The Two Worlds of Child Protection

(Originally published August 2014)

There is a world of child protection reflected in policy manuals, practice models, risk and safety tools and training curricula. In many states, this world has common features:

  • Phone intake units carefully distinguish allegations of child abuse and neglect from other information provided by reporters;

  •  Caseworkers deem children to be safe or unsafe at initial contact with children and parents;

  • Assessment tools identify clearly delineated risk factors such as substance abuse and domestic violence;

  • Allegations contained in CPS reports are substantiated or unsubstantiated for all investigated cases;

  • Caseworkers utilize engagement skills (e.g., identifying and commenting on parental strengths)  to develop partnerships with parents;

  • Families are offered ( ideally) evidenced based  and effective programs designed for the conditions that contribute to child maltreatment, or which help children recover from the emotional and developmental effects of maltreatment;

  •  If children have been removed from the parents’ home, they are reunified when the conditions which led to removal have been remedied;

  •  Poverty is rarely mentioned in law or policy except to assert that children are not removed from the home solely due to parents’ lack of economic resources.


The world of child protection experienced by CPS investigators, especially inexperienced investigators, is a different world in several respects:

  • Information regarding abuse and neglect is contained in stories and intertwined with the conditions of family life.  It often seems that children are being harmed as much or more by domestic violence, parental depression or substance abuse and dire poverty as by child maltreatment;

  • Children are sometimes in danger, i.e., unsafe, and sometimes not, but even when children are not in danger they are often not truly safe, much less secure; 

  • Family crises involving substance misuse, or family violence, or erratic and bizarre behavior on the part of parents may or may not warrant the label of substance abuse, domestic violence or mental illness – this is often not a straightforward factual determination based on credible evidence;

  • There is often uncertainty at the end of investigations whether children have been abused or neglected such that “inconclusive” would often be a more accurate finding than substantiated or unsubstantiated;

  • Caseworkers sometimes develop strong personal likes and dislikes of parents which affect their judgment and their capacity to develop productive partnerships with them;

  • The smattering of evidenced based programs may be utilized to address conditions for which they have not been found to be effective, and many families have such a formidable array of problems that it’s difficult to know where to begin in helping them;

  • The families are poor, often severely poor, and these economic conditions affect every aspect of family life including the quality of parenting.

  • Chronically referring families (of whom there are many) periodically experience losses and further trauma resulting from severe illness, death, or incarceration of family members, as well as separations, family feuds and/or homelessness.  

  • If children are removed from parents due to child maltreatment, they will usually not be returned home by courts until the family has stable housing, an asset hard to come by when parents are extremely poor and lack employment.  


Newly employed caseworkers are often shocked by the conditions in which children and families on open child welfare cases are living, even though they may have the prudence to conceal their emotional reactions. Both inexperienced and more experienced caseworkers are likely to have periodic doubts about their ability to help the families on their caseloads, and chronic anxiety about the possibility of making errors in judgment regarding child safety. Experienced caseworkers tend to become gradually desensitized to the conditions in which children live, and sometimes desensitized even to low level chronic maltreatment. It is possible to read lengthy case notes that never mention poverty related issues (which are largely taken for granted), and ignore the developmental impacts on children of family violence, drug/alcohol addiction and mental health problems because these issues are so pervasive among families reported to CPS.


Policy and practice guidelines gradually, but steadily, shape the experience of doing child protection to the point where some experienced caseworkers and supervisors would deny that there is any dissonance between what is described in this commentary as the two worlds of child protection. 


Tensions Between Policy/Practice Frameworks and the Experience of Child Protection: Do They Matter? 


One might argue that policy and practice frameworks, and assessment tools are developed to facilitate the achievement of policy goals, not reflect the experience of practitioners. For example, there are state child welfare systems that determine eligibility for post-investigative services around “findings” such as substantiated and unsubstantiated. In these state systems, there is a rational logic to the insistence that CPS reports regarding alleged child maltreatment be substantiated or unsubstantiated, with no middle ground.  However, in child welfare agencies that allow the provision of in-home services to families and children whether or not there is a determination that child maltreatment has occurred, ignoring the common experience of investigators’ uncertainty regarding the validity of allegations makes no sense. What policy goal is served by insisting on a substantiated vs. unsubstantiated determination at the conclusion of investigations in these child welfare systems?


It is not difficult to think of examples of other professions in which ignoring the experiences and views of practitioners have proven to be disastrous. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist, describes in Odysseus in America the injurious effects of deploying individual soldiers rather than units to combat zones in the Vietnam War. Military planners who made this mistake were clearly not paying attention to the conditions that sustain morale in combat units.  Many teachers, and groups of teachers, have strongly criticized the effects of high stakes testing on student learning and learning environments. Policymakers’ refusal to listen to teachers on this issue, and their attacks on teachers, have had devastating effects on American education, effects which include a cynical “gaming” of tests in classrooms and widespread corruption at the administrative level.


However, most of the dissonance in child protection between policy/ practice frameworks and practitioners’ experience is not a subject of controversy or an occasion of political differences. Nevertheless, these tensions can have real effects even when they are not widely recognized, especially when they embody conceptual mistakes. The alleged dichotomy between Safe and Unsafe children serves the useful purpose of emphasizing to caseworkers and supervisors that there is a threshold of danger in families which, when crossed, requires a CPS response. However, the same distinction creates a sense of false security for children assessed as Safe at a point in time by conflating “safe” with “not in danger”, and ignores the cumulative harm to children resulting from chronic low level neglect or abuse.  Many chronically neglected children may rarely be in danger of serious physical harm, but they are also not safe from abuse or neglect, or its emotional and developmental consequences.


Policy and practice frameworks are often aspirational in that they describe some version of “best practice” which policymakers hope will be consistently applied, regardless of workload, experience level of staff, agency resources or the rural/urban location of offices. However, there is no policy, practice model or assessment tool whose use is unaffected by workload demands and resource deficits.


Retention and Curiosity


Some child welfare agencies lose 20-30% of newly hired caseworkers within one year of their hire date, and many more caseworkers have probably decided to leave the agency when they have the opportunity by this time.  In many states, training programs have been lengthened and enhanced with coaching of skills to better prepare new staff for child protection and other child welfare jobs.  However, classroom training cannot emotionally prepare new caseworkers for a complex and challenging world in which their judgment, decision making skills, intuitions and moral character will be severely tested well before they have achieved a reasonable degree of competence in assessment, family engagement and community collaboration.  An emphasis in training programs on acquisition of knowledge and skills is understandable, but there needs to be far more attention to the emotional reactions of new caseworkers to the events that occur during (at least) the first year or two of employment in child welfare positions.


To assist new caseworkers in coming to grips with the demands of child protection, nothing is more important than non- judgmental curiosity regarding their experiences. This is an engagement skill supervisors, coaches and other training staff can model for caseworkers in their interactions with them. Critical judgmental reactions shut down honest emotional expression both in supervisor/caseworker relationships and in caseworker /birth parent interactions. Genuine curiosity regarding anxieties

and insecurities of inexperienced CPS investigators, and curiosity regarding their feelings about children, birth parents, foster parents and  various professionals  invites emotional honesty even when feelings are irrelevant or unacceptable in a policy and practice framework.


Suppressing emotional reactions engendered by child protection, or allowing emotions to surface only if they embody “correct” attitudes, is an invitation to trouble. During the past decade, when most state child welfare system have adopted family centered practice or family engagement models, there has been little or no open discussion regarding enmeshment

of caseworkers with parents or the halo effect (i.e., “people I like have no faults and people I dislike have no virtues”);  or the importance of seeing people as they are (warts and all) while doing everything possible to help them.  More attention to the feelings and attitudes of inexperienced

staff and greater candor regarding the emotional challenges of child protection is urgently needed in child welfare.  As caseworkers gradually acquire skills and knowledge, they also are learning how to identify and manage strong emotional reactions to the events, conditions and people they encounter. Supervisors and training staff need to be able to assist with this process instead of ignoring it, or censoring feelings and attitudes they view as unacceptable.   


Tapping the Experience and Expertise of Practitioners


It is a curious feature of child welfare reform initiatives that they so rarely tap the experience of caseworkers and supervisors to better understand what needs to be done to improve child protection systems. When (as is often the case) workload pressures need to be reduced, caseworkers’ voices may be heard for a brief period of time, but legislators and managers are usually more interested in what other state child welfare agencies have done in similar circumstances than in utilizing the expertise available in the state’s child welfare system.


Managers may be reluctant to hear from caseworkers that assessment tools are rarely used in the way envisioned by developers, or that practice models are difficult to implement given workload demands, or that available resources don’t match the needs of children or parents, or that training programs are inadequate.  Nevertheless, when managers inquire about the views of practitioners, they must be ready to hear whatever their employees have to say.  Caseworkers and supervisors are not generally theorists; they are interested in practical application of tools and models and in resources that help them do their job.  Practitioners generally know why a policy or practice guideline is not working, and often have good practical solutions to business problems.  Their ideas regarding policy changes may sometimes sound naïve to managers.  Nevertheless, their suggestions are likely to be grounded in a wealth of experience and worthy of consideration.


Caseworkers and supervisors do not always agree about practice and policy issues, and it is questionable to assume that a small committee of caseworkers and supervisors represents the views of a majority of line staff and supervisors.  However, when a large percentage of caseworkers and supervisors urge mangers to slow the pace of practice changes, or assert that too many CPS reports of minor abuse or neglect are being screened in by intake units, or that voluntary placements of children in out-of-home care are far easier to resolve than cases with court structure, or that an evidenced based parenting program is not working for chronically neglectful families, or that publicly available mental health services are of poor quality and a disservice to children and parents, managers should listen carefully to what’s being said, and either gather more information or take action to address these concerns.


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