If CPS Is Driving Child Welfare - Where Do We Go from Here?

By Kamerman, Sheila B.; Kahn, Alfred J. | Public Welfare, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

If CPS Is Driving Child Welfare - Where Do We Go from Here?


Kamerman, Sheila B., Kahn, Alfred J., Public Welfare


As we enter the 1990s, child protective services (CPS) has emerged as the dominant child and family social service provided by public agencies. Some would argue that CPS in effect is driving the child welfare system, often taking it over completely. Many administrators would claim that child protection is child welfare, that the increased demand for child protection has absorbed virtually all of the system's resources. Foster care and adoption services have survived largely because they serve CPS.

It increasingly seems that only abused or severely neglected, delinquent, or runaway children can hope to receive public services in most jurisdictions. Doors are closed to cases labeled "less serious" or "voluntary." Even high-priority cases may have to go without help or at best make do with short-term or inadequate assistance.

Between 1986 and early 1989, we conducted a study, supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, of alternative approaches to delivering social services for children, youths, and their families.(1) We focused on public and publicly funded but privately delivered social services in states, counties, and cities, hoping to identify patterns of service delivery and promising new service initiatives.

What We Found

Most child welfare activities of public agencies are largely directed toward the problems of child abuse and neglect. Agency efforts focus on investigating reports and protecting children when allegations are verified. Few resources remain for troubled families who do not fall under the purview of CPS. In many jurisdictions, there are few supportive services or treatment options for these families. Agencies often turn away parents with out-of-control or defiant children. Services for latency or early adolescent children also are limited. Chronic multiproblem cases in troubled families often are overlooked. In fact, if a case is not marked by dramatic events, it may receive only token processing and response.

Promising new initiatives, however, have received increasing attention. These include intensive, family-focused, home-based, short-term, and goal-oriented services, which are now available in many jurisdictions. When carefully implemented by qualified staff, these programs seem to help forestall family crises and avoid the need for placement. It is too soon to tell, however, whether long-term effects will be sustained without continued support for these families. Moreover, many areas that provide such services are hampered by less qualified staff and inconsistent implementation. Not surprisingly, programs in these areas have been less successful. And despite these innovations, we failed to find a single state that provides enough accepted standards of community responsibility. Most agencies focus almost exclusively on child and family crises. Chronic parenting problems are ignored.

We found that as abuse and neglect cases increase, agencies frequently offer family life or parenting education. This is obviously an important socialization service and preventive component. It is not a wholly adequate response, however, in serious cases of abuse and neglect. These programs are particularly ineffective in meeting the complex needs of the low-income families who make up the vast majority of CPS clients.(2)

Various reform proposals stress case management or family support services. Others call for the restructuring of public child welfare agencies. When carefully designed and implemented, these initiatives can improve social service delivery. These strategies, however, presuppose adequate resources for treatment and related services within the community; too often, these resources simply are not available. Consequently, even the most promising reform efforts have been only sporadically successful.

Back in the mid-1970s, the service integration initiatives and planning mandates of Title XX of the Social Security Act created hope that a more comprehensive social service system would be devised: locally based, family oriented, and designed for accountable practice. …

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