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What is the Child Welfare System?

With our state and federal legal system, the Child Welfare System is really a set of state laws and proceedings, with certain federal laws influencing those laws through requirements tied to funding opportunities.


The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), originally passed in 1974, brought national attention to the need to protect vulnerable children in the United States. CAPTA provides Federal funding to States in support of prevention, assessment, investigation, prosecution, and treatment activities as well as grants to public agencies and nonprofit organizations for demonstration programs and projects. Additionally, CAPTA identifies the Federal role in supporting research, evaluation, technical assistance, and data collection activities. CAPTA also sets forth a minimum definition of child abuse and neglect. Since it was signed into law, CAPTA has been amended several times. It was most recently amended and reauthorized on June 25, 2003, by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003 (P.L. 108-36). To see the 2003 amendment to CAPTA, visit:


The Goal of the Child Welfare System

“The child welfare system is a group of services designed to promote the well-being of children by ensuring safety, achieving permanency, and strengthening families to successfully care for their children.”

By its broadest definition, child welfare is the set of public and private agencies that provide social services to children and their families. Although it is often assumed to refer primarily to child protective services (CPS), the domain of child welfare also includes day care, parenting classes, and mental health counseling. Most families first become involved with the child welfare system due to a report of suspected child maltreatment.

The overarching responsibilities of the child welfare system are to investigate reports of alleged child abuse and neglect; to provide services to families who are deemed unable to protect and care for their children; to arrange for children to live with foster families if they must be removed from an unsafe home environment; and to arrange for permanent adoptive families for children leaving foster care. Nonetheless, due to system complexity and fiscal disparity, child welfare procedures vary from state to state.

Mandatory Reporting

All states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands currently have mandatory reporting statutes.  Eighteen states currently require anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect to file a report with CPS, but mandatory reporters typically are professionals such as doctors, teachers, social workers, childcare providers, or law enforcement officers. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 3 million reports involving 4.5 million children were made to CPS agencies nationwide in 2002, the year for which the most recent data is available.  Presuming that individuals outside the immediate family only report the most serious and/or obvious episodes of abuse, child maltreatment is most likely underestimated in official records.

Approximately 48 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands designate professions whose members are mandated by law to report child maltreatment. Individuals designated as mandatory reporters typically have frequent contact with children. Such individuals may include:

  • Social workers

  • Teachers and other school personnel

  • Physicians and other health-care workers

  • Mental health professionals

  • Childcare providers

  • Medical examiners or coroners

  • Law enforcement officers


Some other professions frequently mandated across the States include commercial film or photograph processors (in 11 States, Guam, and Puerto Rico), substance abuse counselors (in 13 States), and probation or parole officers (in 15 States). Six States (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, and South Dakota) include domestic violence workers on the list of mandated reporters. Court-appointed special advocates are mandatory reporters in seven States (Arkansas, California, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Virginia, and Wisconsin). Members of the clergy now are required to report in 26 States

CPS Investigation

Any concerned person can report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Once a report has been filed, CPS investigators are dispatched to determine if abuse or neglect has occurred (substantiated, “screened in”) or not (unsubstantiated, “screened out”). The investigator gathers evidence and interviews family members and others in contact with the child. Even when a case is unsubstantiated, the CPS investigator might recommend that the child and family receive ongoing services, such as in-home nurse visits; if not, the case is closed.

The course of action taken after the investigation depends on the family’s situation and on the jurisdiction. More than 70 percent of all reported cases nationwide are closed, either because there was no credible evidence of abuse or because there was too little evidence to compel a family to participate involuntarily.  The likelihood of an official intervention or the provision of ongoing services is reliant upon federal and state funding priorities; even with evidence of abuse or neglect, cases are sometimes closed if they are considered lower risk and determined as a lower priority than other cases in the system.

In 2006, an estimated total of 3.3 million referrals involving 6 million children were made to CPS agencies. Approximately 61.7 percent were screened in, and more than 38.3 percent were screened out (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS], 2008).

In 2006, approximately 905,000 children were found to be victims of child abuse or neglect (HHS, 2008).

In 2006, an estimated 312,000 children were removed from their homes as a result of a child abuse investigation or assessment. Nearly two-thirds (63.6 percent) of the victims who were removed from their homes suffered from neglect; 8.6 percent from physical abuse; 3.2 percent from sexual abuse; and 16.8 percent from multiple types of maltreatment (HHS, 2008).

Approximately 60 percent (61.7%) of referrals were screened in for investigation or assessment by CPS agencies.

Approximately 30 percent of the investigations or assessments found at least one child to be a victim of abuse or neglect, with the following report dispositions: 25.2 percent substantiated, 3.0 percent indicated, and 0.4 percent alternative response victim.

More than 70 percent of the investigations or assessments determined that the child was not a victim of maltreatment, with the following dispositions: 60.4 percent unsubstantiated, 5.9 percent alternative response nonvictim, 3.2 percent “other,” 1.7 percent closed with no finding, and 0.1 percent intentionally false.

Foster Care

Depending on the circumstances and severity of the situation the child may be immediately removed from the home and placed in foster care. Most children are placed with relatives or foster families, but some may be placed in group homes. When in foster care, the child attends school and receives medical care and other services needed. The child’s family also receives support to reduce the risk of future maltreatment. Every child in foster care is assigned a social worker whose responsibilities include drafting a permanency plan for the child and a guardian ad litem who will represent the child in future dependency hearings. In most cases, the permanency plan entails eventual reunification with parents, although if these efforts are unsuccessful, adoption or kinship care are viable options. Federal law requires the court to hold a permanency hearing within 12 months after the child enters foster care; many jurisdictions hold them sooner and more frequently to increase agency accountability. The presiding judge also has discretion to mandate a specific course of action to the parents, such as drug or alcohol treatment, in hopes of ensuring the child’s safety and stability should reunification take place.

In fiscal year 2003, 55 percent of children leaving foster care were returned to their parents. The median length of stay in foster care was 12 months. The average age of a child exiting foster care was 10 years old (HHS, 2006).

Variations in the Child Welfare System

In the 2003 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services performed the National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts. The goal of the study was to identify current practices and improvement efforts in the child protective services system.  The study identified seven areas of variation in state CPS policy.

Mandatory reporting: Nearly all states require professionals who work with children (i.e. social workers, medical personnel, educators, and child daycare providers) to report suspected child maltreatment. However, standards for nonprofessionals and anonymous reporting sources vary.

Investigation objectives: In 31 states, the purpose of an investigation is to determine if child abuse had occurred; 18 of these states also included the purpose of determining risk or safety of the child. In the remaining 20 states, the goal is to protect the child or to establish the risk to the child.

Standards of evidence: Relatively high evidentiary standards (preponderance, material, or clear and convincing) are necessary to substantiate abuse in 23 states.  In 19 states, lower standards were specified (credible, reasonable, or probable cause).  Nine states do not specify a standard of evidence.

Types of maltreatment:  Nearly all states define the four major categories that are specifically discussed in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA):  neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse.  Beyond this, state inclusion of other types of maltreatment, such as medical neglect or abandonment, vary significantly.

Required timelines:  State policy varies widely both for required response time to referrals and for the completion of investigations.

Central registry: State central registries contain information on perpetrators of child maltreatment.  Many state policies allow use of central registries in background and licensing checks, and information can be shared with other agencies upon request.  The types of disposition categories (substantiated, indicated, unsubstantiated) included in central registries vary from state to state, as do procedures for accessing information, expunging protocols, and due process requirements.

Alternative response:  Alternative responses allow CPS workers to assess the needs of child without requiring a determination of maltreatment.  Just over half of the states have alternative response polices.  The policies vary greatly both in purpose and the types of alternative responses available.

While this study does not place value judgments on differing state practices, it does acknowledge the potential benefits of moving toward parity in state practices. Among these potential benefits are greater accountability of the CPS system and more equitable treatment for children across the country.



  • National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, available on line at

  • Jane Waldfogel. The Future of Child Protection: How to Break the Cycle of Abuse and Neglect (1998). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 68.

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families/Children’s Bureau and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.  National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts: Review of State CPS Policy. (April 2003).

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2008). Child maltreatment 2006. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved April 1, 2008, from

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2006). Child welfare outcomes 2003: Annual report. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved May 1, 2007, from

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