While child protective services (CPS) investigators may sometimes overstep their bounds, encroachments upon the parental rights of innocent families are typically instigated well before a CPS investigator gets involved.
Generally, two things have to happen before a CPS worker ever gets assigned to investigate a family:
- Referral. Someone notifies a CPS agency hotline/intake unit that they have a suspicion a child has been abused or neglected. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calls this a referral. This referral may be made by phone, email, online form, or other means.
- Screening. Once the referral is received, the CPS hotline/intake unit conducts a process to decide whether an investigation is appropriate or not. This is called screening. Referrals are either screened in or screened out based on specific criteria. Screened-in referrals are then called reports. Most reports are followed up by some kind of investigation.
For 2020, the most recent year with available data, CPS agencies nationwide received a national estimate of 3,925,000 total referrals, involving 7,065,000 children.1 Of these referrals, approximately 666,160 children or 9.4% were determined to be victims of abuse or neglect.2
This means over 90% of children reported as being suspected victims of abuse or neglect were determined by CPS not to be.
Though CPS hotline/intake units screened out some of these referrals, most were not. Approximately 3,816,000 of them were screened in as reports for investigation. Of those reports investigated, around 17.4% were determined to be victims of abuse or neglect.3
This means over 82% of children reported as being suspected victims of abuse or neglect, and which were also screened in for an investigation, were determined by CPS not to be victims of abuse or neglect.
Clearly, CPS agencies nationwide overall are spending a large percentage of their investigative resources following up on unfounded referrals. But this is just the national picture.
Does your state use its resources more efficiently by doing a better job of focusing on real victims of abuse or neglect and spending less resources investigating innocent families?
For researching the number of referrals per state, we utilized data reported by the states to the federal government. The total number of referrals comes from the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau report, Child Maltreatment 2020, which compiles and analyzes data from the states regarding referrals, reports, abuser and victim demographics, and more.4 The number of adults per state was taken from the United States Census Bureau’s data from the 2020 census listing the population aged 18 and older by state.5 Determining the number of referrals per state was accomplished by dividing the total number of referrals by the number of adults then multiplying by 1000 and rounding to the nearest tenth.6
Of course, this data point only broadly covers the raw ratio of referrals to adults. It does not account for other underlying factors, which will be further explored in future articles. Other variables which are not accounted for in this research include the ratio of children to adults, how many reports are substantiated following an investigation, how many referrals allege neglect compared to abuse, and others.
Though the value of this data point has narrow limits, being able to see the number of referrals per 1000 adults by state should be informative as to the general likelihood of adults in a state to inform CPS of suspected maltreatment. While this is a broad overview, it sets the foundation for understanding other data pertaining to how many referrals are screened-in, becoming reports, and how many investigations uncover real maltreatment.
Finally, it should be noted that the state rankings are merely quantitative (sorted numerically), not qualitative (graded by value). Standing alone, this data point lacks enough context to be able to determine whether it means a given state is “better” or “worse” on parental rights than another.
If you are a member of Heritage Defense and still have questions after reviewing our Law & Policy page about Referrals Per 100 Adults, please contact our office to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys.
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1 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2022). Child Maltreatment 2020, at 8. Available from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/child-maltreatment. Note that all of these numbers are based on a duplicate count, meaning that children involved in more than one referral are counted multiple times. This ensures an apples-to-apples comparison.
2 Id. at 33. Note that all of these numbers are based on a duplicate count, meaning that children involved in more than one referral are counted multiple times. This ensures an apples-to-apples comparison.
3 Id. at 33. Note that all of these numbers are based on a duplicate count, meaning that children involved in more than one referral are counted multiple times. This ensures an apples-to-apples comparison.
4 Ibid. Table 2–1 Screened-in and Screened-out Referrals, 2020. p. 13. Data is from 2020, but this is the most recent report.
5 The United States Census Bureau, “The U.S. Adult and Under-Age-18 Populations: 2020 Census” https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/interactive/adult-and-under-the-age-of-18-populations-2020-census.html (Accessed 10/05/22).
6 Numbers in the state headings are rounded to the nearest one.