Friday, June 5, 2009

Child Welfare 101: Investigation to Case Opening *EDITED*

*EDITED* - due to MarytheMom's comment, I wanted to clarify some things. First, this post really only acurately reflects what happens when a Hotline call is made about a biological child in their biological family. Sometimes the Hotline is called because there is an allegation of abuse/neglect on a foster child in foster care - but the rules are much different. I will go into more in a later post - but basically know this: The rules are actually stricter for foster parents than they are for biological parents. That may sound nuts, but the state is held to a higher standard once they are the ones who have custody of the child. So, for example, a biological parent is allowed to "spank" their child (as long as it doesn't leave marks or cause injury) - but a foster parent is never allowed to use corporal punishment of any form. Now, in my state, DCP does not investigate foster homes. The Hotline would immediately refer any calls about a foster child to the agency the foster parents' license is held. The licensing worker would complete a "licensing investigation". The children may or may not be temporarily removed and placed in respite care. Many issues with this subject - I promise to do a longer post on it all soon!

So, I have had a number of questions about the reasons why some children come into foster care and others don't even seem to get investigated by DCFS. Well, I don't have all the answers except to say that DCP Investigators are not police officers, they don't have access to huge databases or the authority to make people do most things. They must rely on what they can see with their own eyes and are told by the families and any witnesses. But I can at least give you the basics of "how and why" protective custody is taken.

*********CW 101: Investigation to Case Opening*********

All cases start out with a call to the DCFS Child Abuse Hotline. The Hotline is an "800" number that anyone can call to report suspected abuse or neglect of a child. There are also people who are legally obligated to call the hotline anytime they suspect abuse or neglect - they are called "Mandated Reporters". In my state, any social worker, foster parent, teacher, police officer, doctor, nurse, therapist, school bus driver, daycare worker, and almost any other person who has regular contact with children is required to sign a form saying that they understand that they are a mandated reporter. The Hotline is anonymous - but you are encouraged to give your name if you are a mandated report, because it covers your butt if something ever happens to that child and you are questioned about having reported your suspicions. The only thing you must have to be able to call the hotline is the name of the child (first and last) and an address where they can be located - could be home, could be somewhere else such as school.

When you call the Hotline - expect to have to give a phone number and be called back. There is almost always a wait of about an hour (sometimes more!) to actually make the report. They will ask if the report is an "emergency" and will take the report immediately if you tell them that it is - but they mean "immediately life threatening", so don't cry wolf!

Once the Hotline operator has called you back and taken down all the information about why you suspect abuse or neglect is occurring, they will decide if there is enough information to warrant sending a DCP Investigator out to talk with the child and family. This is generally decided based on there being concrete information and facts such as:

  • visible marks or bruises
  • medical reports
  • word of the child
  • word of a sibling
  • word of a witness that saw the actual abuse or neglect

It is less likely that an investigation will be started if the information is "hearsay" such as "My friend told me that her next door neighbor is always hitting her child". In cases such as those, the operator will tell you to encourage your "friend" to call the Hotline directly.

If the Hotline operator does not believe there is sufficient evidence, they will tell you that the report will be kept in the system as "information only" and an investigation will not be initiated. If the operator believes there is enough evidence, an investigation will be initiated. If the call is an emergency situation - such as the abuse is taking place at that moment, the neglect is severe enough to cause significant physical harm or death in the near future, or the child states that they are afraid to return to their home - then a DCP investigator will be sent out immediately.

If their is not significant risk of imminent danger, then a DCP investigator must make "diligent efforts" to see the child within the next 24-48 hours. They may call ahead of time to make an appointment or show up unannounced at home or school. The family be as involved in the process as they want (answering questions/providing explanations) but they can not refuse access to the child. The DCP worker can not bust down doors but they will call for police back-up to do so if necessary.

During an initial interview DCP will speak the each member of the family separately. The parents may not be there when the Investigator speaks to the child. The other thing that happens is that the investigator must do a complete "body check" of the child to look for mark and bruises. This does involve removal of the child's clothes and so it must be done by a same sex investigator. Every bruise, scratch, and scar must be marked on a person-figure on the investigator's paperwork. The child is asked to tell the investigator where the bruise came from and that story is checked by asking the parents later. Even if the report for abuse or neglect is only about one child - ALL must be interviewed and have a body check documented. As you can imagine - this is NOT a fun process to be put through for the child or the family.

Just because an investigator finds that a child has been hit or there are signs of neglect DOES NOT mean the child comes into Protective Custody. Their is a distinct difference between "safety" and "risk".

Safety means now or in the very near future and risk means longer-term. Safety and risk also differ by the degree of harm or the severity of the potential harm. Primarily, safety concerns itself with the potential for moderate to severe harm. The primary purpose of safety is to control the situation to prevent harm from occurring in the short-term, while the primary purpose of risk is to reduce or resolve the problems that lead to risk. Safety and risk both require intervention in order to prevent harm, but safety must always be assessed quickly, while risk may be assessed over a longer period of time.

There is a specific protocol for assessing risk and safety - called the The Child Endangerment Risk Assessment Protocol (CERAP). It is completed during the initial investigation, at various specified times during the life of a case, and/or ANY time a social worker believes that there may be a risk to the child.

There is a LONG list of factors, behaviors, and conditions that are evaluated during the CERAP process. I'm going to list them below - with a few examples.

1. Any member of the household's behavior is violent and out of control.
· extreme physical or verbal anger or hostile outburst at child
· use of brutal or bizarre punishment (e.g., scalding with hot water, burning with cigarettes, forced feeding, confinement, over-strenuous exercise)
· use of guns, knives or other weapons in a violent way
· violently shakes or chokes baby or young child to stop a particular behavior

2. Any member of the household describes or acts toward child in predominantly negative terms or has extremely unrealistic expectations.

· describes child as evil, stupid, ugly, a liar, a thief, or in some other demeaning or degrading manner
· curses and/or repeatedly puts child down
· uses a particular child in the family as a scapegoat
· expects a child to perform or act in a way that is impossible or improbable for the child's age (e.g., babies and toddlers expected not to cry, expected to be still for extended periods, be toilet trained or eat neatly)

3. There is reasonable cause to suspect that a member of the household caused moderate to severe harm or has made a plausible threat of moderate to severe harm to the child

· other than accidentally, adult caused moderate to severe injury (e.g., fractures, poisoning, suffocating, shooting, burns, bruises/welts, bite marks, choke marks)

· directly or indirectly threatens to cause moderate to severe harm in a believable manner (e.g., kill, starve, lock out of home, etc.)
· plans to retaliate against child for CPS investigation

4. There is reason to believe that the family is about to flee or refuse access to the child, and/or the child's whereabouts cannot be ascertained

· family has previously fled in response to a CPS or police investigation
· family has removed child from a hospital against medical advice
· family has history of keeping child at home, away from peers, school, other outsiders for extended periods

5. Caretaker has not, or is unable to provide sufficient supervision to protect child from potentially moderate to severe harm.

· caretaker does not attend to child to the extent that need for adequate care goes unnoticed or unmet (e.g., although caretaker present, child can wander outdoors alone, play with dangerous objects, play on unprotected window ledge or be exposed to other serious hazards)
· caretaker leaves child alone (time periods varies with age and developmental stage)
· caretaker makes inadequate and/or inappropriate babysitting or child care arrangements or demonstrates very poor planning for child's care

6. Caretaker has not, or is unable to meet the child's medical care needs that may result in moderate to severe health problems if left untreated.

· caretaker does not seek treatment for child's immediate and dangerous medical condition(s)
· caretaker does not follow prescribed treatment for such condition(s)

7. Any member of the household has previously or may have previously abused or neglected a child, and the severity of the maltreatment, or the caretaker's or other adult's response to the prior incident, suggests that child safety may be an urgent and immediate concern.

· previous abuse or neglect that was serious enough to cause or could have caused severe injury or harm
· escalating pattern of maltreatment
· does not acknowledge or take responsibility for prior inflicted harm to the child or explains incident(s) as deliberate

8. Child is fearful of people living in or frequenting the home.

· child cries, cowers, cringes, trembles or otherwise exhibits fear in the presence of certain individuals or verbalizes such fear
· child reasonably expects retribution or retaliation from caretakers

9. Caretaker has not, or is unable to meet the child's immediate needs for food, clothing, and/or shelter; the child's physical living conditions are hazardous and may cause moderate to severe harm.

· no food provided or available to child, or child deprived of food or drink for prolonged periods
· child appears malnourished
· child without minimally warm clothing in cold months, no housing or emergency shelter; child must or is forced to sleep in streets, car, etc.; house is unsafe, without heat, etc.

10. Child sexual abuse is suspected and circumstances suggest that child safety may be an immediate concern.

· it appears that a member of household may have committed rape, sodomy or has had other sexual contact with child
· child may have been forced or encouraged to sexually gratify caretaker or others, or engage in sexual performances or activities
· access by possible or confirmed perpetrator to child continues to exist

11. Any member of the household's alleged or observed drug or alcohol use may seriously affect his/her ability to supervise, protect or care for the child.

· has misused a drug(s) or alcoholic beverage(s) to the extent that control of his or her actions is lost or significantly impaired; as a result, the household member is unable, or will likely be unable, to care for the child, or has harmed the child, or is likely to harm the child

12. Any member of the household's alleged or observed mental illness or developmental disability may seriously affect his/her ability to supervise, protect or care for the child.

· behavior that seems out of touch with reality, fanatical, bizarre, and/or extremely irrational
· lack of necessary supports has resulted in harm to the child or is likely to harm the child

13. The presence of domestic violence which affects caretaker's ability to care for and/or protect child from immediate, moderate to severe harm.

· alleged or observed domestic violence abuser has had recent violent outbursts that have resulted in injury or threat of injury to the child
· caretakers if forced under threat of serious harm to participate in or witness abuse of the child, and/or the child is forced under threat of harm to witness or participate in the abuse of the caretaker

14. A paramour is the alleged or indicated perpetrator of physical abuse

· no biological or legal relationship exists between the paramour and the involved children
· the paramour is misusing alcohol, prescription drugs, over the counter or illegal drugs
· paramour has been previously indicated as a perpetrator of child abuse or neglect
· the capacity of the natural parent to put the child's interest above his or her need for the relationship with the abusive paramour?
· no steps were taken by the natural parent to protect his or her children from abuse or neglect by the current paramour
· the ages of the children 10 through 6 years of age indicate that they are at high risk and the children who are younger than 6 years of age are at the greatest risk of abuse
· some of the children are hyperactive, behaviorally disordered, physically or mentally handicapped
· there is no adult in the home who is willing and able to assist with ensuring the safety of the children

15. Other (possible examples)

· child's behavior likely to provoke caretaker to harm the child
· unexplained injuries
· abuse or neglect related to child death, or unexplained child death
· serious allegations with significant discrepancies or contradictions by caretaker, or between caretaker and collateral contacts
· caretaker refuses to cooperate or is evasive
· criminal behavior occurring in the presence of the child, or the child is forced to commit a crime(s) or engage in criminal behavior

If there are no signs of abuse or neglect and no safety or risk factors are noted by the investigator, the investigation is closed. If there are signs of abuse or neglect and/or there are risk or safety factors, the investigator must decide if the child needs to be removed from the home under Protective Custody.

Just because one or more of these risk factors may be present does not mean that a child comes into Protective Custody. Because there may also be "mitigating" or "protective" factors that would allow the child to remain in the home. If there are enough protective factors and the parents are willing to comply with a "Safety Plan" then the children may remain in the home and the family would receive Intact Family Services and follow up monitoring.

Examples of a Safety Plan:

  • The child was physically abused by Mom, but there is a Grandparent who is willing to come stay with the family and supervise all interaction between Mom and child.
  • The child is neglected because they do not have adequately warm clothing for winter, but the family is given resources, financial assistance and a time frame to secure appropriate clothing.

So, if there are enough protective factors and the family agrees to a Safety Plan the case is referred to Intact Family Services. If there are not enough protective factors or the family is resistant or refuses to cooperate - the child will likely come into care.

Every investigated report is given a letter to identify it. The first investigation is called the "A" sequence, the second investigation is called the "B" sequence, and so on. Even if the report is unfounded and drops off the parents' record in 5 years, the letter has still been used. So, even if a CANTS check is run and only come up with 3 reports, the worker would know that their were more investigations if the current investigation is labeled the "J" sequence. When the investigations go through the entire alphabet - it starts over with "AA", "BB", "CC". Yes, I have known cases that were in the "double letter" sequence. Keep in mind that the letter represents how many times the parent has been investigated - not on a particular child though. If the parent has had 5, 9, 14 children - you can see how that could add up.

The "Investigation" portion of the case stays open for approximately 30 - 60 days with a maximum of 90 days to decide if the report of abuse or neglect will be "indicated" or "unfounded". Indicated means that there was evidence of abuse or neglect. Unfounded means there was not enough evidence of abuse or neglect. There is a database that keeps track of ALL investigations into Child Abuse and Neglect called the Child Abuse and Neglect Tracking Systems (CANTS). Unfounded investigations stay on the parents 'record' for 5 years. Indicated reports are permanent unless they are appealed and overturned.

Cases are always opened under the mother's last name - even if it was the father that was indicated for abuse or neglect. (Interesting huh?) The parents are given a "Family Case" number such as 1000000. The "zero" at the end indicates that is the family case number. Each child is given their own "Child Case" number which is the family case number with a sequential number replacing the "0". So, the oldest child would be 1000001, second child would be 1000002, and so on.

One more note: Each new child is considered a separate case and cannot be taken into Protective Custody simply because other children have been removed. If the parent currently has other children who are in state custody, the Hotline MUST be called after the birth of a new baby. But that baby is a case ALL ITS OWN. It is possible that the parent may have rectified enough of the original reasons the other children were removed to allow that baby to remain at home. One instance where this is likely is if the new baby has a different father and that father does not have past reports of abuse/neglect. Because of this rule though - many times parents will choose to voluntarily surrender their rights to the children in foster care, in hopes that they will be able to keep the baby that hasn't been born yet. The only possible exception to this rule is in the case of an substance exposed infant(SEI). Exposing a baby to drugs or alcohol in-utero is considered "neglect" in my state - not abuse, and it is not a "crime" that the mother could be charged with. However, there is a rule that when a mother gives birth to her THIRD substance exposed infant, that baby COULD be taken without any other risk or safety factors. But I will tell you that I have known a mother who gave birth to her 11th SEI and that baby was allowed to stay in the care of their father, with a safety plan saying that the mother could not have unsupervised contact.

So anytime there is an indicated report of abuse or neglect, but the child remains in the home, the family is referred for Intact Family Services. Sometimes, there is not enough evidence to indicate abuse or neglect, but there are enough risk factors to warrant the family being referred for Intact services anyway.

Basics on Intact Family Services: The parents will have a service plan (much like they would if their children were in foster care) and will need to work towards rectifying the risk factors. Intact workers are required to be in the home and have contact with the children on a WEEKLY basis for the first 3 months. Visits are reduced to every other week and then monthly as the parents make progress on their service plan. Intact services are voluntary and the parents can choose to stop participating at any time. However, families are warned that if another Hotline call is made and they have refused or not completed services, they run a higher risk of having their children removed.

*******End Lecture/Begin Discussion****

Some issues I have with the current system and points to ponder:

  1. Hotline calls: There are many people who feel the "mandated reporter" theory itself is damaging and dangerous. They have many good points and if you want to read an interesting book about why this system is flawed - let me know, I have a really good one that really made me think. But my biggest problem is that, as a mandated reporter, I usually can't be annonymous because I have to cover my butt. This can cause risks for me - the least of which is that it often irrepairably damages my relationship with a family. This has become more obvious as I have had to call the hotline because of things reported to me in therapy. When I have to call the Hotline, you can bet its difficult to maintain a relationship with the parents and often means I risk never seeing that child again. I try to reduce the risks of this happening by being really honest with the parent about why I have to call the Hotline and doing so in their presence. I have also encouraged the parent to actually call the Hotline (yes, on themselves) while in my office and then to allow me to speak to the operator as well. This is helpful for a couple reasons: One, it helps the parent to take responsibility for their own actions and reduces the risk of the child being taken into PC. Two, since the parent and I have already joined together in making the report, it is easier to convince them that I will be of support to them while they try to complete their service plan. Three, even if the parent won't call themselves, they hear exactly what I tell the operator and can't/won't become paranoid and suspicious of my motives later on, which helps us continue in an open and trusting relationship. This is never an easy conversation to have with a parent but it has worked wonders in being able to really support change in a family.

  2. A CHILD CAN NOT BE REMOVED FROM THEIR PARENTS SOLELY BECAUSE OF "POVERTY", "MENTAL ILLNESS" (on the part of the parent), OR SUBSTANCE ABUSE (by the parent). As crazy as it may seem, some parents are adequate or even really good parents despite having a significant mental illness, addiction, or the family is living in poverty. There must be other risk factors that can substantiate a "safety" concern. I did actually know a family with 10 children and the case was opened because the mother was arrested for driving under the influence - she had a herion addiction. I was the Intact Family worker for 6 months - every one of my home visits were "unannounced" because the family didn't have a working phone. No matter what time I arrived, the house was in order and the children occupied and Mom was usually cooking the next meal (they had a tiny kitchen and a table that only sat 4, so they ate in shifts). We tried to get her to participate in Substance Abuse Services - but she never really followed through. However, the children were well taken care of - fed, clothed, happy, got good grades at school, etc. When Mom needed to use, she would have another adult come to watch the children while she left the house. No abuse or neglect could be substantiated. It may not be the ideal life for a child - but it was not abusive. There were obvious risks - but no safety issues. The children never came into care and I don't think they should have.

  3. It is ILLEGAL for the safety plan to involve the children be seperated from their parents for a significant or indefinite amount of time. However, this is still happening on a regular basis. The problem with this is that Intact services are VOLUNTARY. This creates a problem, not only because the child is still at risk, but because it undermines the authority of the system completely. Kind of like when a parent threatens a consequence for a behavior but never follows through! Once the case is turned over to the Intact family worker, the family does not have to follow through on the safety plan or any services at all. The Intact worker's only recourse is to call the Hotline again - but unless there has been a new incident, the Hotline usually won't take it. Even if they do and another Investigator comes out, the family knows that they just have to agree to a safety plan and their children will not be removed. VICIOUS CYCLE huh?

  4. I have very mixed feelings about the "new baby/clean slate" rule. On one hand - lots of things can change and I believe strongly that people can change. I have know cases where a parent has successfully parented a new child while not ever being able to achieve the return home of her other children. On the other hand, sometimes people do not change. And I don't think it is wise to discount a person's past behavior completely - not when the safety of a child is at stake.

Those are just a few of the issues I have with this system - what do you guys think about it? Any questions? Do you think I'm totally crazy? Feel free to disagree with some of my opinions! I'm not the kind of 'professor' who will fail you for challenging my thoughts! I wanna hear them!


  1. Apparently this was specific to the agency we were working with, but we had both our foster-to-adopt children removed pending child abuse investigation because our foster son, Bear, was accidentally injured by my husband during an "improper" restraint.

    This doesn't seem to meet your criteria for removal.

    My husband was willing to leave the home during the investigation, but this was not offered as an option (and refused when we suggested it). We could understand the removal of our out-of-control 5'9", 200lb 13 year old son, although the police, who were called, yet again, apparently did not think it was necessary. The police were more focused on the cutting with a razor that Bear had done to his arm and the chunk of flesh missing on my husband's arm from where my son had bitten him, not the tiny bruise on the back of our son's neck where he'd accidentally been "bitten" when my husband opened his mouth to yell about the chunk of flesh being forcibly removed by our son's teeth.

    They were suggesting (yet again)that my husband should have "knocked his block off" instead of just trying to restrain Bear in a small space (hence the "improper restraint" - a proper restraint seems to require plenty of room and a cooperative small child - neither of which Hubby had) to keep our son from jumping out a second story window and kicking and punching my husband when he was trapped between Bear and the window (leading to the "improper restraint"). But maybe they were just focusing more on how obviously remorseful our son was afterwards, unlike the last couple of times that our son physically attacked my husband.

    The agency put both children in respite care - which we had to pay for- during the fastest investigation Texas has ever seen (- because the children were wards of the state of Nebraska and NE was furious that the children had been removed from our home without NE's knowledge or approval). We were also upset that our children were placed only 2 blocks from our home with an inexperienced provider, and more importantly they were placed TOGETHER! Even though our daughter was terrified of her brother after the last few months of events - and really her whole life with him).

    So our anxiously-attached RAD daughter and our aggressive RAD son ended up in respite care for a week while the charges were found to be "indeterminate" (which means they are permanently on our "record" and will make it difficult if not impossible to ever adopt again). Neither of the children were allowed communication with either of us and were not told whether or not they would be returning and how long they would be there (of course no one knew the answer to the last one). After MUCH advocating on the part of Nebraska, I was able to attend our attachment therapy appointment with our daughter. Hubby and I were able to attend her 5th grade graduation with her too.

    Bear was finally accepted into residential treatment and got the help he needed. He has been diagnosed with conduct disorder, RAD, bipolar disorder, cerebral dysrhythmia, complex PTSD, ADD... but it was obviously OUR fault that this child we got at age 13 was injured and needed removing.

    I'm happy to say that Bear has made a huge turnaround and all the people that said he would never make it (including social workers and caseworkers) were wrong.

    But maybe this is more about why kids are removed from birth homes, not foster homes.

    Mary in Texas

    Mom to biokids Ponito(10) and his sister Bob(12)
    Sibling pair adoptive placement from NE 11/06
    Finally finalized on Kitty(14) on 3/08 - 2 weeks before her 13th birthday!
    Finalized on her brother Bear(15) on 7/08. He turned 15 the next day.

    " Life isn't about how to survive the storm, but how to dance in the rain."

  2. Mary - I edited the post above to reflect the difference in standards between biological and foster parents. But I can say that in MY agency, the children would never have been removed during the investigation. Bear may have been, due to his aggressive behavior. But a small bruise, with knowledge of a child's behavior, would not have neccesitated respite care! Nor would it have likely had an "indicated" report. The investigation would have gone into your licensing file - and would have to be explained if you wanted to adopt - but it wouldn't be a major issue. Even having "indicated" reports of breaking a licensing standard would not prevent future placement, it is taken on a case-by-case basis.

    I am sorry that happened to your family.

  3. This post was very informative. Thanks for taking the time to share... I work as a Parent Educator for first time moms who are at risk for Child Abuse/Neglect. I am amazed at how DIFFERENTLY each DSS in the 7 different counties we serve handles these issues!


  4. We have "voluntary" cases in my state as well. It's a joke. Typically what happens is that the CPS worker doesn't want to deal with going to court so they call it a voluntary and then pass it on to an ongoing worker such as myself.

    My first year as a social worker, I got several of these cases. With-in months, I was out removing children that probably should have been placed in protective custody months before.

    Our system is starting a new model stating that either it needs to be a court involved case with DSH having custody or it should just be closed. It seems like a much more functional idea to me.


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