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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 Six: Initial Assessment or Investigation
Caseworkers feel pressure from many different directions—children, families, statutory and agency expectations, and themselves. Family members who are reported to child protective services (CPS) typically feel embarrassed, defensive, angry, confused, threatened, and helpless. As families experience these feelings, they need the CPS caseworker to provide them with information to understand what they are accused of, what may happen, what the next steps are, what they can expect from the agency, and what they are expected to do. The agency expects the caseworker to meet the statutory deadlines by quickly gathering information about the children and family and determining if maltreatment occurred, the likelihood that it will occur again, and the threat of immediate serious harm to the child. At the same time caseworkers should manage their own fears and doubts—Is the child really safe? What else could I have done?41
This chapter describes the purposes of the initial assessment or investigation—to gather and analyze information in response to CPS reports, to interpret the agency's role to the children and families, and to determine which families will benefit from further agency intervention. After interviewing all parties and gathering all relevant information, CPS caseworkers must determine whether maltreatment has occurred and can be substantiated. In most States, CPS staff are mandated by law to determine whether the report is substantiated or founded (meaning that credible evidence indicates that abuse or neglect has occurred) or whether the report is unsubstantiated or unfounded (meaning that there is a lack of credible evidence to substantiate child maltreatment—but does not mean it did not necessarily occur). Depending on State law, CPS agencies usually have up to 30, 60, or 90 days after receiving the report to complete the initial assessment or investigation. A major part of the initial assessment or investigation includes determining whether there is a risk or likelihood of maltreatment occurring in the future and whether the child is safe (not at risk of imminent, serious harm). In addition, CPS caseworkers must decide whether ongoing services to reduce risk and assure child safety should be provided by the CPS agency or other community partners. This chapter addresses the following:
- Effective initial assessment or investigation characteristics
- Initial assessment or investigation decisions
- Initial assessment or investigation processes
- Interviewing techniques
- Community involvement
- Special practice issues
Effective Initial Assessment or Investigation Characteristics
In cooperative investigations, CPS workers form an alliance with both the children and family. In a well-handled investigation, the worker:
- Involves the children and family during the exploration of the allegations to gain their perceptions of the allegations;
- Focuses on the children's, the parent's, and the family's strengths and resources; their plans for building protective factors; and past and present actions to protect the children;
- Listens carefully to the family's experience to make sure they know they have been heard and understood;
- Demonstrates sensitivity and empathy regarding the anxiety experienced by the children and family;
- Communicates clearly and openly CPS's statutory role;
- Focuses on small steps, making sure the children and family understand each one;
- Involves the children and family in the decisions that affect them by providing choices and opportunities for input;
- Demonstrates flexibility in the interview;
- Focuses on gathering comprehensive information rather than trying to identify solutions, which is best left for later in the casework process.42
Initial Assessment or Investigation Decisions
To make effective decisions during the initial assessment or investigation process, the CPS caseworker must have competent interviewing skills; be able to gather, organize, and analyze information; and arrive at accurate conclusions. Critical decisions that must be made at this stage of the CPS process include the following:
- Is child maltreatment substantiated as defined by State statute or agency policy?
- Is the child at risk of maltreatment, and what is the level of risk?
- Is the child safe and, if not, what type of agency or community response will ensure the child's safety in the least intrusive manner?
- If the child's safety cannot be assured within the family, what type and level of care does the child need?
- Does the family have emergency needs that must be met?
- Should ongoing agency services be offered to the family?
Decision Point One: Substantiating Maltreatment
The substantiation decision depends on the answers to two questions: "Is the harm to the child severe enough to constitute child maltreatment?" and "Is there sufficient evidence to support this being a case of child maltreatment?"43 Even in those cases lacking evidence, CPS caseworkers should still document information since unsubstantiated reports may eventually show a pattern that can be substantiated. Due to varying State regulations regarding the expungement of records, this may not be possible for all agencies.
Upon completion of the initial assessment, the caseworker must determine the disposition of the report based on State laws, agency guidelines, and the information gathered. CPS agencies use different terms for this decision—substantiated, confirmed, unsubstantiated, founded, or unfounded. To guide caseworker judgment in making the substantiation decision, each State has developed policies that outline what constitutes credible evidence that abuse or neglect has occurred. Most States have a two-tiered system: substantiated-unsubstantiated or founded-unfounded. Some States have a three-tiered system of substantiated, indicated, or unsubstantiated. The indicated classification means the caseworker has some evidence that maltreatment occurred, but not enough to substantiate the case.
At this point in the decision-making process, caseworkers should ask themselves:
- Have I obtained enough information from the children, family, and collateral contacts to adequately reach a determination about the alleged abuse or neglect?
- Is my decision on substantiation based upon a clear understanding of State laws and agency policies?
- Have I assessed the need for other agency or community services when CPS intervention is not warranted?
Determining Child Neglect
Determining child neglect is based on the answers to two questions: "Do the conditions or circumstances indicate that a child's basic needs are unmet?" and "What harm or threat of harm may have resulted?"45 Answering these questions requires sufficient information to assess the degree to which omissions in care have resulted in significant harm or significant risk of harm. Unlike the other forms of maltreatment, this determination may not be reached by looking at one incident; the decision often requires looking at patterns of care over time. The analysis should focus on examining how the child's basic needs are met and identifying situations that may indicate specific omissions in care that have resulted in harm or the risk of harm to the child.46
Affirmative answers to the following questions may indicate that a child's physical and medical needs are unmet:
- Have the parents or caregivers failed to provide the child with needed care for a physical injury, acute illness, physical disability, or chronic condition?
- Have the parents or caregivers failed to provide the child with regular and ample meals that meet basic nutritional requirements, or have the parents or caregivers failed to provide the necessary rehabilitative diet to the child with particular health problems?
- Have the parents or caregivers failed to attend to the cleanliness of the child's hair, skin, teeth, and clothes? It is difficult to determine the difference between marginal hygiene and neglect. Caseworkers should consider the chronicity, extent, and nature of the condition, as well as the impact on the child.
- Does the child have inappropriate clothing for the weather and conditions? Caseworkers must consider the nature and extent of the conditions and the potential consequences to the child.
- Does the home have obvious hazardous physical conditions? For example, homes with exposed wiring or easily accessible toxic substances.
- Does the home have obvious hazardous unsanitary conditions? For example, homes with feces- or trash-covered flooring or furniture.
- Does the child experience unstable living conditions? For example, frequent changes of residence or evictions due to the caretaker's mental illness, substance abuse, or extreme poverty?
- Do the parents or caregivers fail to arrange for a safe substitute caregiver for the child?
- Have the parents or caregivers abandoned the child without arranging for reasonable care and supervision? For example, have caregivers left children without information regarding their whereabouts?47
While State statutes vary, most CPS professionals agree that children under the age of 8 who are left alone are being neglected. It is also agreed that children older than 12 are able to spend 1 to 2 hours alone each day. In determining whether neglect has occurred, the following issues should be considered, particularly when children are between the ages of 8 and 12:
- The child's physical condition and mental abilities, coping capacity, maturity, competence, knowledge regarding how to respond to an emergency, and feelings about being alone.
- Type and degree of indirect adult supervision. For example, is there an adult who is checking in on the child?
- The length of time and frequency with which the child is left alone. Is the child being left alone all day, every day? Is he or she left alone all night?
- The safety of the child's environment. For example, the safety of the neighborhood, access to a telephone, and safety of the home.
Determining Physical Abuse
In determining whether physical abuse occurred, the key questions to answer are "Could the injury to the child have occurred in a nonabusive manner?" and "Does the explanation given plausibly explain the physical findings?"48 The caseworker must gather information separately from the child, the parents, and other possible witnesses regarding the injuries. The following questions may help determine if abuse occurred:
- Does the explanation fit the injury? For example, the explanation of a baby falling out of a crib is not consistent with the child having a spiral fracture. It is important to know the child's age and developmental capabilities to assess the plausibility of some explanations. It is also crucial to receive input from medical personnel and exams.
- Is an explanation offered? Some caregivers may not offer an explanation, possibly due to denial or an attempt to hide abuse.
- Is there a delay in obtaining medical care? Abusive caregivers may not immediately seek medical care for the child when it is clearly needed, possibly to deny the seriousness of the child's condition, to try to cover up the abuse, or in hope that the injury will heal on its own.
Caseworkers must also examine the nature of the injury, such as bruises or burns in the shape of an implement, e.g., a welt in the shape of a belt buckle or a cigarette burn.
Determining Sexual Abuse
In addition to the factors mentioned in determining physical abuse, the caseworker should ask the following questions to determine whether sexual abuse has occurred:
- Who has reported that the child alleges sexual abuse? For example, caseworkers should be alert to separated or divorced parents making allegations against each other.
- What are the qualifications of the professional reporting the physical findings? For example, if the health care providers do not routinely examine the genitalia of young children, they may mistake normal conditions for abuse or vice versa.
- What did the child say? Did the child describe the sexual abuse in terms that are consistent with their developmental level? Can the child give details regarding the time and place of the incident?
- When did the child make a statement or begin demonstrating behaviors suspicious of sexual abuse and symptoms causing concern? Was the child's statement spontaneous? Has the child been exposed to adult sexual acts?
- Where does the child say the abuse took place? Is it possible for it to have occurred in that setting? Is it possible that the child is describing genital touching that is not sexual in nature? For example, bathing the child.49
Determining Psychological Maltreatment
Psychological maltreatment has been given relatively little serious attention in research and practice until recently. There are many reasons for this, including problems with inadequate definitions, failure to establish cause-and-effect relationships, and the difficulty of clarifying the cumulative impact of psychological maltreatment.50 In order to determine if psychological maltreatment or emotional abuse occurred, caseworkers must have information on the caregiver's behavior over time and the child's behavior and condition. Caseworkers must determine whether there is a chronic behavioral pattern of psychological maltreatment, such as caregivers who place expectations on the child that are unrealistic for the child's developmental level, threaten to abandon the child, or direct continually critical and derogatory comments toward the child. There also must be indicators in the child's behavior suggestive of psychological maltreatment; however, the child's behavior alone is often insufficient to substantiate a case. Caseworkers must determine whether the child has suffered emotional abuse. The following questions may help determine if psychological maltreatment has occurred:
- Is there an inability to learn not explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors?
- Is there an inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers or adults?
- Are there developmentally inappropriate behaviors or feelings in normal circumstances?
- Is there a general pervasive mode of unhappiness, depression, or suicidal feelings?
- Are there physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school functioning, such as bedwetting or a marked lack of interest in school activities?51
Demonstrating a causal connection between the caregiver's behavior and the child's behavior is often difficult to substantiate. This minimally necessitates that the caseworker observe caregiver-child interaction on several occasions, as well as be informed from other sources' observations (e.g., school personnel, relatives, and neighbors).
Decision Point Two: Assessing Risk
Risk factors are influences present in the child, the parents, the family, and the environment that may increase the likelihood that a child will be maltreated. Risk assessment involves evaluating the child and family's situation to identify and weigh the risk factors, family strengths and resources, and agency and community services.52 While risk assessment has been an integral part of CPS since the field's inception, the formalization of the process and decision-making, through the development of risk assessment instruments, has taken place just within the last 12 to 15 years.53
This section describes risk assessment models and its key elements, the analysis of risk assessment information, special cases of risk assessment (when substance abuse or domestic violence coexist with maltreatment), and cultural factors for consideration.
Risk Assessment Models
The majority of States use risk assessment models or systems that are designed to:
- Guide and structure decision-making;
- Predict future harm and classify cases;
- Aid in resource management by identifying service needs for children and families served;
- Facilitate communication within the agency and with other community stakeholders.54
Exhibit 6-1 presents additional detail of the types of risk assessment information in each area.
Risk Assessment Information 55
Analysis of Risk Assessment Information
Caseworkers analyze the information collected to determine what information is significant as it relates to the risk of maltreatment. The following are suggested steps for assessing risk:
- Organize the information by defined category (e.g., education level, stressors);
- Determine if there is sufficient and believable information to confirm the risk factors, strengths and resources, and their interaction;
- Use the risk model to assign significance to each of the risk factors and strengths.56
The caseworker groups this information into an overall picture of the family and its dynamics and analyzes it to assess the current level of risk of maltreatment. This dictates the next steps in service provision and interaction with the family.
Risk Assessment in Cases of Substance-Abusing Families
Risk assessment in these cases also examines the extent of substance use, its impact on lifestyle, and its impact on parenting. The following scales are often used to assess risk in families where there is substance abuse:
- Parent's commitment to recovery. This scale assesses a parent's stage of recovery, willingness to change behavior, and desire to live a life free from alcohol and other drugs.
- Patterns of substance use. This scale assesses the parent's pattern of alcohol and other drug use—ranging from active use without regard to consequences to significant periods of abstinence.
- Effects of substance use on child caring. This scale assesses the parent's ability to care for his or her children and meet their emotional and physical needs.
- Effects of substance use on lifestyle. This scale assesses a parent's ability to carry out his or her everyday responsibilities and any consequences that may have for the family.
- Support for recovery. This scale assesses parent's social network and how that network may support or interfere with recovery.57
The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) suggests some questions caseworkers can ask regarding alcohol and other drug abuse to facilitate risk assessment in these cases:
- Do you use any drugs other than those prescribed by a physician?
- Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking or drug use?
- Has a physician ever told you to cut down or quit the use of alcohol or drugs?
- Have people annoyed you by criticizing or complaining about your drinking or drug use?
- Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking or drug use?
- Have you ever had a drink or drug in the morning ("eye opener") to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?
- Has your drinking or drug use caused a family, job, or legal problem?
- When drinking or using drugs, have you had a memory loss or blackout?58
Risk Assessment in Cases in Which Partner Abuse and Child Maltreatment Coexist
The following factors should be considered to assess risk in cases where partner abuse and child abuse and neglect coexist:
- An abuser's access to the child or adult victim
- The abuser's pattern of abuse
- Frequency or severity of the abuse in current and past relationships
- Use and presence of weapons
- Threats to kill the victim or other family members
- Stalking or abduction
- Past criminal record
- Abuse of pets
- Child's exposure to violence
- The abuser's state of mind
- Obsession with the victim
- Ignoring the negative consequences of the violence
- Depression or desperation
- Individual factors that reduce the behavioral controls of either the victim or abuser
- Abuses alcohol or other substances
- Uses certain medications
- Suffers from psychosis or other major mental illnesses
- Suffers from brain damage
- A victim, child, or abuser thinking about or planning suicide
- An adult victim's use of physical force or emotional abuse
- A child's use of violence
- Situational factors
- Presence of other major stresses, such as poverty, loss of a job, or chronic illness
- Increased threat of violence when victim leaves or attempts to leave abuser
- Increased risk when abuser has ongoing or easy access to victims
- Physical inability of nonabusing parent to protect child due to assault
- Nonabusing parent's fear of leaving or inability to leave due to economic status or lack of place to go
- Past failures of response systems (e.g., courts, law enforcement) to react appropriately.59
The following are areas to assess with a child regarding partner abuse and child maltreatment:
- Pattern of the abusive conduct. What happens when your parents (the adults) fight? Does anyone hit, shove, or push? Are serious threats made? Does anyone throw things or damage property? Has anyone used a gun or knife? When was the last big fight between your parents?
- Impact of domestic violence on the adult victim. Has anyone been hurt or injured? Is your mom or dad afraid? How do your parents act after a bad fight? Have you ever seen the police or anyone come over because of their fights? Have you seen injuries or damaged property?
- Impact of domestic violence on the child. Have you ever been hurt by any of their fights? What do your brothers or sisters do during fights? Are you ever afraid when your parents fight? How do you feel during a fight? After the fight? Do you worry about the violence? Do you talk to anyone about the fights? Do you feel safe at home? Have you ever felt like hurting yourself or someone else?
- Child's protection. Where do you go during their fights? Have you tried to stop a fight? Have you ever had to take sides? In an emergency for your parent or yourself, what would you do? Who would you call? Have you ever called for help? What happened?
- Child's knowledge of danger. Has anyone needed to go to a doctor after a fight? Do the adults use guns or knives? Do you know where the gun is? Has anyone threatened to hurt someone? What did the person say?60
Cultural Factors in Risk Assessment
Caseworkers should integrate cultural sensitivity into the risk assessment process by:
- Considering the family's cultural identification and perception of the dominant culture;
- Inquiring about the family's experience with mainstream institutions, including CPS and other service providers in the community;
- Assuring clarity regarding language and meanings in verbal and nonverbal communication;
- Understanding the family's cultural values, principles of child development, child caring norms, and parenting strategies;
- Gaining clarity regarding the family's perceptions of the responsibilities of adults and children in the extended family and community network;
- Determining the family's perceptions of the impact of child abuse or neglect;
- Assessing each risk factor with consideration to characteristics of the cultural or ethnic group;
- Considering the child and family's perceptions of their response to acute and chronic stressors;
- Explaining why a culturally accepted behavior in the family's homeland may be illegal here.61
Decision Point Three: Determining Child Safety
A child is considered unsafe when he or she is at imminent risk of serious harm. Safety is an issue throughout the life of a case. The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires that States assess and assure a safe environment for children in birth families, out-of-home placements, and adoptive homes. It is important to remember that determining the risk of maltreatment and the child's safety are two separate decisions. Children may be at risk of harm some time in the future (risk assessment) and they may currently be safe (no threat of imminent serious harm). The following sections describe the key safety decision points, the steps for arriving at the safety decision, and the development of a safety plan.
Safety Decision Points
There are two key decision points during the initial assessment or investigation in which the child's safety is evaluated. During the first contact with the child and family, the caseworker must decide whether the child will be safe during the initial assessment or investigation. The question caseworkers must ask themselves is, "Is the child in danger right now?" Caseworkers assess current danger by searching for factors in the family situation and caregiver behavior or condition, including emotions, physical circumstances, and social contexts. Examples include: young children with serious injuries that are inconsistent with the caregiver's explanation; children in the care of people who are out of control or violent; and premeditated maltreatment or cruelty.
The second critical time for evaluating safety is at the conclusion of the initial assessment. This safety assessment follows the determination of the validity of the report and the level of risk. Caseworkers must determine:
- Whether the child will be safe in his or her home with or without continuing CPS services;
- Under what circumstances a case can be diverted to community partners;
- Under what circumstances intensive, home-based services are necessary to protect a child;
- Whether the child needs to be placed in out-of-home care.
To determine safety at this point, the caseworker uses the findings of the risk assessment. The caseworker identifies the risk factors that directly affect the safety to the child; the risk factors that are operating at a more intense, explosive, immediate, or dangerous level; or those risk factors that in combination present a more dangerous mix. The caseworker weighs the risk factors directly affecting the child's safety against the family protective factors (i.e., strengths, resiliencies, resources) to determine if the child is safe.62
Steps for Arriving at the Safety Decision
The sequential steps for arriving at the safety decision include:
- Identifying the behaviors and conditions that increase concern for the child's safety, and considering how they affect each child in the family.
- Identifying the behaviors or conditions (i.e., strengths, resiliencies, resources) that may protect the child.
- Examining the relationship among the risk factors. When combined, do they increase concern for safety?
- Determining whether family members or other community partners are able to address safety concerns without CPS intervention.
- Considering what in-home services are needed to address the specific behaviors or conditions for each risk factor directly affecting the child's safety.
- Identifying who is available (CPS or other community partners) to provide the needed service or intervention in the frequency, time frame, and duration the family needs to protect the child.
- Evaluating the family's willingness to accept and ability to use the intervention or service at the level needed to protect the child.63
If the services or interventions are not available or accessible at the level necessary to protect the child, or if the caregivers are unable or unwilling to accept the services, the caseworker should consider whether the abusive caregiver can leave home and the nonoffending caregiver can protect the child. If not, the caseworker should consider whether out-of-home care and court intervention is needed to assure the child's protection.
Development of a Safety Plan
The safety plan and the case plan have two different purposes. The interventions in the safety plan are designed to control the risk factors posing a safety threat to the child. Interventions in the case plan, however, are designed to facilitate change in the underlying conditions or contributing factors resulting in maltreatment. To control the risk factors directly affecting child safety, the safety interventions must:
- Have a direct and immediate impact on one or more of the risk factors;
- Be accessible and available in time and place;
- Be in place for the duration of the threat of harm;
- Fill the gaps in caregiver protective factors.
In identifying safety interventions and developing a safety plan, CPS caseworkers are required to make reasonable efforts to preserve or reunify families. Child safety is the most important consideration in these efforts. ASFA also states that when certain factors are present (e.g., abandonment, torture, chronic abuse, some forms of sexual abuse, killing of another person or the child's sibling, or termination of parental rights for another child), they constitute enough threat to a child's safety that reasonable efforts are not required to prevent placement or to reunify the family. The sequence of least intrusive to most intrusive safety interventions include:
- In-home services, perhaps combined with partial out-of-home services (e.g., daycare services);
- Removal of abusive caregiver;
- Relative or kinship care;
When possible, the safety assessment should be conducted jointly with the family; it may not, however, be safe to include the perpetrator. The safety plan also should be negotiated with the family. This accomplishes the following:
- Caseworker and caregiver can assess the feasibility of the caregiver following the safety plan.
- Caseworker can be assured that the caregiver understands the consequences of his or her choices.
- Caregiver is provided with a sense of control over what happens.
- Caregiver is able to salvage a sense of dignity.64
Decision Point Four: Determining Emergency Needs
Child maltreatment is often not an isolated problem; many families referred to CPS experience multiple and complex problems, often at crisis levels. Due to any number of these problems that may be identified during the initial assessment or investigation, the CPS caseworker is often in the position of determining whether a family has emergency needs and of arranging for emergency services for the child and family. Examples of emergency services can include:
- Medical attention
- Food, clothing, and shelter
- Mental health care
- Crisis counseling
Decision Point Five: Offering Services
The decision that a caseworker makes at the end of the initial assessment or investigation is whether a family should be offered ongoing child protective services or other agency services. Who is offered services and on what basis that decision is made depend on the guidelines and availability of services that vary from State to State and sometimes county to county. In some cases, the decision is made based on whether a report is substantiated. In other instances, the decision to offer services is based on the level of perceived risk of maltreatment in the future since substantiation alone is not the best predictor of future maltreatment.
Noninvestigative or Alternative Responses
Traditionally CPS agencies are required to respond to all reports of child maltreatment with a standard investigation that is narrowly focused on determining whether a specific incident of abuse actually occurred.65 States are attempting to enhance CPS practice and build community partnerships in responding to cases of child maltreatment. One changing area of CPS practice is greater flexibility in responding to allegations of abuse and neglect. A "dual track" or "multi-track" response permits CPS agencies to respond differentially to children's needs for safety, the degree of risk present, and the family's need for support or services. Typically, in cases where abuse and neglect are serious or serious criminal offenses against children have occurred, an investigation will commence. An investigation focuses on evidence gathering and will include a referral to law enforcement. In less serious cases of child maltreatment where the family may benefit from services, an assessment will be conducted. In these cases, the facts regarding what happened will be obtained, but the intervention will emphasize a comprehensive assessment of family strengths and needs. The assessment is designed to be a process where parents or caregivers are partners with the CPS agency, and that partnership begins with the very first contact. States that have implemented the "dual track" approach have shown that a majority of cases now coming to CPS can be safely handled through an approach that emphasizes service delivery and voluntary family participation in addition to the fact finding of usual CPS investigations.66 CPS can switch a family to the investigative track at any point if new evidence is uncovered to indicate that the case is appropriate for investigation rather than assessment.67
Initial Assessment or Investigation Process
To make accurate decisions during the initial assessment or investigation, caseworkers must:
- Employ a protocol for interviewing the identified child, the siblings, all of the adults in the home, and the alleged maltreating parent or caregiver;
- Observe the child, the siblings, and the parent or caregiver's interaction among family members, as well as the home, the neighborhood, and the general climate of the environment;
- Gather information from any other sources who may have information about the alleged maltreatment or the risk to and safety of the children;
- Analyze the information gathered in order to make necessary decisions.
Using Interview Protocols
The initial assessment or investigation of alleged maltreatment of children requires that CPS respond in an orderly, structured manner to gather sufficient information to determine if maltreatment took place and to assess the risk to and safety of the child. Employing a structured interview protocol ensures that all family members are involved and that information-gathering is thorough; increases staff control over the process; improves the capacity of CPS staff to collaborate with other disciplines; and increases staff confidence in the initial assessment or investigation conclusions. If at all possible, family members should be interviewed separately in the following order:
- Identified child
- Any siblings or other children in the home
- Alleged perpetrator
- All other adults in the home separately
- Family as a whole
Depending on the circumstances of the report, it must be determined whether it is in the child's best interest for the CPS worker to initiate an unannounced visit to interview the parent or to contact the parent to schedule an interview.68 If the child is out of the home at the time (e.g., the child is at school), the process should begin with an introduction to the parent(s) to explain the purposes of the initial assessment or investigation and, if required by law, request permission to interview all family members individually, beginning with the identified child. It is important to remember that the safety of the child is of paramount importance in every case. If there is concern that talking with the parents first or obtaining their permission to interview the child places the child at risk of imminent harm, then the CPS caseworker should proceed in a manner that assures the child's safety. All family members should be interviewed alone to establish rapport and a climate of trust and openness with the caseworker, which is designed to increase the accuracy of the information gathered. A benefit noted across professional boundaries regarding the use of individual interviewing protocols is that it enables the caseworker to utilize information gathered from one interview to assist in the next interview.
Planning the Interview Process
Based on the information gathered at intake, each initial assessment or investigation should be planned with consideration given to:
- Where the interviews will take place;
- When the interviews will be conducted;
- How many interviews will likely be needed;
- How long each interview will likely last;
- Whether other agencies should be notified to participate in the interviews.
Interviewing the Sources
During the initial assessment or investigation process, caseworkers should conduct interviews with the following individuals:
- Identified child victim. The purpose of the initial interview with the identified child is to gather information regarding the alleged maltreatment and any risk of future maltreatment, and to assess the child's immediate safety. Because CPS's purpose is beyond just finding out what happened with respect to any allegations of maltreatment, the interview with the child addresses the strengths, risks, and needs regarding the child, his or her parents, and his or her family.
- Siblings. Following the interview with the identified child, the next step in the protocol is to interview siblings. The purpose of these interviews is to determine if siblings have experienced maltreatment, to assess the siblings' level of vulnerability, to gather corroborating information about the nature and extent of any maltreatment of the identified child, and to gather further information about the family that may assist in assessing risk to the identified child and any siblings.
- All of the nonoffending adults in the home. The primary purpose of these interviews is to find out what adults know about the alleged maltreatment, to gather information related to the risk of maltreatment and the safety of the child, to gather information regarding family strengths or protective factors, and to determine the adults' capacity to protect the child, if indicated.
- Alleged maltreating parent or caregiver. The purpose of this interview is to evaluate the alleged maltreating caregiver's reaction to allegations of maltreatment as well as to the child and his or her condition, and to gather further information about this person and the family in relation to the risk to and safety of the child.
Examples of the types of information that a caseworker should gather from each of these sources are presented in Exhibit 6-2.
Obtaining Information from Other Sources
Other sources may have information that will help in understanding the nature and extent of the alleged maltreatment and in assessing the risk to and safety of the child. According to CWLA's Standards for Service for Abused or Neglected Children and Their Families, other potential sources include, but are not limited to, professionals such as teachers, law enforcement officers, and physicians. Other community agencies, institutions, caretakers, or individuals known to the child and the family, such as relatives and neighbors, also may be consulted.69 It also may be advisable to run a criminal background check on all adults in the home to ascertain prior abuse or other illegal activity. To protect the family's confidentiality, however, interviews or contacts with others should not be initiated without cause. The family also may disclose other persons who may have information about the alleged maltreatment or about the family in general. These contacts should be pursued within the constraints of the State law that mandates the scope of the initial assessment or investigation or, if indicated, clients may give permission for others to be contacted.
Following Up with the Children and Family
Following the completion of the interviews, the caseworker should reconvene the child and family, as appropriate, to:
- Share with them a summary of the findings and impressions;
- Seek individual responses concerning perceptions and feelings;
- Indicate interest in the children and family;
- Provide information about next steps, including whether ongoing services will be offered and whether court intervention will occur;
- Demonstrate appreciation for their participation in the process.
Part of the caseworker's responsibility is to increase the likelihood that the family will engage with the agency and follow a recommended course of action. This section describes techniques for interviewing and observing children and families. Exhibit 6-3 delineates principles underlying motivational interviewing.
Interviewing Young Children
The primary goals of interviewing young children are increasing the accuracy and reliability of information, decreasing potential suggestibility, and minimizing trauma. Very young children are often more compliant, suggestible, and easily confused than older children. In addition to various emotions such as fear and anxiety, the accuracy of the interview is influenced by the child's age, understanding of events, interviewer style and demand for details, as well as by the structure and nature of questions.71 Interviewing young children involves special considerations that include the use of age-appropriate interviewing techniques and tools to minimize the trauma of the initial assessment or investigation process. Use of these tools also increases the reliability of the information obtained. In addition, the child may have already had to go through numerous earlier interviews, which will affect the caseworker's interview. Since investigatory interviews determine the need for protection and can influence the legal viability and the outcome of court cases, only caseworkers trained in interviewing young children should conduct these interviews.
Basic Interviewing Principles
Regardless of what methods the caseworker uses to interview children, there are some basic principles to consider in all such interviews:
- Establish credibility and attempt to develop rapport with the child.
- Help the child relax by playing with available toys, sit with the child at his or her eye-level, and wait patiently until the child is relatively comfortable.
- Assess the child's understanding of key concepts that will help to establish credibility as the interview proceeds into sensitive areas.
- Reduce vocabulary problems by using the child's language and clarify any areas of confusion.
- Be attuned to the capacities and limitations of a young child as the interview progresses.
It is important to be aware of the child's level of comfort, and, if he or she becomes distracted or fidgety, take a break and continue the interview at a later time. The caseworker should directly address any fears that the child may have.
Children go through a series of normal developmental stages and changes. Therefore, it is important to consider the following stages when interviewing young children:
- Preschool children's thinking is very concrete, and their ability to think abstractly is still developing. Since irony, metaphor, and analogy are beyond their grasp, it is very important not to assume that children understand concepts presented.
- Preschool children do not organize their thinking or speech logically. Instead, they say whatever enters their mind at the moment, with little censoring or consideration . Therefore, their narratives tend to be disjointed and rambling, resulting in the need for the interviewer to sort out relevant from irrelevant data; it is beyond the children's cognitive capacities to do this alone. It is important not to ask them leading questions, however.
- Preschool children's understanding of space, distance, and time is not logical or linear, generally. Their memory will not work chronologically, since they have not learned units of measurement. To help place the time of an incident, use reference points such as birthdays, holidays, summer, night or day, lunchtime, or bedtime.
- Issues of truth versus lying are particularly complex in the preschool years. Children in this age group may tell lies under two circumstances: to avoid a problem or punishment, or to impress adults or get attention. Research varies, however, on whether children can manufacture stories based on information that they have not learned or experienced. Despite their occasional tendency to tell false stories, children in the preschool years usually do know the difference between fact and fantasy and between the truth and a lie. Gentle probing and nonleading questions from the interviewer will usually help children reveal what is true and what is false.
- Preschool children are generally egocentric. They think the world revolves around them and they relate all that happens to personal issues. These children do not usually think of what effect their actions will have on others, nor do they usually worry about what others think. As a result, interviewers of young children must be aware that children may be emotionally spontaneous in ways that are occasionally disconcerting to adults.
- The attention span of preschool children is limited. Long interviews are often not possible because the child simply cannot concentrate or sit in one place for long periods of time. The interviewer should be flexible, conducting several short sessions over a period of time.
- Many 2- and 3-year-olds are afraid to talk with an unfamiliar person without a parent present. The interviewer should work slowly to help children separate from the parent, when possible. If this process is difficult, the interview may need to begin with a parent present, working toward separate interviews at a later time once the child feels more comfortable. Interviewers should be flexible and follow a child's lead, as long as it is within the protocol and policies established by their agency.72
Techniques and Tools for Interviewing Young Children
The most important tool in any interview is individualizing the approach based on the circumstances and the child's developmental status and level of comfort with the interviewer. Planning for the interview should take the setting into consideration. The ideal interview setting is a comfortable room where stress is minimized for the child. The following should be employed in creating the setting:
- A neutral setting where the child does not feel pressured or intimidated. The alleged maltreating person should not be in the vicinity.
- A room with a one-way mirror. This enables one person to be with the child while other professionals who need information can observe.
- A small table and chairs or pillows or rugs for sitting on the floor.
- Availability of anatomical dolls, felt-tipped markers or crayons and paper, toy telephones, doll house with dolls, Playdough, puppets, etc.
Anatomically Correct Dolls
The use of anatomically correct dolls can be useful when interviewing children regarding alleged sexual abuse. Anatomical dolls have genitalia and breasts proportional to body size and appropriate to the gender and age of the child. The clothes the dolls wear can be easily removed and are appropriate to the child's age and gender. The uses of dolls include:
- Icebreaker. The dolls can be used to begin the conversation, cueing the child that the interviewer wants to talk about body parts. It can enhance the child's comfort level.
- Anatomical model. This is one of the most common uses of the dolls. The interviewer can use the dolls to determine the child's labels for different body parts. They can also be used to help the child show where any touching occurred.
- Demonstration aid. This is the most common function of the dolls. It enables the child to show behaviors that he or she has described to confirm the interviewer's understanding and help reduce any miscommunication. The dolls may be used with children who have limited verbal skills to help them show, rather than tell, what happened.
- Memory stimulus and screening tool. The dolls may trigger a child's recall of specific events of a sexual nature. The child may either demonstrate a specific sexual act while interacting with the dolls or have a strong negative reaction.73
Observing Young Children
Part of the process of gathering adequate information includes the caseworker's responsibility to observe the identified child, other family members, and the environment. Specific areas for observation are:
- Physical condition of the child, including any observable effects of maltreatment;
- Emotional status of the child, including mannerisms, signs of fear, and developmental status;
- Reactions of the parents or caregivers to the agency's concerns;
- Emotional and behavioral status of the parents or caregivers during the interviewing process;
- Interactions between family members, including verbal and body language;
- Physical status of the home, including cleanliness, structure, hazards or dangerous living conditions, signs of excessive alcohol use, and use of illicit drugs;
- Climate of the neighborhood, including level of violence or support, and accessibility of transportation, telephones, or other methods of communication.
While CPS agencies have the primary responsibility for conducting initial assessment or investigation, other agencies or professionals may be integrally involved in the process.
Coordinating with Law Enforcement
Since CPS and law enforcement often work together in responding to child abuse and neglect (in some States, all abuse and neglect reports go initially to the police), it is vital for them to establish strong working relationships and collaborate effectively. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) and protocols should be established between CPS and law enforcement agencies to identify roles and responsibilities as well as the circumstances that dictate when:
- Reports should be initiated and shared between agencies;
- Joint initial assessment or investigation should be initiated;
- Cases necessitate immediate notification to other agencies;
- Oral and written reports should be initiated and shared.
After an MOU or protocol is established, training should provide caseworkers with familiarity of the defined roles and responsibilities.
In addition, parameters should be established for cases where law enforcement assistance may be needed to remove a child or an alleged offender from the home, or when there is a concern for the caseworker's safety.
For more information on reporting laws, see the State Statute series published by Child Welfare Information Gateway available at: www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/index.cfm.
Involving Other Professionals
In addition to law enforcement, other disciplines often have a role in the initial assessment or investigation process:
- Medical personnel may be involved in assessing and responding to medical needs of a child or parent and perhaps in documenting the nature and extent of maltreatment.
- Mental health personnel may be involved in assessing the effects of any alleged maltreatment and in helping to determine the validity of specific allegations. They may also be involved in evaluating the parent's or caregiver's mental health status and its effect on the safety to the child.
- Alcohol and other drug specialists may be involved in evaluating parental or caregiver substance abuse and its impact on the safety of the child.
- Partner abuse experts may be asked to assist in examining the safety of the child in cases where partner abuse and child maltreatment co-exist. These professionals may also be involved in the safety planning process.
- Educators may be involved in providing direct information about the effects of maltreatment and other information pertinent to the risk assessment.
- Other community service providers who have had past experience with the child or family may be a resource in helping to address any emergency needs that the child or family may have.
- Multidisciplinary teams may be used to help the CPS agency analyze the information related to the substantiation of maltreatment and the assessment of risk and safety.
- Other community partners such as intensive, home-based service workers; parent aides; daycare providers; afterschool care providers; foster parents; volunteers; or relatives may be used to help the agency implement a plan to keep the child safe within his or her own home.
- Juvenile court may be involved in helping to assure the safety of the child and to provide continuing protective services to the child and family when the child's safety cannot be protected, and the parents or caregivers have refused agency intervention.
For additional information on community collaboration, check other Manuals in the series at: http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/usermanual.cfm
Special Practice Issues
There are several special issues related to the initial assessment or investigation phase—the effects of removal, caseworker safety, substantiation appeal hearings or reviews, investigation in institutional settings, and the safety of children in foster care.
Effects of Removal
In order to assure protection, CPS may have to remove the child or reach agreement with family members that the alleged offender will leave the family and have no unsupervised contact with the alleged victim. Removal of the alleged offender is a less intrusive intervention but it should only be used if the caseworker is certain that there will be no contact with the victim. The removal of a family member has a dramatic affect on the feelings, behaviors, and functioning of individual family members and the family as a whole.
When CPS has to remove children from their families to protect them, they set in motion numerous issues and problems for the child. Placement outside the family often negatively affects the child's emotional well-being. Being uprooted from the only family one has known, from one's routines and familiar surroundings, is emotionally debilitating to children. Parents who abuse or neglect their children may also demonstrate love and attention to their children. This may be the only adult to whom the child has bonded. It is important to remember that the child suffers a devastating loss—the loss of being taken away from his or her birth family.
Placement away from the birth family therefore means more than the physical loss of living with the family; it also means having to deal with the loss of relationships and the loss of control over one's life. Children coming into substitute care suffer a significant loss to their self-esteem and are under a great deal of stress. Therefore, it is important to remember that when placing children, caseworkers should always maintain a focus on reducing the uncertainty and anxiety for children. Some strategies for helping children better manage the placement include:
- Involving the family and children in the safety plan and the placement process, when appropriate;
- Providing contact with the family after placement as soon as possible-ideally, within the first week;
- Reassuring children that there is nothing wrong with them and that they are not to blame for the placement;
- Providing children with information about the reasons for the placement, where they are going, and how long they may remain there;
- Allowing children to take as many personal favorite items as possible, such as photos of the family or home, toys or stuffed animals, and clothing;
- Finding out as much about the children as possible—their likes and dislikes, routines, medical issues—and informing the substitute care provider;
- Encouraging children to express their feelings and normalize those feelings, possibly through starting a journal or notebook;
- Giving children a phone number to contact the caseworker.
Family members are also traumatized by the placement. They, too, need immediate contact with their children; concern and empathy from the caseworker; and involvement in the placement process.
Every CPS case has the potential for unexpected confrontation due to the involuntary nature of investigations and assessments. It is important for caseworkers to acknowledge the nature of CPS intervention and the client's view of their role. While difficulties may occur at any point in the process, threats and volatile situations are more likely to occur during the initial assessment or investigation, during crisis situations, and when dramatic action is taken (e.g., removal of a child or the decision to take a case to court). The first step in ensuring caseworker safety is to assess the risk of the situation before the initial contact. Questions caseworkers should consider include the following:
- Are the subjects violent or hostile?
- Does the situation involve family violence, including partner, elder, or child abuse?
- Does the situation involve physical or sexual abuse or a fatality?
- Are the family members exhibiting behaviors that indicate mental illness?
- Are the family members presently abusing or selling substances?
- Are the parents or caregivers involved in ritualistic abuse or cult practices?
- Does the information note life-threatening or serious injuries to the children?
- Will the children be removed from the family situation on this visit?
- Is the family's geographic location potentially dangerous?
- Will the caseworker go into an area with limited available supports?
- Is the area known for high crime or drug activity?
- Does the housing situation or neighborhood increase concerns for staff personal safety?
- Does anyone in the home have a previous history of violence or multiple referrals? Have there been previous involuntary removals of family members?74
Preventive Measures for Making Home Visits
- Always be sure that the supervisor or other agency personnel are informed of the caseworker's schedule.
- Observe each person in and around the area closely and watch for signs that may indicate any potential for personal violence.
- Follow one's instincts. Anytime the caseworker feels frightened or unsafe, he or she should assess the immediate situation and take whatever action is necessary to obtain protection.
- Learn the layout of the immediate area around the home and the usual types of activities that occur there to provide a baseline from which to judge potential danger.
- Avoid dangerous or unfamiliar areas at night.
- Learn the safest route to the family's home.
- Be sure the car is in good working order, and park in a way for quick escape, if necessary.
- Carry a cell phone.
- Assess whether it is safe to accept refreshments.
- Learn how to decline offers of food or other refreshments tactfully.75
Substantiation Appeal Hearings or Reviews
Every State has a mechanism to appeal an agency's decision to substantiate abuse or neglect. Some States have a formal or administrative hearing process where the parent or caregiver substantiated as a perpetrator of child maltreatment can request a hearing to review the decision. In these hearings, the burden of proof rests with the CPS agency. If the review reverses or modifies the substantiation decision, then the CPS agency will have to revise the records.
Initial Assessment or Investigation in Institutional Settings
States differs with respect to who is responsible for initially assessing or investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect in out-of-home care. In some States, local CPS staff have responsibility for investigating certain types of allegations (e.g., in daycare settings). The investigation of alleged maltreatment in institutional settings is often handled by central or regional CPS or licensing staff rather than by local CPS agencies. Depending on the nature of the allegations, law enforcement agencies also will assume a primary role in investigating these types of cases. A coordinated approach helps minimize the trauma to children and childcare staff.
Interviews in Institutional Settings
Investigation of alleged maltreatment in institutional settings includes interviewing:
- Alleged victim(s)
- Staff witness(es)
- Child witness(es)
- Administrator or supervisor of the alleged perpetrator
- Alleged perpetrator
The primary questions to be asked in these cases include:
- Did the reported event occur independent of extenuating circumstances?
- Is the administrative authority culpable and, if so, in what manner?
- Is the problem, if validated, administratively redressable?
- Are personnel actions indicated and, if so, are they being initiated appropriately by the residential facility?
- What responsibility do others in the facility have for any incident of maltreatment, and is a corrective action plan needed to prevent the likelihood of future incidents?
- How can the victim be interviewed and still be protected from repercussions?
Safety in Foster Care Placements
Caseworkers should continually assess the risk to and safety of children once placed in foster or kinship care settings. Considerations include:
- What is the level of acceptance of the placed child into the family? Notice whether the placed child is included in family routines and life. Is the child appropriately physically incorporated into the home, for example, does the child have a place for his or her belongings and a seat at the table? Examine family interaction. Is the child fully or selectively involved? Is the child included appropriately in family communications? Does the family share equally with the child?
- Are the kinship or foster parents' expectations for the placement and the child being met?
- Are the kinship or foster parents satisfied with the arrangement?
- How do the kinship or foster parents explain their parenting expectations, style, and responses to the placed child?
- What specific perceptions of and attitudes toward the placed child do the kinship or foster parents hold?
- What are the kinship or foster parents' attitudes about, opinions of, and relationship to the placed child's parents and family?
- What methods of discipline does the foster or kinship family use?
- Have circumstances or composition of the family changed in any way since the placement?
- What does the child report? Listen for acceptance into and involvement with the family or exceptions or differences between how the family deals with its own children and the placed child.
- How is the child physically, emotionally, socially, and behaviorally? Is the child's condition a result of the care received in the child's own home, the adjustment to the new home or family setting, or the possible mistreatment by the kinship or foster parents?
- What are the attitudes and perceptions that the placed child has about the care situation?
- What expectations does the child have for this family situation? Are they realistic? Do they stimulate positive or negative reactions from family members (and caregivers specifically)? Do they result in the child behaving in challenging and difficult ways?
- What are the similarities and difference between the placed child and other children in the family?
- How has the family functioning been affected since the placement?76
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