A child protective services (CPS) investigation forever impacts the lives even of those who are falsely accused of child abuse and neglect. Yet the decision of whether or not to launch an investigation can hinge on just one CPS worker–or even a computer algorithm.
Anyone can report someone for abuse, the reporter can even be anonymous, and CPS always treats the identity of the reporter as confidential. Moreover, the reporter has immunity for reporting, yet can be held civilly and criminally liable for not reporting, in addition to other sanctions. The consequences of these policies is that most CPS reports are unfounded. Our last article on this topic looked at how many referrals occur in each state; this one examines what happens to those referrals.
As a refresher, a referral occurs whenever CPS or an equivalent state agency is notified of suspected maltreatment, which includes abuse and neglect. Utilizing a process called “screening,” the agency will review the referral to determine if it is worth acting upon. Referrals are either screened-in or screened-out based on the perceived risk of child maltreatment. Sometimes the screening process can be guided by a sort of artificial intelligence based on an algorithm. Screened-out referrals get no additional follow-up while screened-in referrals are moved to a new category, called reports, and passed on for some kind of investigation. These reports are the focus of this summary.
Individual states record many data points related to child abuse and investigations. This data is submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services via the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) and published in their report, Child Maltreatment.1 Data points include the number of referrals screened-out, the number of referrals screened-in to become reports, and the percentage of each. The percentage of referrals screened-in varies greatly by state. Alabama, for example, screened-in 99% of referrals. On the other end of the spectrum, states such as Vermont and South Dakota barely screened-in a little over 15% of referrals. The national average for screened-in referrals is around 52%.
When compared to the number of referrals per 1000 adults by state, of interest is that the states with the highest rate of reports (screened-in referrals) are also among those with the smallest number of referrals for the adult population. Factors such as more stringent referral standards, decreased informant protection, and stricter punishments for false referrals may influence these numbers; however, this research does not account for any such factors. This is simply an overview of the raw numbers.
While this is not an analysis of the data, this information allows you to analyze the data for yourself, for example, to determine the statistical likelihood of being informed against and the likelihood of those referrals becoming reports to be investigated by CPS.
If you are a member of Heritage Defense and still have questions after reviewing our Law & Policy page about Referrals Screened In, 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. (2023). Child Maltreatment 2021. pp. 6-7. Available from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/data-research/child-maltreatment. Data is from federal fiscal year 2021 (10/1/2020–9/30/2021), which is the most recent data released.