Child Protective Services

Child Protective Services (“CPS”) is a governmental agency tasked with receiving and investigating reports of child abuse or neglect. The Child Protected Services agency in each state must identify children who are being abused or neglected, monitor domestic violence that relates to children, and remove at-risk children to a safe environment when necessary. The agency also helps maintain preventive programs and provides children with safe homes. To explore this concept, consider the following Child Protective Services definition.

Definition of Child Protective Services


  1. A governmental agency responsible for addressing issues of child abuse and neglect.


1974 as a result of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act

History of Child Protective Services

Child abuse and neglect dates back to the beginning of time, but it wasn’t until the 1690s that cases of abuse and neglect began making their way into criminal courts. During this era, the municipalities became responsible for children who were abused or neglected.

In the early 1800s, states began enacting laws that gave welfare agencies the right to remove abused and neglected children from the home. These agencies also attempted to get children off the streets. In 1835, the National Federation of Child Rescue Agencies was founded by the Humane Society, for the purpose of investigating the mistreatment of children. Shortly after, private agencies began forming in order to fight for changes to child welfare laws.

In 1853, the Children’s Aid Society was founded for orphaned children in the state of New York. These children were placed in foster homes, rather than institutions, as they would have been in the past. More than 20 years later, the first case of child abuse prosecuted in criminal court was widely publicized, becoming known as “the case of Mary Ellen.” The severe abuse and neglect of eight-year-old Mary Ellen by foster parents became the impetus to change child cruelty laws, prompting a large scale effort to establish standards of care regarding children.

By 1926, a third of the states had formed child welfare boards of some type. By the 1970s, the federal government ramped up efforts even further, and in 1974, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (“CAPTA”) became part of federal law. As of a result of CAPTA, federal funding was made available to states for the development of individual child protective service agencies.

What is Child Protective Services

Since the 1970s, a variety of legislative efforts have gone into effect with the goal of protecting children, and helping ensure they have save and loving homes in which to grow up. Prevention of child abuse and neglect, prosecution of child-related crimes, and placement in foster and adoptive homes is a priority of several agencies and laws governing child protective services agencies.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act allows the states to receive federal funding to aid them in the prevention, investigation, and assessment of different projects pertaining to child abuse and neglect. It also provides funding for prosecution of individuals charged with child-related crimes. CAPTA works to provide agencies with research and technical assistance, setting the standard and universal definition of child abuse and neglect. CAPTA came into play in 1974 in response to the overwhelming number of cases of abuse and neglect in the United States.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (“ASFA”) became law on November 19, 1997, requiring states to take action on behalf of children in foster care, moving them into permanent homes more quickly. It also dictates that each state must comply with the law in order to receive federal funding for child welfare and supportive services. Some of the provisions of ASFA include:

  • States must move to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for at least 15 out of the previous 22 months. There is an exception when the foster parent is a relative of the child’s, or if the state cannot provide the services needed for successful reunification.
  • Permanency hearings must take place every 12 months.
  • States receive incentives to improve adoption rates, and are required to document efforts to find adoptive homes for each child.
  • State funding for adoption services is expanded, and healthcare coverage provided for adopted children.

The Indian Child Welfare Act

The Indian Child Welfare Act (“ICWA”) was put into place in an effort to maintain tribal cultures. This law gives tribal governments a strong voice in when Native American children are removed from their families, giving the tribe exclusive jurisdiction when the child lives on a reservation. This tribal power usurps state authority in matters concerning the adoption, custody, or foster placement of Native American children. The ICWA defines an Indian child as one that is (1) unmarried and under the age of 18, (2) a member of a tribe, and (3) a biological child of a tribe member.

How to Report Child Abuse or Neglect

The first step in stopping child abuse and neglect is reporting it. In general, a report is made when a person has knowledge of, or suspects that, a child is being mistreated. Anyone can report a case of abuse or neglect to local law enforcement officials, local child protective services, or other agencies or individuals who are required to report child abuse by law. Each state has specific laws defining which individuals are considered “mandated reporters,” and to which state authority reports are to be made.

Mandated Reporters of Child Abuse or Neglect

In most states, mandated reporters include people in frequent, close contact with children, including medical personnel, teachers, social workers, daycare personnel, and law enforcement members. A mandated reporter who fails to make a report of known or suspected abuse or neglect may face steep fines and criminal prosecution.

Warning Signs of Child Abuse

There are many warning signs of abuse and neglect, some of which are more obvious than others. This is especially true if the abuser uses coercion to keep the child quiet about the abuse. Signs of child abuse include:

  • Physical abuse: unexplained bruises, burns, bites, or broken bones
  • Emotional abuse: delayed social development, severe depression or anxiety, suicide attempts, and outrageous behavior
  • Sexual abuse: nightmares, bed wetting, changes in appetite, severe issues with modesty, and genital rashes or other medical problems
  • Neglect: poor personal hygiene, dirty or severely outgrown clothes, frequent absence from school, lack of medical care, and lack of parental care

Child Protective Services Investigation

When CPS receives an allegation that abuse or neglect is taking place, a caseworker is assigned to conduct a child protected services investigation to determine whether the child is safe in the home, and whether there are other children in the home in harm’s way. During the investigation process, the caseworker interviews family members, including the children, as well as other people in the child’s life, such as teachers, daycare providers, and relatives. In some instances, the caseworker may have the child checked by a medical professional.

At the end of the investigation, the caseworker determines if there is sufficient evidence to show that abuse or neglect has occurred. If not enough evidence is presented, but the caseworker is suspicious, he may keep the case open and conduct follow up visits. If there is proof of abuse or neglect, CPS may remove the child from the home, placing him in foster care.

Removing Children from the Home

As part of the prevention and protection process, child protective agencies sometimes need to remove children from their homes. This is especially true if the parents, or other adults living in the home, are accused of neglect or abuse. Even when this occurs however, child protective agencies work hard to reunite the children with their families. CPS does this through programs focused on helping parents learn better parenting skills, and with counseling and substance abuse programs when appropriate.

Unfortunately, some children cannot be reunited with their parents. If the parents refuse to cooperate, or to adhere to court ordered conditions, the child may not return home at all. This may also occur if the child returns home for a period of time, and is again abused or neglected. When possible, the agency may attempt to place the child with a family member that does not reside in the home. Failing that, the child is placed in foster care.

Child Abuse Statistics

Unfortunately, child abuse and neglect in the United States is not as uncommon as some people would like to believe. Most people are only aware of cases that end up in the media spotlight, but children are abused and neglected every day, in every city. Some of the statistics are surprising:

  • Approximately one out of every 10 children suffers from some type of abuse.
  • One out of every 16 children suffers from sexual abuse.
  • One-fourth of abused children are three years old or younger. Nearly half are under the age five.
  • In 2012, more than 1,500 children died from abuse or neglect in the United States; 70% of those children were under 3 years old, and over 85% of those deaths were Caucasian children.
  • Each year, nearly 3 million reports of child abuse or neglect are made, 60% of which come from teachers and social service provides.
  • The parent is the abuser in over 80% of substantiated cases.
  • There are slightly more female abusers than male abusers.
  • Up to 80% of children who are abused or neglected suffer mental or emotion problems by the age of 21.
  • Over 45% of homeless children left their home due to abuse.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Allegation – An assertion or claim that someone has done something wrong or illegal, typically made without actual proof.
  • Child Neglect – The failure to provide a child with the food, clothing, housing, and other basic necessities of life, including the failure to provide needed medical care and emotional support.
  • Coercion – The act of using force or intimidation to ensure compliance.
  • Criminal Charges – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • Hearing – A proceeding before the court at which an issue of fact or law is heard, evidence presented, and a decision made.