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.