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Child Protective Services: A Guide for Caseworkers. 2003
Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children's Bureau. DePanfilis, D., Salus, M. K.|
|Year Published: 2003|
Chapter Five: Intake
Intake is the first stage of the child protective services (CPS) process and is one of the most important decision-making points in the child protection system. It is the point at which reports of suspected child abuse and neglect are received. Information gathered by caseworkers is used to make decisions regarding safety (e.g., Is the child at risk of imminent harm?), risk (e.g., What is the likelihood that maltreatment will occur sometime in the future?), and the type of CPS response required. At intake, caseworkers also perform a critical public relations function by responding professionally and sensitively to the concerns raised by community professionals and citizens, and by clarifying the role of the agency regarding referrals of suspected abuse or neglect. Referrals are accepted from all sources, and each report is treated as a potential case of child maltreatment.32
Specific guidelines for conducting the intake process vary from State to State and community to community. In general, caseworkers must:
- Gather sufficient information from the reporter and agency records to be able to:
- Identify and locate the children and the parents or primary caregiver;
- Determine if the report meets the statutory and agency guidelines for child maltreatment;
- Assess whether the child is safe;
- Evaluate the motives of the reporter.
- Provide support and encouragement to the reporter by:
- Explaining that the purpose of CPS is to protect children and strengthen families;
- Emphasizing the importance of reporting and explaining the process in which the report will be tracked;
- Describing the types of cases accepted by CPS as well as the types of information needed from the reporter;
- Responding sensitively to the fears and concerns of the reporter;
- Discussing the State's regulations regarding confidentiality, including the circumstances under which a reporter's identity may be revealed (e.g., if required by court action in a particular case).
- Handle emergency situations such as:
- Calming the caller;
- Determining how to meet the immediate needs of the child and family being reported.
- Check agency records and the State's central registry (if appropriate) to determine if the family or child is known or has been reported to the agency previously.
Gathering Information from Reporters
The more comprehensive the information provided by the reporter, the more experienced caseworkers are able to determine the appropriateness of the report for CPS intervention; whether the child is safe; and the urgency of the response needed. State and local child protection agencies have guidelines for information-gathering at intake. In general, caseworkers should obtain information on:
- The contact information for the child and family, which helps to locate the child and family and determine if the child is at immediate risk of harm;
- The alleged maltreatment, including type, nature, severity, chronicity, and where it occurred;
- The child, including the child's condition and behavior, which helps in evaluating whether the child is in immediate risk of harm or danger and determining the urgency and type of the response;
- The parent or caregiver, including their emotional and physical condition, behavior, history, view of the child, child-rearing practices, and relationships outside the family;
- The family, including family characteristics, dynamics, and supports.
Exhibit 5-1 presents more detailed information that should be collected from the reporter within each of these areas. Although not every reporter will have all the information described, it is important to attempt to gather it to guide the investigation and ensure the appropriate decisions at intake. This may be the only opportunity the agency has to talk with the reporter.
Gathering this detailed information is essential to determine if the child is safe and how quickly contact with the family must be made to assure safety. It also enables caseworkers to identify the victim, the parent or caregiver, and the maltreater (if different from the parent or caregiver), and to determine how to locate them so that the initial assessment or investigation can be conducted. In addition, information from the reporter may identify other possible sources of information about the family and the possibility of past, current, or future abuse or neglect. Finally, it will assist the caseworker responsible for the initial assessment or investigation in planning the approach to the investigation in an accurate and effective manner.
Providing Support to Reporters
Reports of child abuse and neglect are most often initiated by telephone and may come from any number of sources. Each reporter should be given support and encouragement for making the decision to report. In addition, the reporter's fears and concerns should be elicited and addressed. These can range from fear that the family will retaliate to fear of having to testify in court.
It is often very difficult for the reporter to make the call. The telephone call usually comes after much thought has been given to the possible consequences to the child and family. More than likely, the reporter has considered that it would be easier just to do nothing or that the CPS system may not be able to help the family. It may be difficult for a reporter to think that this call will actually help the family rather than hurt it. Simple verbal reassurances or a follow-up letter that expresses the agency's gratitude to the reporter for taking the initiative to call can make the difference in the reporter's future willingness to cooperate.
Intake Information Analysis
Upon receiving a referral, the intake worker or caseworker attempts to gather as much information as possible about each family member; the family as a whole; and the nature, extent, severity, and chronicity of the alleged child maltreatment. Once the initial intake information is collected, the caseworker conducts a check of agency records or, in some States, a central registry to determine any past reports or contact with the family. Then the caseworkers must collect and analyze the information and determine if it meets the following criteria.
Statutory and Agency Guidelines
This determination is made by comparing the data collected to State law regarding the definition of child abuse and neglect and the requirements for State or county response; agency policies interpreting the laws and practice standards; agency or office customs regarding further refinement of definitions; required response times; and practical issues, such as jurisdictional authority or caseload management.33
An essential step in the intake process is determining the consistency and accuracy of the information being reported. In some locations, the intake workers take all reports and the investigator determines the credibility of the report; in other locations, the intake workers determine the credibility of the report. Sometimes caseworkers question the validity of the report suspecting it may be influenced by a contentious divorce, custody battle, or bad neighbor relationships. Regardless of suspicions about the motives of the reporter, if the allegations meet the statutory and agency guidelines, the case must be accepted.
A number of questions will help caseworkers evaluate the credibility of the report:
- Is the reporter willing to give his or her name, address, and telephone number?
- What is the reporter's relationship to the victim and family?
- How well does the reporter know the family?
- Does the reporter know of previous abuse or neglect? What has led him or her to report now?
- How does the reporter know about the case?
- Does the reporter stand to gain anything from reporting?
- Has the reporter made previous unfounded reports on this family?
- Is the reporter willing to meet with a caseworker in person if needed?
- Does the reporter appear to be intoxicated, extremely bitter, angry, or exhibiting behavior that makes the caseworker question his or her competency?
- Can or will the reporter refer CPS to others who know about the situation?
- What does the reporter hope will happen as a result of the report?
- Does the reporter fear reprisal from family?
- Does the reporter fear self-incrimination? For example, due to substance-abusing behavior or participation in physically abusive behavior.
When an Initial Assessment or Investigation Is Warranted
One of the primary decisions in the intake process is whether or not to accept a report for a CPS investigation. This decision is based on the law, agency policy, and information about the characteristics of the case that are likely to indicate, or result in, harm to the child. The appropriateness of this decision depends on the ability of the caseworker to gather critical and accurate information about the family and the alleged maltreatment and to apply law and policy to the information gathered.34
States have different criteria and tools for acceptance of the report. Some of the steps caseworkers should take in making this decision include:
- Referring to State law. The law defines what is considered child maltreatment under State statutes. These definitions are the caseworkers' ultimate source of guidance.
- Reviewing agency policies. Agency policies include State and local guidelines. They may have additional information regarding definitions and how to respond to different types of reports.
- Discussing with the supervisor how these guidelines are implemented in the office. Sometimes customs develop among caseworkers or units that may not reflect agency guidelines. This often occurs as a result of many years of practice and improvisation over time. Unfortunately, these adaptations to circumstances may lead caseworkers away from carrying out their mandated responsibilities.
Whether to accept a case for initial assessment or investigation or to refer it to other community agencies depends on the following:
- If the child appears to be at risk of harm due to circumstances other than direct parental or caregiver maltreatment, are there other agencies that can intervene quickly enough to guard the safety of the child? For example, in cases of partner abuse with the child in the home, the police are often the most appropriate first responders. CPS also may need to be involved if it is determined that there is potential for harm to the child.
- Problems that may be more appropriately served by other agencies include parental substance abuse, parental or child physical or mental illness, developmental disability, lack of resources to meet basic needs, lack of information about appropriate parenting, lack of sufficient support systems during a crisis, lack of daycare, the child's constant truancy, or severe learning problems that do not endanger the child.
- The circumstances that could result in imminent danger to the child should be determined, as well as whether a referral to an appropriate agency will ensure service delivery; whether the connection between appropriate services and the family is so tenuous that the child may not receive the needed intervention, thereby requiring protective intervention; or whether an initial report focused on the need for other services is masking other, more serious, dangers to the child.
This decision is based on having accurate and comprehensive information as well as the ability of the worker to assess and use the information to develop a clear picture of the situation and to apply the law and policy to the case. Agency screening tools can be helpful in making this decision.35
Determining the urgency of the response to the report is essential to the safety assessment. CPS's primary concern should be to establish whether the child is safe, pending a face-to-face contact by the agency or another professional trained in assessing safety.36 Many States have their own criteria for response times based on the nature of the report. The criteria considered are the level of severity of the incident or the harm to the child, the person responsible for the alleged abuse or neglect, and the family's situation.37
Once it has been determined that an initial assessment or investigation is warranted, the next step is to determine the safety of the child and how quickly CPS must respond to the case. Many States have their own criteria for response times based on the nature of the maltreatment and the family situation.
The following factors generally are used by CPS agencies to distinguish between reports that require an immediate response, reports requiring a response within 24 hours, and reports that require a CPS response but do not involve immediate or continuing danger of serious harm to the child. CPS should respond immediately when:
- The child's injury is severe or the alleged maltreatment could have resulted in serious harm—for example, shooting a gun, pushing a child down the stairs, locking a child in a small enclosed space, not providing enough food to eat over an extended period of time, or locking a toddler out of the house without supervision.
- The child is particularly vulnerable because of age, illness, disability, or proximity to the alleged perpetrator, or the child is a danger to himself or herself, or others.
- The behavior of the parent or caregiver, including an inability to take care of the child, is known to have caused harm or endangered the child or others. Or the behavior of the parent or caregiver is unpredictable and could result in serious harm to the child.
- There is no person who is able and willing to act on the child's behalf in the time that is required to keep the child safe long enough for CPS to intervene within normal time frames.
- The family is likely to flee the area with the child or abandon the child.
- The report involves child sexual abuse, and the child continues to have contact with the alleged perpetrator.
- The child has current physical injuries that need to be documented, such as photographing injuries or measuring bruises.38
The caseworker must examine the total picture to evaluate if there is a clear opportunity for the child to be seriously harmed if there is no immediate intervention. To determine how quickly the agency must respond to a particular case, caseworkers must consider the factors that individually present a risk to the child, as well as any factors (such as domestic violence or substance abuse) that in combination present an even greater risk to the child. The presence of several factors and one or more combinations of factors requires an immediate response by CPS.
A Case Requiring an Immediate CPS Response:
A single mother who has been diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia is having delusions of killing her 6-month-old infant. The mother stopped taking her medication (often required when pregnant) and has been drinking heavily. The community psychiatric nurse who has been visiting the home weekly was told by the mother never to come back.
A Case Requiring a CPS Response Within 24 Hours:
A daycare provider reports a 3½-year-old child because he has bruises and welts on his buttocks. The child provides three different stories of how they occurred, none of which seem plausible. There are no previous reports of maltreatment and the daycare provider who has been caring for this child for 18 months has never seen bruises before. The daycare provider reports that the mother drops off and picks up the son. The child is very active, difficult to manage, and has attempted to hurt other children.
A Case Not Requiring a CPS Response Within 24 Hours:
During the first 3 months of school, the children of a single mother were absent over one-half of the days. When the 7-year-old girl and 10-year-old boy do come to school, they have severe body odor and dirty clothes. The school nurse treated the children for lice and scabies, and the 7-year-old falls asleep in class. The school has contacted the mother, who has not followed through with any of her commitments regarding the children.
Importance of Community Education in Reporting
CPS is dependent on the general public and community professionals to report suspected child abuse and neglect. CPS is responsible for educating the community on how to identify suspected child maltreatment and what types of referrals are appropriate. Intake provides an important opportunity to educate the public regarding the types of cases that should be reported to CPS, the type of information needed in a report, and CPS's initial assessment or investigation and intervention efforts. In addition, it is essential to treat reporters professionally and with respect and sensitivity. Communication and interaction at the intake stage affect how the community views CPS and influence the community's willingness to report cases in the future.
Community Partners in Child Protection
Because child abuse and neglect is complex and multidimensional, CPS alone cannot effectively intervene in the lives of maltreated children and their families. A coordinated effort that involves a broad range of community agencies and professionals is essential for effective child protection. (These roles and responsibilities are outlined in more detail in the user manual, A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice.) CPS must take a lead role in developing and maintaining collaborative relationships with potential referral sources, law enforcement officials, and other professionals who investigate the presence of maltreatment, and with professionals and agencies that provide medical and mental health evaluation and treatment.
Over the past 10 years, promising, community-based child protection initiatives have been implemented that broadened the base of responsibility for supporting families and protecting children. Initially, model programs evolved from targeting intervention activities in high-risk neighborhoods and rebuilding a sense of community toward empowering individual families by teaching and mentoring, building on strengths, and respecting cultural diversity.39 More recent child welfare reforms have focused on a more flexible and differential response for investigating reports of child abuse and neglect, including the diversion of low- and moderate-risk families to community-based services.40
For more information on developing partnerships, check other manuals in the series by visiting www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanual.cfm.
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