Child Protective Services:

Complex Challenges Require New Strategies

HEHS-97-115: Published: Jul 21, 1997. Publicly Released: Jul 21, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the challenges facing child protective services (CPS) in protecting children, focusing on: (1) problems confronting CPS units that affect the system's capacity to protect children from abuse and neglect; (2) state and local responses to these problems; and (3) opportunities for the federal government to assist in improving the system's capacity to respond to the needs of abused and neglected children.

GAO noted that: (1) the CPS system is in crisis, plagued by difficult problems, such as growing caseloads, increasingly complex social problems underlying child maltreatment, and ongoing systemic weaknesses in day-to-day operations; (2) the states GAO visited have experienced large increases in maltreatment reports in recent years, thus increasing the CPS caseload to an overwhelming level; (3) in addition, states report that families are entering the system with multiple problems, among the most common of which is an increase in substance abuse; (4) experts consider this increase to be a significant factor in maltreatment, which has caught all parts of the CPS system unprepared; (5) CPS units have been plagued by long-standing systemic weaknesses in day-to-day operations, including difficulty in maintaining a skilled workforce, consistently following key policies and procedures designed to protect children, developing useful case data and recordkeeping systems, such as automated case management, and establishing good working relationships with the courts; (6) in response to this crisis, states and localities are testing new strategies for service delivery; (7) given the increased volume and severity of the cases, CPS units find that using traditional approaches, they can no longer handle all reports alleging abuse or neglect; (8) as a result, states and localities are also focusing on forming partnerships with families, churches, and community organizations to help keep children safe from maltreatment; (9) these partnerships enable CPS units to share responsibility for intervening in various types of maltreatment cases; (10) these new strategies, however, are not without certain challenges, such as: (a) adapting to new caseworker roles, required by new responsibilities; and (b) the underlying systemic weaknesses that diminish day-to-day operational effectiveness; (11) as state and local CPS units experiment with new strategies aimed at better coping with rising and complex caseloads, units will need more focused support and improved technical assistance from the federal government; (12) previous federal research has concentrated on the causes of maltreatment and on ways to treat abused and neglected children and their families, rather than on topics that support the states' community-based response to the CPS crisis; (13) similarly, federally provided technical assistance has also been limited in helping the states develop new strategies to address this crisis; and (14) in addition, dissemination of federal research findings and practical information is lacking.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS regularly reviews its research agenda and the priority areas identified as important in child abuse and neglect to determine how limited discretionary dollars could be used to explore the full scope of child abuse and neglect within the child welfare arena. As a result of this process, HHS funded a cadre of research projects that emphasize building community partnerships to respond to child abuse and neglect as part of its overall research strategy. These projects include 18 school-based child maltreatment service projects, which emphasize community partnerships utilizing the school community, that will contribute to the knowledge base of abuse prevention, identification, intervention, and collaborative treatment efforts. In addition, a 3-year project was established to develop a national network of programs to strengthen families in partnership with their communities.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should use the current research agenda, allowed under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, to facilitate better targeting of future funding for those areas that support local efforts to explore collaborative partnerships with other community agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Clearinghouse and the National Resource Center for Child Maltreatment have engaged in a variety of activities to meet the needs of child protective service (CPS) audiences, including developing a series of annotated bibliographies reflecting the latest research and literature on CPS reforms, expanding access to information regarding prior research and local initiatives related to CPS and community-based initiatives via CD-ROM, and expanding the outreach and dissemination activities of the Child Welfare Specialist at the Clearinghouse. In addition, the Resource Center distributed the results of an expert panel on CPS decisionmaking and provided technical assistance to states on key child welfare issues and collaborative efforts.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should develop new cost-effective strategies to disseminate and deliver the results of these local efforts and other related work through the National Clearinghouse and the National Resource Center.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS held national child welfare state liaison officer meetings featuring full-day sessions on CPS reform, including community partnership projects developed by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. The Office on Child Abuse and Neglect (OCAN) designated a staff member to take the lead on CPS reform issues and OCAN plans to work collaboratively with federal and non-federal partners to advance the CPS reform agenda, particularly as it relates to new requirements in the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. In addition, HHS hired a national technical assistance provider to assist designated local service delivery sites in enhancing the role of CPS in community collaborative relationships.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should develop specific techniques, such as regional seminars, white papers, and on-site technical assistance, to promote community-based approaches to CPS.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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