I may end up embarrassing myself a bit here, but the story and the topic in this post are incredibly important to consider in child protection services. OK. . .confession #1. I recall sitting in my supervisor’s office staffing all 16 of my open investigations. I was ready to close several and a handful of others I was not convinced it was safe enough. He asked me,
“Why are these cases open passed the timeframe?” I answered, “well, it is for different reasons”. “One case is overdue because I was waiting on medical records from a hospital and to review the records with a child’s pediatrician. That case was 30 days past due, and the information in the medical record would demonstrate if the parents were being honest and the impact of the injury a child sustained. The other cases were tied to this unrelenting feeling that something else was going to happen and more harm to the children would occur. Those cases involved, substance misuse, behavioral health, and domestic discord.”
I got the OK for the case I was awaiting the medical records, and a “coaching” moment for the other cases. What gives?! I know something is about to happen to these kids, but the evidence is somewhat iffy. After working through the evidence in those cases, we made the decision the children are safe, and could be closed. “Relapse can happen, and people can stop going to counseling. The families in these cases built strong supports and made reasonable and sound plans to keep their kids safe. You (sup talking to me) even provided unannounced visits to see if these families were using the plans, and they were! That’s great news! They have the right to keep using their plan without CPS involved.”
That does not make me feel any better about it. My supervisor then took time to explain why we have timeframes on investigation and assessment cases. That made me feel a little better, but I am obviously worried about the potential danger. We would not be here if we did not carry a passion and concern for children.
What did I learn about CPS cases going over timeframes?
- The timeframes are set to protect a family’s Constitutional Rights, and show respect by conducting an expeditious and thorough investigation or assessment
- The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution extends all citizens the right to privacy – including intrusion from the government. CPS is a mandated government service. Families have the right to raise their children without unjustified government interference.
- The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution extends all citizens the right to have legal representation and the right to a fair court hearing. If CPS is going to remain involved past timeframes – many states and jurisdictions require petitions to be filed to protect a family’s 14th Amendment rights. CPS cannot make decisions to restrict access to their children, coerce a family into placing a child outside the home, or restrict their ability to live their lives.
- Let the relevant facts be the guideposts for decisions not my emotions.
- Holding onto cases that can and should be closed, or transferred to other protective services such as In-Home or Foster Care:
- Creates more work for me – I must complete ongoing visits, documentation, and explain to the family why the case is not closing yet
- My teammates are also taking more cases since I am full or overfilled with cases
- It can have negative impacts on community trust – explaining to families why their case is still open
- Creates more work for my supervisor – staffing and managing more cases
- Creates agency liability – we are flirting with legal action from families since we know we could be infringing on Constitutional Rights
- We lose teammates because they get overworked
- We lose money drastically needed to support raises, tools, supplies, and resources to do our jobs better
- The NASW Code of Ethics areas to review: Section 1.02 (self-determination) 1.03 (informed consent) – ensure families understand the timeframes, scope of protective services, and details of what it means to work with CPS and what can happen if they refuse – families should not be in the dark about the case going over timeframe; Section 1.17 (termination of services) – families have the right to understand the parameters of CPS investigation and assessment; and Section 5.01 (integrity with the profession) – CPS professionals know there are time limits, weight of evidence to quality a fact, and use supervision to balance decisions and judgements – be open and transparent with families at all times
Have you ever wondered what happens if a child protection investigation or assessment goes over the timelines? Does your jurisdiction, county, or state have a timeline set on how long a CPS investigation or assessment can stay open? I really do think we go so fast and hard due to all the requirements, expectations, and honestly from the professionals I have talked to in various other states, our caseloads are higher than they should be. Paying attention to closing cases on time might not be on our radar.
The lessons learned from the font-line work stuck with me:
As I worked through the ranks of supervisor, manager, and director I had the opportunity to study what happens when cases go past timeframes without grounds to justify (as in the case of waiting on medical records or a forensic evaluation from a sex abuse or physical abuse case from a Child Advocacy Center). I remember discussing this issue with Dr. Wright and he encouraged me to discuss my thoughts with state leadership. I did so, and my state leadership was curious to see what we found and how we can use it to help improve services.
Here are the main points from our evaluation for you to consider:
- Methods: reviewed 349 child protection services (CPS) investigation/assessment cases. Dr. Wright and Dr. Marino used the total amount of time the social worker and social work supervisor spent in a case, case disposition, social worker demographics, and cost benefit analysis to calculate costs associated with going over timeframes and compared to if evidenced based practices were adopted could cost savings be realized.
- The percent of CPS cases that went over timeframes equaled an average of 47% with an average of 145,495 CPS investigation/assessment cases per year.
- 72% of all CPS case worker contacts with the family were less than 40 minutes each contact. 46% of all contacts were 15 minutes or less, and 26% were less than 40 minutes.
- More than 90% of all cases had an average of 5 contacts over a 60-day period.
- Case worker and social work supervisor years of experience, educational background, and training did not impact cases going over timeframes. More experienced workers and/or workers with a social work degree did not perform better over their peers.
- Of the 349 cases that went over timeframes the average cost per case (Cost calculated on social worker and social work supervisor salary: on a scale of lower paying jurisdictions and higher paying jurisdictions) varied on a range of $583.20 to $828.00 per case.
- Cost analysis of overage ranges from: $ 203,536.00 to $288,972.00 per sample size.
- Cost analysis generalized over the 47% of cases over timeframe ranges from: $39,735,266 to $56,475,339 in lost financial resources.
- If an evidenced based “quality contact” standard was introduced and enforced: it would cost $388.00 120min/week/30 days per family = total cost savings ranging from $194.40 to 439.20 per case. The state evaluated would save a range of $13,148,092 to $29,888,164.00 per year.
- CPS investigators/assessors would have manageable caseloads and less turnover.
- CPS social work supervisors could manage caseloads more effectively.
- Cost savings could be reinvested to provide education, training, and other resources needed.
- Mitigates potential issues with 4th and 14th Amendment rights
Over the years I have learned to appreciate this evaluation and hope to repeat it on a broader scale to see if any changes can be identified. All of us in the end must try to do our part to keep kids safe and find ways our organization or child protection system can recognize the impacts of “what does not seem to matter in the moment” – especially when we are in the field. I believe we all agree we need more financial resources to invest in our staff, and we hope together we can unify our voices to ensure the hard work to produce this level of savings is reinvested in the frontline work.
All in all, keeping a focus on what the relevant objective facts are in a case can and will prevent going over timeframes. We identified a couple of examples where we can find “good faith” justifications to keep cases open (waiting on medical records, collateral contact with a doctor or material witness, child medical exam or forensic interview from the Child Advocacy Center, locating a parent in active military service or deployment, member of a nationally recognized Native American Tribe, are just a few). Let’s help each other examine our cases carefully and thoroughly and make Good Calls™ to close them on time whenever possible. We stand on solid ethics, principles, and legal ground when we do so.
Until next time – Be safe out there!