such a threat does exist, the family has sufficient protective capacities to protect the child and manage the threat. 

Risk refers to the likelihood of maltreatment occurring in the future. The word risk is synonymous with words like chance, probability, or potential. An assessment of risk includes the identification of risk factors, which are family behaviors and conditions that create an environment or circumstances that increase the chance that parents or caregivers will maltreat their children. Risk factors of various degrees and seriousness may exist within a single family, and some risk factors are better than others for indicating the likelihood of child maltreatment.

Examples of factors that have been associated with increased risk of child maltreatment include parental substance abuse, domestic violence, and parental childhood history of abuse. Young children and children with disabilities have also been found to be at greater risk for maltreatment because of their greater dependency on others for care.

The child's safety is always the paramount concern for the child protective services (CPS) caseworker. There are at least two key decision points during which the child’s safety is evaluated.

  • At the first contact with the child and family, when the caseworker must decide whether the child will be safe during the investigation or the differential response. This involves addressing the question, is the child in danger right now?
  • At the conclusion of the differential response assessment or the investigation, when the caseworker determines the validity of the report and the level of risk for further maltreatment

Accurate and ongoing assessment of safety and risk are critical in CPS cases. The results of these assessments drive agency decision making. During the investigation or in a differential response, the caseworker looks at those risk and protective factors present in the child, the parents, the family, and the environment that may increase or decrease the likelihood that a child will be maltreated. The assessment looks at the alleged victim and perpetrator, but also encompasses the family as a whole, including siblings who may or may not have been maltreated, any non-offending parent, and other adults in the home. It identifies and weighs the risk and protective factors that are present, as well as the agency and community services that will be needed.

Note that these safety and risk assessments may be formal, conducted at prescribed times using specific instruments or tools, or they may be conducted informally during regular contact and visitation with the child and family. Often, States will include both formal and informal approaches. The specific instruments used to conduct safety and risk assessments varies among and sometimes even within States. The assessments continue throughout the life of the case.

The CPS agency will work with families to develop and implement a safety plan when children are assessed to be unsafe. If a safety plan can reasonably ensure the child’s safety, then the child may be allowed to remain in the home while the safety plan is implemented. However, if a child is unsafe and an appropriate safety plan cannot be implemented, the child will be removed from the home to ensure his or her safety. 

Safety Plan

A safety plan is a written agreement that the child protective services (CPS) caseworker develops with the family that clearly describes the safety services that will be used to manage threats to a child’s safety. Safety services assist families to engage in actions or activities that may logically eliminate or mitigate threats to the child’s safety. These activities must be planned realistically so that they are feasible and sustainable for the family over time. The safety plan will clearly outline what these actions and activities are, who is responsible for undertaking them, and under what conditions they will take place. It is designed to control threats to the child’s safety using the least intrusive means possible.

In all cases, the safety services outlined in the safety plan must have an immediate effect and be immediately available and accessible. They may be formal or informal: the services can be provided by professionals, such as child care providers, parent/homemaker aides, or public health nurses, or by non-professionals such as neighbors or relatives. The important thing is that everyone who is part of the safety plan understands his or her role and is able and willing to carry out their responsibilities.

A safety plan differs from a case plan in that a safety plan is designed to control safety threats and have an immediate effect, while a case plan seeks to create change over time to reduce risk and increase the family’s capacity to protect the child. The safety plan must stay in effect as long as the threats to child safety exist and the family remains unable to provide for the child’s safety.

Remain in the Home

A child protective services (CPS) worker who determines that a child can remain safely in the home with his or her family or caregiver then conducts a comprehensive family assessment with the family to determine the services needed to minimize both the risk of child maltreatment and the factors that contributed to this risk. The caseworker will engage the family, develop the case plan, and refer for appropriate services.

Once the case plan has been developed, the caseworker provides or arranges for services identified in the plan to help family members achieve or accomplish the plan's outcomes, goals, and tasks. Selecting and matching interventions and services is important in the casework process. Child maltreatment is caused by multiple and interacting factors, so interventions need to address as many of these contributing issues as possible. These include mental health and/or substance abuse treatment, parent education, and services to all family members that address trauma and concrete needs such as housing and child care. The ultimate goals are to keep the child safe, ensure the child’s overall well-being, strengthen the family, reduce the need for agency involvement, minimize the risk of a recurrence of maltreatment, and close the case when appropriate and safe.

Services to families with children that remain in their homes, sometimes referred to as family support or family preservation services, are provided at three levels, namely: 

  • Minimal services, such as education and support that address basic parenting skills, including the use of age appropriate discipline techniques and establishment of realistic expectations for a child or that address home maintenance skills, including effective home cleaning, grocery shopping, and budgeting
  • Intermediate services, such as family therapy, outpatient substance abuse, or mental health treatment for the parent and/or the child or the provision of respite care for caregivers to relieve the stress that contributed to the maltreatment
  • Intensive services, such as a family preservation effort that requires an intensive family intervention by a caseworker for a short period of time to resolve issues contributing to maltreatment

Groups other than the child welfare agency can provide many of these services, particularly at the minimal or intermediate level, and are often community-based or come from informal support systems. At the intensive level, private providers with whom the agency contracts can render specialized or intensive services as needed.

When the risk of further maltreatment is minimized and the goals of the case plan are met, then the case is closed and no further contact with the child welfare agency is required. If, however, sufficient progress is not made, maltreatment recurs, or anything else happens that endangers the child’s safety, then the CPS agency will reconsider whether the child should be removed from the home.

If the case is closed and another allegation of maltreatment is reported, then the case could be reopened and the CPS process begun again.

Removed from the Home

When there are safety concerns for the child that cannot be addressed by implementing a safety plan and there is significant risk of child maltreatment, then the child is removed from the home and placed in out-of-home or substitute care. Substitute care, also known as foster care, can range from placement with a relative (sometimes also known as kinship care), to placement with a foster family, to placement in a group setting or in residential treatment. Residential treatment usually occurs when the needs of a child with severe behavioral or mental health issues cannot be addressed in the other settings. The aim, however, is always to place the child in the least restrictive and most family-like setting.

The caseworker must consider numerous factors as well, including the proximity of the placement to the family. Close proximity helps maintain the continuity of family relationships and connections to the community, facilitates visitation between the child and family, and enables the child to remain in his or her school. If the child is removed with his or her siblings, then the goal is to place the siblings together. If siblings cannot be placed together, then the caseworker must arrange for regular sibling visits unless it is contrary to the safety or well-being of any of the siblings to do so.

In many cases where the child has been removed, there are a variety of issues contributing to the maltreatment, such as serious substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness, which require that multiple and intensive services be provided. In addition to the services provided to the parents, the child may also need services, including services to help him or her address the trauma arising from the maltreatment and separation from the family.

The caseworker conducts a comprehensive family assessment with the family to determine the services needed to minimize the risk of maltreatment, address the factors that contributed to this risk, and ensure the child’s safety upon return. The caseworker and family then develop the case plan together.

Once the case plan has been developed, the caseworker provides or arranges for services identified in the plan to help family members achieve the case plan's outcomes, goals, and tasks. Selecting and matching interventions and services is a critical step in the casework process. Child maltreatment is caused by multiple contributing factors, so interventions need to address as many of these factors as possible, including the interpersonal needs (such as mental health and/or substance abuse treatment and parent aide and/or other parent support services), and concrete needs (such as housing and child care) of all family members.

While the agency is working with the family, the caseworker will develop a plan for family visitation. The family visitation plan outlines when and how often visitation occurs and under what set of circumstances. The visitation plan addresses the need to develop or improve the parent-child relationship and any child safety or well-being considerations. Initially, visitation may be very structured and occur in a supervised setting. As the family progresses, visits may occur more often, be of longer duration, and become unsupervised. 

Court Petition

When there are ongoing safety concerns that cannot be managed, and the risk of future child maltreatment is present, the child protective services (CPS) agency will file a petition with the courts to take custody of the child. This usually entails the child being removed from the home. The decision to file a petition seeking custody is a complex and difficult one that requires assessing the safety of the child and weighing it against the trauma of the child being separated from his or her parents or caregivers. Therefore, petitions are usually filed when children have been exposed to or will be exposed to serious threats to their safety.

Cases begin with a petition, or initial pleading, before a court. Following that, there is an initial hearing, which is where the court determines whether the child should be placed into foster care or remain in the home. If the child is to be placed in foster care or receive additional services from the agency, then an adjudication hearing will be scheduled to hear evidence supporting the petition. At the disposition hearing, which may occur simultaneously with the adjudication hearing or shortly afterwards, the court determines which specific services the child and family should receive. Review hearings to review progress in the case take place, at a minimum, every 6 months. Permanency hearings must begin within 12 months of adjudication, and after that are held every 12 months to determine progress toward achieving permanency for the child and family.

Initial Pleading

Filing a petition, or initial pleading, with a court initiates a child protection proceeding. The State or county child protective services (CPS) agency is the petitioner, and the parents, caretakers, or child may be referred to as respondents. As the petition is a civil, rather than criminal, matter, they are not “defendants,” and the petition does not “charge” them with child abuse or neglect. Criminal charges related to abuse or neglect may be filed but are usually separate from custody hearings.

The petition will contain the essential elements of the alleged child maltreatment or need for the child to be placed in foster care. In addition, the pleading must include information regarding efforts the agency has made to prevent placement. It does not need to contain all the facts, but should include enough to establish the court’s jurisdiction. Federal law does not govern State and local practices regarding the filing of petitions, emergency removals, and prior authorization of removals by judicial officers, so these vary widely among and within States.

Once it receives the petition, the court will have three options:

  • Grant ex parte custody
  • Schedule an initial hearing before removal
  • Deny the petition

Many removals are authorized by ex parte (which means "on behalf of or involving only one party to a legal matter and in the absence of and usually without notice to the other party") orders, and the first hearing is conducted after the removal has occurred. The courts have the option of granting the ex parte request or denying it and scheduling an initial hearing to consider the issue of placement more fully. In deciding whether to grant the removal application ex parte, the judge will determine the risk of harm to the child if removal is not authorized and what efforts the CPS agency has made or could make to avoid removal, address the threats to the child’s safety, or reduce the risk.

In some States, the petitions do not have to include a request that the child be removed. It sometimes may be useful to file a petition without asking for removal, such as when maltreatment is substantiated and removal does not appear necessary, but the parents are resistant to the CPS agency's intervention. In some States, the court may enforce or mandate parental cooperation.

When immediate removal of a child is dictated by emergency circumstances, however, some CPS agencies can remove the child, then promptly file a petition and obtain judicial approval for the removal. The States’ laws set time limits for obtaining retroactive approval for the removal. Some courts have procedures in place to ensure round-the-clock agency access to a judge with the expertise and authority to respond to requests for removal. The CPS caseworker needs to ensure that the timely filing of the petition occurs immediately after emergency removals.

Initial Hearing

The first event in court is the initial hearing, which is also known as the preliminary protective, shelter care, detention, emergency removal, probable cause, or temporary custody hearing. This hearing occurs soon after the filing of the petition or after a child has been removed from the home. The precise deadline for this hearing depends on State law, but should occur as soon as possible following the filing of the petition, or upon removal of the child.

The main purpose of the initial hearing is to determine whether the child should be placed in or remain in foster care, or remain with or be returned to the parents pending further proceedings. The critical issues are whether removal was and continues to be in the best interest of the child, whether the agency made reasonable efforts to prevent the child’s removal, and whether in-home services or other measures can be put in place to ensure the child’s safety and allow the child to return home.

Adjudication Hearing

A number of courts use mediation or other non-adversarial dispute resolutions to settle issues in child maltreatment cases. If, however, non-adversarial dispute resolution is not used or is not successful in settling the case by agreement, the case will go to adjudication after the initial hearing. At the adjudication hearing, which is also known as the fact-finding hearing or jurisdictional hearing, the court decides whether the child protective services (CPS) agency can prove the allegations. The CPS attorney presents evidence through the testimony of the CPS caseworker and law enforcement or other witnesses. These other witnesses, if needed, may include expert professional witnesses. Documents such as photographs and medical records may be entered into evidence, and the attorneys for the parents and the child have the right to cross examine any witnesses and to call witnesses and present evidence on their own behalf. The CPS agency needs to present enough evidence to convince the court that the maltreatment alleged in the petition occurred.

If the judge determines that the CPS agency has provided sufficient evidence, he or she will issue a judicial determination that justifies continuing involvement of the CPS agency and the court. If, however, the judge determines that the CPS agency has not provided sufficient evidence, the case may be dismissed and the CPS agency will have no authority to continue its involvement with the family without the family’s voluntary participation.

When the court has determined that child maltreatment has occurred, the judge enters an order finding specific facts regarding the maltreatment and the problems that must be resolved before the child can safely return home. The court will also make determinations as to whether the CPS agency has made reasonable efforts to avoid placement or to achieve reunification, and whether the child’s placement is appropriate given the needs of the child and proximity to the family. The court will also schedule the disposition hearing date and may schedule a permanency hearing to ensure that required timeframes are met. 

Disposition Hearing

At the disposition (or dispositional) hearing, the court decides whether the child and family need help and, if so, what services should be ordered. The order will contain information regarding the services and supports that the family will receive and participate in to resolve the issues that brought the family to the attention of the child protective services (CPS) agency and contributed to the child maltreatment. These services and supports are typically those that have been identified through the family assessment and are components of the case plan developed by the CPS caseworker with the family.

Note that, in some instances, the disposition hearing is held on the same day as the adjudication hearing. When it is not, the disposition hearing should be held within 30 days of the adjudication. 

Review Hearing

Title IV-E of the Social Security Act (SSA) requires that cases be reviewed at least every 6 months after a child has been placed in foster care. While the SSA allows this review to be conducted by a court or another administrative body, a number of States require court reviews, and some courts may require reviews more frequently than every 6 months.

The review hearing provides an opportunity to evaluate case progress and to revise the case plan as needed. They also guide efforts toward achieving permanency for the child. The review also considers the extent of progress that has been made toward alleviating or mitigating the causes necessitating placement in foster care, and may project a likely date by which the child may be returned to and safely maintained in the home, or whether efforts to terminate parental rights are appropriate to allow the child to be placed for adoption.

Review hearings must continue periodically, but no less frequently than once every 6 months by either a court or by administrative review and must determine the safety of the child, the continuing necessity for and appropriateness of the placement, and the extent of compliance with the case plan. They continue until case closure.  

Permanency Hearing

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires that a permanency hearing occur no later than 12 months from the date the child is considered to have entered foster care. The date that the child is considered to have entered foster care is either the date of the first judicial finding that the child has been subject to abuse or neglect (date of the adjudication hearing) or 60 days from the date that the child was placed into foster care, whichever is earlier.

The permanency hearing is the point at which a decision is made about achieving permanency for the child. This decision will involve establishing the child’s permanency plan that will include reunification with the parent or parents, termination of parental rights and adoption, legal guardianship, or another planned permanent living arrangement. For older youth, the permanency hearing also addresses the services and supports needed for the child to make the transition from foster care to independent living.

Permanency hearings are required no less frequently than every 12 months thereafter throughout the child’s stay in foster care until the child achieves permanency.

Family Assessment

Once the court has either granted the child protective services (CPS) agency’s petition for custody of the child or decided that the child and family must receive additional services, the caseworker assigned to the family conducts a family assessment. At best, this is a comprehensive process that can expand upon the assessment conducted during the investigation. During this assessment, the caseworker identifies behaviors and conditions about the child, parent, and family that contributed to safety threats and the risk of child maltreatment.

A comprehensive family assessment provides both the caseworker and the family with a greater understanding of how a family's strengths, needs, and resources affect a child's safety, permanency, and well-being. It should be strengths-based, family-centered, culturally sensitive, individualized, and developed in partnership with the family. The strengths identified will provide the foundation upon which the family can make changes.

When possible, this assessment also should involve the extended family and support network. Many CPS agencies use family decision-making meetings where family members come together to make decisions and to develop a plan with the agency for services. These meetings may include a larger, often informal network and usually involve both custodial and non-custodial parents.

A thorough family assessment is an ongoing process throughout the life of the case and addresses the following questions.

  • What are the family's strengths and needs that affect safety, permanency, or well-being?
  • What is the child’s current living situation with regard to safety and stability? Was a safety plan developed, and what has been the family’s response to this plan?
  • How do family members perceive their conditions, problems, and strengths?
  • What is the parent’s or caregiver’s level of readiness for change? What is their motivation and capacity to ensure safety, permanency, and well-being?
  • What is currently known about the parent or caregiver’s history? Are there clues that further information about the past will help to explain the parent or caregiver’s current functioning?
  • What is known about the family’s social support network? Who else is supporting the family and who will be available on an ongoing basis for the family to rely on?
  • Are there any behavioral symptoms observed in the child? How has the child functioned in school and in social relationships? Who else may have information about any behavioral or emotional concerns?
  • Have problems been identified that may need further examination or evaluation, such as drug or alcohol problems, psychiatric or psychological problems, domestic violence, or health needs?
  • Has the child experienced any trauma as a result of his or her maltreatment and, if so, what specific services may be required to address it?
  • What further information about the family will help provide an understanding of the risk and protective factors related to the potential of continued maltreatment?

All of this information will guide the family and caseworker in identifying what must change to mitigate or eliminate the safety threats, address the effects of maltreatment and/or other effects of the child’s removal, and eliminate or reduce the risk of maltreatment recurring. This provides the foundation for providing appropriate services and developing a case plan.

Case Plan

Intervention with abused and neglected children and their families must be planned, purposeful, and directed toward the achievement of safety, permanency, and well-being. An essential element of any planned and purposeful intervention is a complete understanding of the factors and conditions contributing to child maltreatment or other circumstances leading to child welfare involvement. A child protective services (CPS) caseworker, particularly when working with other service providers or community professionals, the family, and the family's support network, employs a family assessment to identify safety threats, risks, and problematic behaviors. The caseworker must then work with the family to identify strategies and interventions to facilitate needed changes.

Once the caseworker has completed this process, he or she must then incorporate this information into an effective, thoughtful case plan. The case plan provides a framework for case decision-making and addresses the following questions.

  • What are the family outcomes that, when attained, will indicate that safety threats have been addressed, risk has been reduced, and the effects of maltreatment have been successfully mitigated?
  • What tasks must be undertaken to attain these outcomes?
  • What intervention approaches or services will facilitate the successful attainment of outcomes and achievement of goals?
  • How and when will progress in implementing tasks, attaining outcomes, and achieving goals be evaluated?

Many agencies develop case plans that incorporate family strengths and integrate the extended family and others important in the family’s life, such as friends, clergy, or neighbors, to increase the safety of the children and family members. The case plan itself should provide a clear and specific guide for all involved to either strengthen or reduce the behaviors and conditions that affect safety and risk. It will identify the specific outcomes, goals, and tasks that must be achieved to facilitate those changes and will also establish benchmarks for monitoring family progress.

When children have been placed in foster care, the case plan must also meet certain Federal requirements that address the needs of the child. For example, the case plan must be developed jointly with the parent or parents no later than 60 days after the child has been removed from the home. In addition, the case plan must contain the most recent information provided by the child’s educational and health records and meet the educational stability case plan requirement at the time of each placement change. The caseworker should also consult with the child in a manner appropriate to the child's development regarding the child’s goals and needed services.

The caseworker is responsible for updating or developing the plan at specified times, usually at a minimum of every 6 months or whenever significant events occur in the case. Examples of these might include the location of an absent parent, a change in the child’s placement, successful completion of treatment, or a new maltreatment report. 

Note that the objective of a case plan is not to create a perfect family or a family that matches a caseworker’s own values and beliefs, but to address safety threats and to reduce or eliminate the risk of maltreatment so that children are safe and have their physical and emotional needs met. Involving the family in planning is vital to secure the family’s investment in and commitment to the plan, empower parents or caregivers to take the necessary action to change behavior, and ensure that the agency and the family are working toward the same end. 

Outcomes, Goals, and Tasks

A case plan must include clear outcomes, goals, and tasks designed to facilitate positive changes for the child and family. Positive outcomes indicate that safety and risk threats have been reduced due to changes in the behaviors or conditions that contributed to the child’s maltreatment and the effects of the child maltreatment, and should address issues related to four domains.

  • Child-level outcomes focus on changes in behavior; development; mental health, including emotional well-being; physical health; peer relationships; and education, including, for example, improved behavior control.
  • Parent or caregiver outcomes center on many areas, such as improved mental health functioning, problem-solving ability, impulse control, and parenting skills, including, for example,  improved child management skills as evidenced by establishing and consistently following through with developmentally appropriate rules and limits for children.
  • Family outcomes concentrate on issues such as roles and boundaries, communication patterns, and social support, including, for example, enhanced family maintenance and safety as evidenced by the ability to meet members’ basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and supervision.
  • Environmental outcomes focus on the environmental factors contributing to the maltreatment, such as social isolation, housing issues, or neighborhood safety (addressed, for example, by using the social support offered by family connections to a church).

Success across each of these domains requires a clear understanding of goals that indicate the specific changes needed to accomplish those outcomes. To be effective, goals should be SMART:

  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-limited

Additionally, each goal should clearly indicate the positive behaviors or conditions that will result from the change and not merely highlight the negative behaviors to be changed.

To help families understand what is expected of them and what they can expect from the caseworker and other service providers, each goal should be broken down into small, meaningful, and incremental tasks. These tasks should:

  • Include the specific services and interventions needed to help the family achieve the goals and outcomes
  • Describe what the children, family, caseworker, and other service providers will do
  • Identify timeframes for accomplishing each task

In developing these tasks, caseworkers should also be aware of the availability and accessibility of services, considering issues such as target populations served by a provider, specializations, eligibility criteria, waiting lists, and fees for services. Caseworkers can then determine the most appropriate services available to help the family achieve its tasks.

As an example of how goals and tasks work together to support positive outcomes, consider the example of developing effective child management skills as a positive outcome. A reasonable goal for that outcome might be that the parents will work with the caseworker or a community-based service provider to set specific, age-appropriate expectations for their children. A task supporting that goal might then be to identify those components of the child’s behavior that are most difficult for them to manage and the disciplinary techniques they can use to help him or her control his behavior.

Monitoring Family Progress

When the case plan is developed and an intervention is implemented, the child protective services (CPS) caseworker will, on an ongoing basis, evaluate whether safety threats have been addressed by either being eliminated or controlled with increased protective capacities, and whether risk factors and conditions have changed. This is central to case decisions and to determining next steps. Monitoring change should begin as soon as an intervention is implemented and continue throughout the life of a case until appropriate outcomes have been achieved.

Evaluating family progress helps answer the following questions.

  • Is the family actively participating in the services agreed to in the case plan?
  • Is the child safe? Have the risk and protective factors, strengths, or safety threats changed, warranting a change or elimination of the safety plan or the development of a safety plan?
  • What changes, if any, have occurred with respect to the conditions and behaviors contributing to the risk of child maltreatment?
  • What outcomes have been accomplished, and how does the caseworker know that they have been accomplished?
  • What progress has been made toward achieving case goals?
  • Have the services been effective in helping clients achieve outcomes and goals and, if not, what adjustments need to be made to improve outcomes?
  • What is the current level of risk in the family?
  • Have the protective capacities increased sufficiently so that parents or caregivers can protect their children and meet their developmental needs so the case can be closed?
  • If the child has been removed from the home, has it been determined that reunification is not likely in the Federal- and/or State-required timeframes and there is no significant progress toward outcomes? If so, is a different goal for achieving permanency needed?

Because intervention and service provision to families at risk of maltreatment is a collaborative effort between CPS and other agencies of individual providers, the evaluation of family progress also needs to be collaborative. While the caseworker is responsible for managing the comparison of the family's progress based on information gathered from all service providers, he or she must be sure to actively involve the family throughout the process.

Achieving Permanency

The goal of any child protective services (CPS) agency intervention is achieving a safe, permanent home for a child who has experienced maltreatment. Permanency means a legally permanent, nurturing family for every child involved in the system. Caseworkers focus first on preserving and strengthening families and on preventing the need to place children outside of their homes. When children must be removed from the home to ensure their safety, permanency planning efforts focus on returning them as soon as is safely possible, if appropriate.

Caseworkers must attend regular court or administrative review hearings intended to monitor compliance with the case plan, adjust the plan as necessary, and ensure that the case is progressing toward resolution and case closure. In addition, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires that a permanency hearing occur no later than 12 months from the date the child entered foster care. The permanency hearing is the point at which a decision is made about a child's permanency goals, which are the ultimate goals to keep the child safe, strengthen the family, and reunify the child with the family, if possible and appropriate.

ASFA includes five possible permanency goals for children in foster care (note that among these are two distinct guardianship goals).

  • Reunification with the parent
  • Termination of parental rights (TPR) and Adoption
  • Guardianship with a permanent guardian
  • Guardianship with a "fit and willing relative" while remaining in the State’s legal custody
  • Another planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA) while remaining in the State’s legal custody

Reunification with the parents is the preferred initial permanency goal except in cases where aggravated circumstances exist. Examples of aggravated circumstances include cases where a parent has caused great bodily injury to a child or caused the death of a sibling to the child. The agency may pursue the last goal, APPLA, only if the court finds that there is a compelling reason why it is not in the best interests of the child to proceed with one of the other options. An example would be when a youth continues living with a relative or foster family without legalizing the relationship, possibly because the youth does not want to have the parent’s rights terminated and fully understands the options and benefits for a more permanent option.

Several scenarios may play out as the agency works to achieve the child's permanency goals.

  • Even when the agency is working with the family on reunification, it may also implement concurrent planning to ensure that permanency is achieved for the child in as timely a manner as possible and within ASFA guidelines. Concurrent planning involves identifying and working toward a child's primary permanency goal, such as reunification, while simultaneously identifying and working on a secondary goal, such as adoption or guardianship. This practice, when implemented correctly, can shorten the time to achieve permanency because progress has already been made toward the concurrent goal if efforts toward the other goal prove unsuccessful. This provides caseworkers with a structured approach to move children quickly from foster care to the stability of a safe and continuous family home.
  • If reunification is not likely, but a relative is willing and able to do so, custody may be transferred to him or her, although the agency may initially remain involved to provide support.
  • If the child’s maltreatment has been so severe and/or the parents are unable or unwilling to provide safe and adequate care, then the agency will petition the court for TPR. If adoption or reunification are not options, then every effort is still made to help youth reach permanency before the age of 18, including the use of guardianship or another planned permanent living arrangement.

The caseworker will partner with the older child to facilitate another planned permanent living arrangement when reunification, adoption, and guardianship are not appropriate options. In this scenario, the caseworker attempts to build upon and foster permanent supports and connections and to provide independent living services that help prepare the youth for self-sufficiency in adulthood.

Regardless of the older youth’s permanency plan, any child 16 years of age or older should receive an independent living assessment and services while they are living in any type of foster care. They may be working toward achieving any of the permanency goals (reunification, adoption, guardianship, or APPLA). Independent living services generally include assistance with money management skills, educational assistance, household management skills, employment preparation, and other life-skill services.


When children must be removed from their family for their protection, the initial and preferred permanency option is to achieve reunification with their family as quickly and as safely as possible. Reunification is the most common initial permanency goal for children in foster care.

The physical return of the child or youth to parents or caretakers may occur before the return of legal custody. In these circumstances, often referred to as trial home visits, the child protective services (CPS) agency retains custody of the child while the child lives with his or her parent, and continues to supervise the family for some period of time. Reunification is considered achieved when both care and custody are returned to parents or guardians, and the child is discharged from foster care. CPS agencies work to achieve reunifications that are timely but do not result in the child re-entering the foster care system at a later date. 

Termination of Parental Rights (TPR)

There are times when family reunification is not possible, and the child protective services (CPS) agency must pursue other options for achieving permanency. Sometimes, when a parent recognizes that family reunification is not possible, the parent may elect to voluntarily relinquish their parental rights to a child. In other circumstances, the CPS agency seeks an involuntary termination of parental rights (TPR). The grounds, which vary by State, for involuntary TPR are specific circumstances under which the child cannot safely be returned home because of risk of harm by the parent or the inability of the parent to provide for the child's basic needs.

Examples of grounds for TPR include:

  • Severe or chronic abuse or neglect (of the child or of other children in the household)
  • Abandonment of the child
  • Long-term mental illness or deficiency of the parent
  • Long-term alcohol- or drug-induced incapacity of the parent
  • Failure to support or maintain contact with the child
  • TPR for another of the parent’s children
  • Felony conviction of the parent for a violent crime against the child or another family member

When efforts by the State to achieve reunification have failed to correct the conditions or behaviors that led to the CPS intervention, then Federal law requires the State agency to initiate a petition for TPR if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months (with certain exceptions). Some States have adopted shorter timeframes for very young children or in circumstances of particularly egregious child maltreatment.


When reunification is deemed not possible, adoption is the preferred way to achieve a permanent home for a child or youth. Adoption refers to the legal transfer of parental rights and responsibilities from the original parents or caretakers to new ones.

Note that in most cases (Tribes are an exception), termination of parental rights (TPR) is required before adoption can occur. When the adoptive family adopts a child, adoption assistance may be available. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (as amended) provides Federal subsidies to encourage the adoption of children from foster care. These subsidies, known as adoption assistance, help to minimize the financial obstacles to adoption and serve to remove barriers. Adoption assistance also contributes to an increase in adoption of children with special needs. Besides the financial assistance provided, adoption assistance may provide other types of assistance to help with medical care or other services.


Children in foster care can achieve permanency through guardianship, which is also known as legal guardianship or permanent guardianship. In a guardianship, a caregiver can assume legal custody of a child in out-of-home placement without termination of parental rights (TPR) as is required for an adoption. Guardianship is often sought by family relative care givers who want to provide a permanent home for the child and maintain relationships with extended family members. Guardianships may also be appropriate for older youth in foster care who object to being adopted and having their parents’ rights terminated, yet want to remain with their current caregiver.

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 created a new plan option for States and Tribes to provide kinship guardianship assistance payments under title IV-E on behalf of children who have been in a foster care placement in which a relative has assumed legal guardianship. These subsidized guardianships, similar to adoption subsidies, provide financial assistance to caregivers who assume legal guardianship of a child in out-of-home care. A number of States are exploring subsidized guardianship as a means to achieving permanency for children and youth who are not being adopted or reunified with family.

Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement

Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA), also known as Other Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (OPPLA), was established as a permanency option for children by the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). However, ASFA is clear that APPLA is the least preferred permanency option for children. Prior to establishing APPLA as a permanency plan for a child, the CPS agency must consider the other permanency options and document to the court the compelling reason(s) why a more preferred permanency plan, such as reunification, adoption or guardianship, is not being selected.

The permanency option of APPLA must include a plan for the permanent placement of the child that meets the child’s developmental, educational, and other needs. The plan must be designed to ensure that the living arrangement addresses not only the physical placement of the child but also addresses the quality of care, supervision, and nurturing that the child will receive in the immediate future and beyond the time of case closure.  APPLA thereby ensures that adult caregivers or adult parent figures and/or mentors play permanent and important roles in the child’s life. 

Case Closure

The decision to close a case and no longer provide services to a family is based on conclusions drawn from monitoring family progress, continuously evaluating the case, and determining whether the child and family have achieved desired safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes. If all of the desired outcomes laid out in the case plan have been achieved and all safety and risk concerns have been adequately addressed, then ending the relationship with the family is appropriate.

Case closure may also occur if the family feels unready or unwilling to work toward those outcomes, but the child protective services (CPS) caseworker believes the child will be safe, even though there may still be some risk of child maltreatment. If the family received services from CPS and other agencies or individual providers, it also may be appropriate to convene a team meeting of service providers to review the family’s progress prior to case closure. When the court is involved, it must approve case closure and terminate the case accordingly.