Child protective services decision-making: Problems and staff views

Danielle M. Mitnick, Amy M. Smith Slep, Richard E. Heyman, Jill Malik

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Child Protective Services (CPS) is charged with safeguarding the welfare of children by receiving reports of alleged child maltreatment, assessing affected families and children, making determinations as to whether child maltreatment occurred, and developing intervention plans to promote child welfare. Despite the considerable advances made in child maltreatment advocacy, prevention, and intervention in the last 40 years, the reliability of the foundational decision of whether a case involves maltreatment has received relatively little attention. This is a major limitation for both child maltreatment prevention and policy-informing research on child maltreatment, considering the varying and vague statutes and guidance in most states and the lack of attention to inter-rater agreement among those making substantiation decisions or decisions that track families into investigative or non-investigative pathways. Previous studies have indicated chance-like agreement between typical field decisions and master reviewers, and that substantiation determinations are clearly influenced by a range of factors other than the nature of the incident, the available evidence, and their relations to state law and local guidance. Factors include race, workers’ perceptions of the parents’ openness to change, and the amount of time spent investigating. Lack of policies and procedures that support consistent, reliable determinations of the occurrence of maltreatment has left room for systematic biases. For example, disproportionate minority representation in CPS has been clearly demonstrated at both the state and national levels. To investigate CPS staff’s perceptions of (1) consistencies and inconsistencies within the process of decision-making of CPS, (2) ways to improve consistency, and (3) the role race plays in CPS process and decision-making, a series of focus groups and an anonymous survey were conducted with a county CPS agency. Key findings include that (a) variability exists in perceived decision difficulty, (b) inconsistency in decisionmaking is notable, (c) lack of definition clarity is a challenge to decision-making, and (d) race of CPS workers and families affects decision-making and perceptions of decisionmaking. The perceptions of CPS caseworkers regarding inconsistency of decision-making and the influence of peripheral variables on decision-making suggest that improving standardization for decision-making and case process could minimize potential bias in the system. Some possible ways of doing so would be through improving the operational definitions and improving and structuring decision-making procedures. This chapter will review previous work with improving definitions in the Air Force Family Advocacy Program and current work piloting the resultant decision-making tool in CPS.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationChild Maltreatment
Subtitle of host publicationEmerging Issues in Practice, Care and Prevention
PublisherNova Science Publishers, Inc.
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9781634849012
ISBN (Print)9781634848770
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Psychology


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