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The Role of Social Workers in Child Protective Services Investigations

Social workers play a vital role in the safety and livelihood of children across the United States on a daily basis. Those who specialize in child protective services are in high demand, as evidenced by the number of investigations launched into abuse and neglect over the past several decades.

The federal Administration for Children and Families explained that the number of substantiated reports of maltreatment for children newborn to 17 years old dropped significantly across all demographics between 2000 and 2011, but then began to rise again in 2012.

A separate report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) revealed a 7.4 percent increase overall in the number of children who experienced an investigation between 2000 to 2014, fluctuating on an annual basis. HHS noted that this represented a rise from 3,023,000 to 3,248,000 in that time, while 75 percent of the investigations were connected to neglect, 17 percent to physical abuse, and 8 percent to sexual abuse.

In many ways, the efforts of social workers have been vital to the overall reduction in the number of child neglect and abuse cases that has been seen since 1990, but those endeavors must remain active to cut back on this latest rise recorded over the past few years.

Child protective services at a glance

In 2014, The National Children’s Alliance (NCA) reported that roughly 702,000 children are believed to be abused each year, all unique cases. According to the organization, individuals aged one year or younger tend to be the most commonly maltreated, with 24.4 percent of all cases falling into this age group.

With respect to the types of investigations that take place, NCA pointed out that an estimated 80 percent of all cases opened annually are related to neglect, making it the most common form of maltreatment. This shows a rise in the frequency of neglect cases as a part of total investigations in 2014 compared to the period of 2000 to 2013.

The nonprofit also stated that about 78 percent of all maltreatment investigations looked into the parents, with the remaining 22 percent involving other family members or non-related persons.

The Atlantic – a general interest magazine – pointed out that child protective services were involved in caring for and monitoring the wellness of an estimated 3.2 million children in 2014. While investigation launches did fluctuate between 2000 and 2014, the author explained that the total number of referrals fielded by child protective services increased by 8.3 percent between 2008 and 2014.

As child protective services are vital in efforts to reduce the frequency of abuse, neglect, and other maltreatment, more positions are likely to open up for social workers in this field given population increases and familial trends.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics offers the following data on social worker occupational outlooks specific to child protection and relevant family-oriented services:

  • The total number of child, family, and school social workers was 294,000 as of May 2015
  • The average hourly wage was $22.41, and annual salary $46,610
  • The largest portion of these professionals worked in the individual and family services industry – which would include child protective services – at $69,820
  • California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Michigan had the highest demand for child, family, and school social workers in the country
  • Vermont, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Connecticut had the largest concentration of social work jobs in the country
  • Overall, 3.4 million individuals were employed in protective service occupations as of May 2015
  • Local governments employed 1.4 million of these professionals, making them the largest segment of the industry
  • Investigation and security services accounted for just under 700,000 professionals
  • For child protective services on the whole, California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois had the highest demand for professionals
  • In terms of protective services professions as a percent of the workforce, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Nevada, New York, and Arizona had the highest rates in the country

A combination of rising populations and a recent increase in the frequency of child maltreatment cases illustrates that this line of work is going to be in high demand across the nation for the foreseeable future.

General responsibilities

HHS runs ChildWelfare.gov, which provides a helpful manual related to the roles, responsibilities, and best practices involved in casework under child protective services professions.
There are a range of different sub-segments related to child protective services in the social work profession, as well as about five different categories of employment between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Still, this manual is known as one of the more standardized guides for casework in the child protective services arena regardless of which category of employment might fall under.

According to the guide, child protective services professionals will most often work directly through a state or local social services agency. In fact, those who do not will generally still be supporting or servicing an effort spearheaded by some governmental entity. Investigations, protections, and other processes might involve a range of other community services organizations such as mental health professionals, attorneys, court systems, and law enforcement leaders.

Each state will have varying policies, legislation, and action points as they relate to child protective services activity and, while there is plenty of variance in extreme cases, many of these statutes and practices are similar when looking at the country as a whole.

ChildWelfare.gov explained that child protective services entities will virtually always focus their efforts on establishing safe and stable environments for children to live in and assist families when maltreatment is a result of extraneous situations. Because neglect is the most common cause of investigations, many families will benefit more from social work support rather than the child being completely uprooted from his or her home.

Child protective services will also work to engage family members, intervene in situations where children must be taken out of the home and placed into a new one, and consistently check in on progress even after being relocated. Investigations will represent a massive portion of overall casework for social workers involved in child protective services.

Investigation skills, acumen, and practices of note
ChildWelfare.gov created a framework to guide social workers through the investigation process, as well as the ultimate decisions of how to approach each individual situation once adequate assessments have been completed.

First, social workers will need to understand the tenets of identifying the comprehensive state of affairs involved in the homes they are investigating, such as the mitigating factors involved in the environmental, personal, and familial arrangements. Then, they have to choose whether a “strength-based” or “developmental” approach will work toward the best interests of the children and the family as a whole.

The former leverages the positive elements of the environment and family structure to try to fix the problems taking place, while the latter is more wholly devoted to the individual person who is at risk. Judgment plays a big role in these decisions, but social workers in this field are given immense education to ensure that these decisions are guided by fact rather than emotion and opinion.

Here are some of the values and knowledge ChildWelfare.gov suggests as being vital to the success of social workers in the child protective services profession:

  • Belief that child’s rights include care from a stable and supportive family
  • A passionate work ethic and commitment to keeping families together, protecting children at all costs, and creatively furthering the successful outcomes of child protective services endeavors
  • Well-rounded knowledge of family dynamics
  • Strong handle over the entirety of options when it comes to approaches to child protective services
  • Informed, sound judgment in terms of developing and executing a plan of action for children who are proven to be maltreated

The manual also states that social workers who enter the field must be experts at identifying instances of neglect and abuse, communicating plans of action and reasons to the entire family, and family psychology.

Balancing intangibles, education

Social workers who intend to specialize in child protective services will need to possess the following intangible characteristics:

  • Extreme desire to assist children and families in becoming healthier and more stable
  • Ability to remain strong in the face of truly troubling situations
  • Commitment to judgments and decisions without emotional impediment
  • Respect for challenges presented by poverty and other socially driven factors during the investigation and remediation processes

These professionals will also need to have a well-rounded social work education that includes:

  • A strong balance of classroom and experiential coursework
  • Proven ability to research, conceptualize, and apply hard facts and evidence related to child protection, family welfare, and similar subject matter
  • Comprehensive teaching of legislation and laws related to child protective services
  • Specialization in state child protective services rules and regulations

Due to the intense and trying elements of social work in general, but especially child protective services and relevant investigations, prospective professionals might want to consider getting their Master of Social Work degree before entering into the workforce. The more knowledge and experience students have when they graduate, the more likely they will hit the ground running and more immediately have a positive impact on the communities they serve.

These professionals should also ensure that they are attending a Master of Social Work program that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education, and satisfy the criteria demanded by the state they choose to work in for licensure.

Sources:

https://www.childstats.gov/americaschildren/fam_fig.asp

https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2014.pdf

http://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org/media-room/media-kit/national-statistics-child-abuse

https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/07/in-a-year-child-protective-services-conducted-32-million-investigations/374809/

https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes330000.htm

https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211021.htm

https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/cps.pdf

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