Decision Making in Child Protective Cases

Marino & Wright’s initial examination of decision-making in child protective cases

White Paper Presentation to State “A” Child Welfare DHHS Leadership, 2015

Dr. Wright and Dr. Marino with REAL Academy research and developed investigated latent investigative case impacts requiring mediation to adopt evidence-based practices in child protection cases. The key factors shared in this document are hoped to provide new insights for child welfare leaders to consider improving service delivery in their jurisdiction. Marino and Wright evaluated investigation/assessment cases in child protective services (CPS) that were unable to close in the mandated 30–45-day timeframes. The “state” closed on average 47% of cases untimely. In terms of children, this translates to an average of 145,496 children per year, and of those 68,383 languishing in services. The approximate cost to the “state” for deficient decision-making ranges from $28.3million to $63.9million. The figures are approximations that do not include overtime or benefits.

Rossi et al. (1999) used real case examples to elicit real life decisions as to whether a child would need protective custody by Social Services or not. There were eighteen cases total, four of which were identical, and the remaining fourteen randomly selected from seventy preselected cases. The findings illustrate the following: a) consistencies and inconsistencies (the three states varied significantly) amongst experts and direct contact workers decisions to take custody of a child; b) decisions were effected by services available to mitigate harm and risk; c) decisions are heavily influenced by prior child protection service involvement; d) complaint type was not significant; and e) families that show interest in change were less likely to lead to custody (Rossi et al., 1999) This work outlines appropriate large and small scale applications for program evaluation in public administration as it specifically relates to the child protection function.

Rossi et al. (1999) through the lens of program theory examined the deficiencies relating to the conduct of the child protection function. Their study suggests that programs that struggle with inherent assumptions and expectations that are not fully articulated or recorded in policy or law will create enormous deficits in clear and consistent decision making (Rossi et al, 2004). Their study found that the child protection function under consideration could not be fully evaluated due to the standards being unknown and dynamic rather than static. A related finding noted that areas of accountability lacked consistent administration in terms of oversight from federal to state to county (Rossi et al, 2004).

Wright and Marino (2015) findings indicate key areas that the “state” will need to address prior to innovation of practice standards and tools. The root appears to be in deficiencies decision making pertaining to management of cases, local CPS professional decisions, and the perception of state oversight challenges. The impact areas of this evaluation include a) fiscal impact; b) field staff impact; c) management impact; and d) service recipient impact.

1. A consensus belief is the number of cases that go over timeframe is not acceptable. Specific and narrow exceptions are cited in the “state” policy for provision of extending a CPS investigation/assessment case.

2. CPS professionals have higher caseloads on average. In most jurisdictions Child caseload standards are 10 cases per worker. Allowing cases to languish could be impacting case load sizes.

3. The findings in this evaluation can benefit child welfare leaders to investigate the accuracy of decision-making by front-line staff and supervisors. Information such as this will assist in interventions to strengthen decision making on basic policy applications, which in turn will strengthen adoptability of innovations and evidence-based practices.

4. The findings also demonstrate adopting evidence-based standards will save significant costs over time.

5. Methodology utilized scientific strategies to study 349 investigative/assessment cases that were over time frames in state fiscal year 2014-2015 by the following: a) descriptive analysis was conducted to examine CPS workers age, time in service, education, and gender to determine if relationships existed to consider to improve performance in case closure; b) correlation analysis were conducted to examine strength of relationships between descriptive factors and case factors including duration of time cases were open, time spent in each contact, billing codes utilized, if case findings were abuse, neglect, or abuse and neglect; and c) multiple regression analysis was conducted to isolate effects to measure the potential effect of each variable. This will allow greater consistency of prediction of behavior in the system decision making to close cases.

6. Wright and Marino (2015) utilized IBM SPSS statistical analysis software to calculate findings.

7. Wright and Marino (2015) summary key findings: a) fiscal impact analysis and probability of cost savings moving into Evidence Based Practice; b) impact to recipients of CPS service show Constitutional rights are being violated by exceeding case time frames without due process; c) field staff and management show consistent need for improvement in decision making skills to close cases in time frames.

Performance in closing investigation/assessment in the “state” can be shown in a report generated by the state. Table 1 demonstrates three years of performance in this area.

Table 1 Three Years Data “State” Sanctioned Report

Fiscal Year of ReportTotal Number ChildrenTotal Number Cases% Closed Timely% Closed Untimely

Table 2 Times Spent in Worker Contacts with Cases Evaluated in Minutes from CPS Worker Day Sheets

FrequencyPercentValid PercentCumulative Percent
Least Effective (5-25min)21246.146.146.1
Slightly Effective (30-55min)12126.326.372.4
Benchmark Effective10222.222.294.6
Above Benchmark Effective255.45.4100
**Worker time bands as such: 1) is least effective spanning from 5-25 minutes, 2) slightly effective 30-55 minutes, 3) benchmark effective 60-90 minutes, and 4) above benchmark effective 90 minutes and over (Maguire-Jack & Font, 2014; Gambrill, 1999, 2001, Gilgun, 2005; De Shazar et al., 1986). ***Worker time is recorded in a minimum of 5min increments per contact.

Cost of contact:

Table 3 Break Down and Example Case for a smaller county that pays CPS professionals less and a larger county that pays more

Average hourly wage of line workerAverage hourly wage of supervisorTime spent on case on average for coverage in minutesTotal cost approximate
County A
$21.88 per hour$27.00 per hour720Combined line worker/supervisor
$.36 per minute$.45 per minute720$583.20
County B
$33.17 per hour$36.05 per hour720
$.55 per minute$.60 per minute720$828.00

Table 4 Cost of EBP Cases Closing on Time

CPS WorkerCPS Supervisor60min/week for 30 days120 min/week for 30 daysCost for 60 min/week/30 daysCost for 120 min/week/30 days
$.36$.45240 mins480 mins$194.00$388.80

Of the 460 cases evaluated in the study remained open on average 60 days past their mandated deadlines. The average amount of minutes spent in those cases was approximately 720 minutes; therefore, this sample shows a cost savings range of $194.40 to $439.20 ($583.20-$388.80=$194.40; $828.00-$388.80=$439.20) per child with implementation of Evidence Based Practice demanding 120min contacts per week for 30-45 days. As such, if this is multiplied by the average number of children it would reflect: $194.40 x 145,496 = $28,284,422.00; as such for the larger county: $439.20 x 145,496 = $63,901,843.00 in net savings. Learning to utilize managed decision-making skills will increase the “state’s” ROI to invest in innovative methods and technology. Keep in mind that this sample is from a rural county in the “state”. The ranges of salaries vary from approximately $32,000.00 to $69,000.00 per year for Child Protective Services (CPS) professionals. This represents a 46% discrepancy in salary amongst the “state’s” counties. It can also be looked at through the lens that it costs a range of $28,284,422.00 on a low estimation and $63,901,843.00 to allow poorly managed decisions to continue.

Field Staff in CPS

CPS social workers today are still ill equipped to make accurate decisions regarding maltreatment today. Prior to the MRS innovations in the early 2000’s research found severe gaps in the practice of social work (Inkelas & Halfon, 1997). Moreover, CPS professionals struggled to classify risk, spend appropriate time with families, manage high caseloads, and lacked quality training (Inkelas & Halfon, 1997; Wells, 1994).

What has changed? It appears from the simple findings in this evaluation the child welfare institution struggles to change post MRS to mitigate negative impact areas to the provision of CPS services.


In a recent report completed by NCDHHS, it laid out survey results of CPS supervisors across the NC. This competency survey utilized responses of 321 out of 570 requests (56%) to demonstrate key characteristics important in a supervisor, what is not important, and what training is needed (NC DHHS, 2014). This study utilized the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute’s Social Work Supervisor’s Competency Inventory (NCWWII-2011) to explore CPS supervisors’ skills, values, job satisfaction, and intent to remain in the role. One key finding highlights, “as the years of supervision increases adversely the importance of flexibility decreases (NC DHHS, 2014 pg.5)”.

Recipients of CPS service

Service recipients of CPS are categorized as involuntary. As such child welfare leadership must question the Constitutionality of allowing cases to languish in the investigation/assessment phase without filing a petition to invoke the right of due process.