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.