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2011 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 16, No. 2
April 2011

Overcoming Legal and Policy Challenges of CPS Intake

Legal mandates and policies direct all aspects of the child protective services intake process, everything from decision-making tools, to documentation, to the way DSS agencies work together when a report involves multiple counties. The legal and policy language is specific and clearly assigns roles and responsibilities. But what seems straightforward in writing is not always clear cut in the real world. Let’s consider some of the challenges.

Assessing Future Risk of Harm
At CPS intake DSS agencies in North Carolina must decide whether, if the allegation is true, it meets the statutory definition of abuse, neglect, or dependency. As they assess referrals, the law requires agencies to consider not only the alleged child maltreatment but also “future risk of harm”—that is, whether the child is in an environment that is likely to lead to being hurt.

The following excerpts from statute make it clear that future risk of harm is a key part of the definitions of abuse and neglect in our state:

  • Abuse. A child is considered abused if the caretaker “creates or allows to be created a substantial risk of serious physical injury to the juvenile by other than accidental means” (NC GS_7B-101 1b).
  • Neglect. A child is considered neglected if he or she “lives in an environment injurious to the juvenile’s welfare” (NC GS_7B-101 1b).

Yet how does an intake worker decide what constitutes future risk of harm? Here are some suggestions intake professionals and their agencies can use in the difficult task of assessing future risk of harm.

Know the law. A firm working knowledge of the statutes that guide CPS intake is essential. Find them on the General Assembly’s website: <>.

Attend training. If you work in intake, attend Intake in Child Welfare Services, a training sponsored by the NC Division of Social Services that helps child welfare social workers and supervisors practice applying the statutes to realistic case scenarios. Child welfare staff must take this course within their first year of working in CPS intake.

Interview carefully. While interviewing a caller, consider the information. Have you gathered enough data to determine whether the child is safe or at risk of harm? What more do you need to know? Probe for specific details in response to caller comments. For instance, to help assess future risk of harm you might ask “What physical dangers exist at the home?” or “What do you think would make this child safer?”

Consult agency records. Counties should maintain a log of all CPS referrals and accepted reports. Once the report is taken, consult your agency’s records—they may reveal patterns signaling the potential for future risk.

Research by Westat (2009) suggests this practice can help agencies uncover child maltreatment that might otherwise go undetected: in its study of national CPS agencies, it found that agencies that always reviewed prior CPS records during investigations had higher rates of maltreatment in their jurisdictions on a number of measures including higher rates of sexual abuse, neglect, medical neglect, and child victims with multiple forms of maltreatment.

Use the tools. As outlined in policy, intake workers use the maltreatment screening tools to decide whether to accept a referral based on statutory criteria. These valuable tools can help you make legally sound and consistent decisions about what warrants agency contact with a family, including future risk of harm.

Share decisions. Case consultation opens the door for sharing judgments and making the best decision. When supervisor and worker disagree whether future risk of harm exists, it can be helpful to assess the referral against legal definitions and mandates to answer the question, “If the reported information were true, does it minimally meet the statutory guidelines of child abuse, neglect, or dependency?” Other factors to consider include whether the alleged perpetrator meets the definition of parent, guardian, custodian or caretaker, and whether the alleged victim meets the definition of a juvenile.

Inter-County Issues
When county DSS agencies are called upon to coordinate CPS intake across county lines, challenges can arise.

Screening reports for other counties. Reporters sometimes call the DSS in one county about a child who resides in another county. In these situations North Carolina law and policy are clear: the DSS that receives the call must take the referral and screen it based on the available information, just as it would any other referral. It is never appropriate to decline the call and ask the caller to contact another agency to make a report.

If the county that receives the referral screens it in, it sends the report to the DSS in the child’s county of residence, which must conduct a CPS assessment. The county conducting the assessment determines response times, prioritization, and whether to use the family or investigative assessment response.

The idea behind this policy is that our child welfare system exists to protect all North Carolina children, and that to do this consistently and well, the parts of the system (i.e., different county DSS agencies) must work together. Although this is laudable, inter-county referrals can be problematic because, even with clear policies and common tools (e.g., decision trees), counties can still vary in their screening decisions. Thus, a county may be required to follow-up on a report accepted by another county but be baffled as to why it was screened in.

When this occurs, communicating with the referring agency is best. The supervisor in the county responsible for assessment should call the referring county to ask, “Can you help me understand why this case was screened in? It doesn’t appear to meet the definition of abuse and neglect.” When agencies’ perspectives differ, sometimes one has additional information that makes the judgment clearer. Asking for clarification and jointly referring to the mandates often makes the appropriate course of action clear. When a DSS notes trends in involving a “sister” DSS agency it can be helpful to meet to discuss these, perhaps in consultation with one of the Division’s Children’s Program Representatives (CPRs).

Communication and timeframes. Timeframes for responding to reports of abuse, neglect, and dependency begin at the time the reporter contacts the agency. With inter-county intake, the law requires a verbal exchange between the counties about the report, plus transmittal of the written report and screening decision.

Agencies sometimes find it hard to meet this communication requirement. In some instances, the DSS that took the report must make multiple attempts before it can speak to someone at the DSS in the county where the child lives. For this and other reasons, some agencies receive only a faxed report and no phone call from the referring agency. Other times, contact is made but the quality of the communication is poor.

Challenges related to communication and timeframes around inter-county intake can hurt agency performance on measures relating to the timeliness of CPS response. To avoid difficulties in this area, intake line staff and supervisors should put themselves in the shoes of the person receiving the report and aim to pass on to them something that is easy to read, clear, and familiar in structure. Ensure that the following hold true for all inter-county reports:

  • Documented on the Structured Intake Form (DSS-1402)
  • Basic information is easy to locate
  • Clearly identifies both the reporter and the family that is the subject of the report
  • The county with jurisdiction is clearly stated

Working with Institutional Reporters
North Carolina law and policy require CPS agencies to give written notice to reporters, unless waived or anonymous, within 5 business days after receipt of the report. DSS agencies commonly send this notification to the person who made the call. However, this approach does not work well for some community reporters.

Many schools and medical systems use a designated reporter to communicate child maltreatment referrals to DSS on behalf of other staff members. Sometimes when the doctors or teachers whose concern prompted a report through these systems try to follow up with DSS they are told that since they did not make the report, DSS cannot discuss it with them; in some instances they are even asked to make a second, duplicative report. Responses of this kind can unnecessarily frustrate community partners who share our deep concern for child safety.

When it comes to institutional reporters, state law and policy allow and encourage communication between DSS and individuals with firsthand knowledge of the alleged maltreatment. If after speaking with an organization’s designated reporter DSS wishes to contact a person with firsthand knowledge of the alleged maltreatment, they should do so. Similarly, if DSS is contacted by the teacher, doctor, etc. with firsthand knowledge of a report filed by an institutional reporter, DSS is free to speak with them. For example, DSS might say, “I can’t confirm whether a report’s been made, but if you have more information about this situation I’d be happy to talk with you.” Any new information can then be incorporated into the CPS screening and assessment process.

If you or your agency have questions about working with institutional reporters, please refer to the applicable statute (7B-301) and to North Carolina policy.

The legal mandates and policies that characterize the CPS intake process help agencies respond to the public and ensure the safety and well-being of children. Yet even the most clearly written directives sometimes are difficult to carry out, or are confusing in a particular context. When challenges arise, communication and support within and between county DSS agencies can help identify an appropriate and legal course of action.

References for this and other articles in this issue