Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Trigger warning: The following contains mention of abuse and maltreatment against children.
In 2018, 1,770 children died from abuse and neglect. In the same year, Child Protective Services (CPS) received 4.3 million child maltreatment reports involving over 7.8 million children throughout the United States. Only a little over half of those reports, of about 3.3 million children, were pushed forward into an investigation.
Since their establishment in 1974, after the passing of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), Child Protective Services has been protecting children from situations of abuse, neglect, and maltreatment. Their job is to investigate child maltreatment reports and take the proper actions to ensure children’s safety. For example, children living in terrible conditions are removed from their homes and put into foster care, and the child’s family and house are investigated.
However, CPS’s help is misplaced and not enough. From losing children in the system to investigating cases that end up being false reports and being a reactive countermeasure to a problem that needs to be addressed proactively, CPS doesn’t meet the requirements of being an effective solution to the widespread issue of child abuse and neglect.
CPS Misplaces Thousands of Children
CPS agencies, also known as the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) or Department of Social Services (DSS), are state-specific. Every state has its version of a CPS organization, which is a branch of either the state’s Health and Human Services department or its social services department. All of these state departments report to the Administration for Children and Families branch of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
In April of 2018, a top official within the HHS told Congress members that they were unable to track down at least 1,500 migrant children that were placed with sponsors in the U.S. These children were among the 7,635 that were placed into homes by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
In hand with misplacing children, HHS and CPS have put children in the care of incompetent sponsors. In 2016, a report that detailed how HHS officials placed children with human traffickers who forced the minors to work on an egg farm was released. The report outlined that department officials failed to conduct background checks on potential sponsors and neglected to follow up with sponsors. Children placed with such individuals have a greater chance of disappearing from the system or running away.
Investigative reporters Eric Rasmussen and Erin Smith found that after a review of federal records from 2000 to 2018, child welfare agencies across the country closed the cases of over 53,000 foster kids listed as “runaway” and at least another 61,000 children listed as “missing.”
National data presses the need to quickly find runaway children to prevent them from becoming victims of exploitation. Children who are missing or runaways can be approached by sex and human traffickers within 48 hours of their misplacement. A report written by the Department of Children and Families in Connecticut found that 86 of the 88 kids that were rescued from sex trafficking in the state were previously involved with Child Protective Services. In New York, the same was discovered about 85% of child trafficking victims.
In 2017, former President Barack Obama signed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act into law. This law requires child welfare agencies to develop specific protocols for locating children missing from foster care and provide information to law enforcement for entry into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as necessary information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Still, not many resources are put towards finding the missing children. Various states have protocols to follow after a missing child returns to foster care, but several don’t know what to do if a child remains missing. After a while, the cases are closed, and the number of lost children in the systems of CPS agencies continues to rise.
Millions of Reports Received are False Reports
Of the 3.3 million kids who received post-response services from CPS in 2018, four out of five were subjects of cases that were eventually deemed false. There are four standard kinds of abuse and neglect: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect. From the new number, 60.8% were neglected, 10.7% were physically abused, 7% were sexually abused, and 2.3% were psychologically or emotionally abused.
In 2001, more than 10,000 children were removed from their homes due to reports of maltreatment. Later on, more than one in three of them were found not to have been maltreated at all. All this time, wasted on false reports takes away from time that could have been used to help children in actual danger and situations of abuse.
Nonetheless, many instances of child maltreatment are still not reported. The national referral rate is 58.5 children out of every 1,000. But of those cases, many get thrown out due to lack of evidence, false reporting, and other extraneous factors.
Of the cases that do get reported and sent on to the investigative process, some may not need post-response care. CPS and family services often push innocent families and well-treated children into the system. Hundreds of parents have said that CPS has wrongly taken children from them after a doctor misdiagnosed abuse.
Last year, a yearlong investigation done by NBC News and the Houston Chronicle found over 300 families from 38 states who claimed that their children were taken from them, and their homes were torn apart after hasty reports from doctors. Most of the reports given by said doctors contained premature conclusions on abuse and were redacted after time given for further investigation.
CPS Programs are Reactive Solutions to Ongoing Problems
Reactive thinking refers to letting events happen and responding as they come. Thinking reactively means to react to the same problem again and again, without trying to fix the root cause. Proactive thinking, on the other hand, refers to looking ahead to the future. Thinking proactively means to look at a problem and understand where it is coming from and why it is happening.
Child abuse and neglect has been a largescale problem in the U.S. and worldwide for decades. Cases are only investigated after reports are made, and children are almost always removed from harmful situations after some degree of abuse has happened.
In March 2016, the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities released a report that offers an outline for child protective services of a proactive and preventive approach towards child protection. The commission highlighted a program that was already in use by Hillsborough County, Florida. Eckerd Rapid Safety Feedback (ERSF) is a process that relies on real-time data analytics to flag high-risk child welfare cases for intensive monitoring. Eckerd analyzed data from 1,500 open child abuse and neglect cases in Hillsborough County. They received a profile of the cases with the highest probability of injury or death from that data. The report also called for check-ins on children in families at high risk for possible child maltreatment.
Child Protective Services and family services were established with the intention of helping abused and mistreated children. However, the principles of the programs are reactive in their very nature. The internal disorganization within each state organization causes many children to get misplaced within the system, become runaways, or falsely put into the system.
Through Teen Lenses: Child Protective Services (CPS) is a reactive program that only helps maltreated children after the damage is done. Do you think that this problem needs to be targeted at the root? In your opinion, are CPS organizations effective, even after the fact that 1,770 children died from maltreatment in 2018?
“Of course the problem needs to be treated. We need to find and address the root of the problem before it gets worse. Research needs to be done and implemented on the warning signs of family abuse. Before, I was not really sure if CPS was effective; most of the time, by the time they get to the case to intervene and help, it’s way too late. Now knowing this information, I would say that CPS does not fulfill the responsibilities it is meant to.” Dina Abdelmaguid, 16, Senior at King Abdullah Academy, Herndon, Virginia
“I believe that child protective services often end up doing more harm than good. They’re seen as a last resort and are only contacted after most issues have reached their limits. The issue at hand is the fact that services such as schools and counselors aren’t doing enough on their end to combat the problems when it comes to them; by the time it reaches CPS, it’s often too late for them to undo the damage. I think the organization as a whole needs to be reworked in order to include a section or dividend that provides real-time solutions for children, and not just services to take them away into foster care after all is said and done. At the point where it stands today, child protective services definitely isn’t as effective as it needs to be, since the number of children deceased from maltreatment should be zero and nowhere near close to 1,770.” Anisha Iqbal, 15, Sophomore at West Springfield High School, Springfield, Virginia
“I think that the Child Protective Services should be held responsible for kids who have been through traumatic experiences of neglect and abuse, as well as children who have not experienced it, but are at high risk to. Child abuse and neglect is a huge problem and leaves effects on the lives of whomever experiences it. I don’t think that the CPS is as effective as it should be; there should be reforms or involvement from other federal agencies to aid in fixing this widespread problem.” Laiba Butt, 15, Junior at Edison High School, Alexandria, Virginia