Partly funded by the federal government, child protective services (CPS) agencies were first established in response to the 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA; Public Law 93-247), which mandated that all states establish procedures to investigate suspected incidents of child maltreatment. Upon receipt of a report of suspected child maltreatment, CPS screens the case to determine its proper jurisdiction. For example, if it is determined that the alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse is the victim's parent or caretaker, CPS screens in the report and conducts further investigation. If the alleged perpetrator is a stranger or someone who is not the parent or caregiver of the victim, the case is screened out, or referred elsewhere, in this case, to the police because it does not fall within CPS jurisdiction as outlined under federal law.
A state's child welfare system, under which CPS functions, consists of other components designed to ensure a child's well-being and safety. These include foster care, juvenile and family courts, and other child welfare services. Other child welfare services include family reunification, granting custody to a relative, termination of parental rights, and emancipation. Cases of reported child abuse or neglect typically undergo a series of steps through the child welfare system. (See Figure 3.2.)
The juvenile or family court hears allegations of maltreatment and decides if a child has been abused and/or
neglected. The court then determines what should be done to protect the child. The child may be left in the parents' home under the supervision of the CPS agency, or the child may be placed in foster care. If the child is removed from the home and it is later determined that the child should never be returned to the parents, the court can begin proceedings to terminate parental rights so that the child can be put up for adoption. The state may also prosecute the abusive parent or caretaker when a crime has allegedly been committed.
The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (Public Law 96-272) mandated: "In each case, reasonable efforts will be made (A) prior to the placement of a child in foster care, to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of the child from his home, and (B) to make it possible for the child to return to his home." Because the law, however, did not define the term "reasonable efforts," states and courts interpreted the term in different ways. In many cases, child welfare personnel took the "reasonable efforts" of providing family counseling, respite care, and substance abuse treatment, thus preventing the child from being removed from abusive parents.
The law was a reaction to what was seen as zealousness in the 1960s and 1970s, when children, especially African-American children, were taken from their homes because their parents were poor. At the beginning of the twentieth-first century, however, some feel that problems of drug or substance abuse can mean that returning the child to the home is likely a guarantee of further abuse. Others note that some situations exist where a parent's live-in partner, who has no emotional attachment to the child, may also present risks to the child.
FAMILY PRESERVATION DOES NOT WORK. Dr. Richard J. Gelles, a prominent family violence expert, once a vocal advocate of family preservation, had a change of heart after studying the case of fifteen-month-old David Edwards, who was suffocated by his mother after the child welfare system failed to come to his rescue. Although David's parents had lost custody of their first child because of abuse, and despite reports of David's abuse, CPS made "reasonable efforts" to let the parents keep the child. In The Book of David: How Preserving Families Can Cost Children's Lives (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1996), Dr. Gelles points out that CPS needs to abandon its blanket solution to child abuse in its attempt to use reasonable efforts to reunite the victims and their perpetrators.
Dr. Gelles found that those parents who seriously abuse their children are incapable of changing their behaviors. On August 2, 2001, testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives during the reauthorization hearing on CAPTA, Dr. Gelles reported:
A major failing in child abuse and neglect assessments is the crude way behavioral change is conceptualized and measured. Behavioral change is thought to be a two-step process—one simply changes from one form of behavior to another…. As yet, there is no empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of child welfare services in general or the newer, more innovative intensive family preservation services. The lack of empirical support for the effectiveness of intensive family preservation services was the finding of the National Academy of Sciences panel on Assessing Family Violence Prevention and Treatment Programs and the United States Department of Health and Human Services national evaluation of family preservation programs.
FAMILY PRESERVATION WORKS. The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR), a nonprofit organization of experts on child abuse and foster care who are committed to the reform of the child welfare system, believes that many allegedly maltreated children are unnecessarily removed from their homes. NCCPR recognizes that, while there are cases in which the only way to save a child is to remove him or her from an abusive home, in many cases providing support services to the family in crisis, while letting the child remain at home, helps ensure child safety.
The NCCPR believes that, with the proper assistance, a family in crisis can change its behavior (What is "Family Preservation?" Issue Paper 10, Alexandria, VA, undated). According to the NCCPR, family preservation encompasses intervention procedures based on the Homebuilders program first implemented in 1974 in Tacoma, Washington. Homebuilders services are designed for families with children at risk of an imminent placement in foster care. It starts with an intensive initial intervention lasting four to six weeks in the family's home with provision of counseling and concrete services (for example, buying food, paying rent, providing clothing). The Homebuilders worker is on call twenty-four hours a day during that period, and the amount of counseling he or she gives the family has been compared to a year's worth of conventional counseling. After the period of intensive intervention, aftercare is afforded the family as needed.