Intake is the first stage of the CPS process, the front door. Careful, detailed, and thorough work at this stage lays the foundation for making well-informed decisions throughout the life of the case. There has been a tendency to devalue the intake process, and this is a mistake. The quality and consistency of the information gathered at this stage directly impacts subsequent intervention; what happens at the front door impacts our entire child welfare system. Reports of suspected child abuse, neglect and dependency are received, and it is crucial that the intake social worker use interviewing skills to gather sufficient information from the reporter. Hearing and listening to the reporter leads the intake social worker to begin the inherently judgement based child protection process. Judgments must be made as to whether a CPS assessment is required and as to the urgency of the response necessary. Making the decision to conduct a CPS assessment, to open that front door, leads us to a myriad of judgements that must be made throughout case involvement.
Our goal is consistency in making these judgements, consistency in case decisions, child removal and reunification, pursuit of court intervention, and all service related decisions. Intake decisions can be significantly improved when structured appropriately; specific criteria must be considered for every case by every social worker through highly structured assessment procedures. Defining decision-making criteria and identifying how social workers and supervisors are to apply these criteria will result in greater consistency in making decisions. Structured decision making at Child Protective Services Intake involves the Structured Intake Report, Maltreatment Screening Tools and Response Priority Decision Trees, all of which assist social workers and supervisors in making screening decisions at Intake. After collecting information during Intake and completing the Structured Intake Report, the corresponding Maltreatment Screening Tool which describes criteria for determining if a report meets the statutory requirements is completed, then the coordinating Response Priority Decision Tree is used to aid in making decisions on the time within which a report requires initial contact. The Structured Decision Making System consists of the following components: Screening Tools, Response Priority Decision Tree, Safety Assessment, Family Risk Assessment, Family Strengths and Needs Assessment, Case Decision Summary/Initial Case Plan, Family Risk Reassessment, and Family Reunification Assessment. A Response Priority Decision-Making Tree outlines the CPS Intake Process, from the receipt of a child abuse, neglect, or dependency report to the initiation of a CPS investigation. (National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Children’s Research Center. The Improvement of Child Protective Services with Structured Decision Making: The CRC Model. 1999)
The Structured Decision-Making Model clearly identifies factors that establish consistent screening criteria for the identification of new child abuse/neglect/dependency reports. This results in greater consistency among social workers and allows the agency to easily convey the manner in which a response to each referral occurs. The Intake social worker will consult the appropriate Maltreatment Screening Tool after receiving a CPS report and documenting the information on the Structured Intake Report. The Maltreatment Screening Tools are based on North Carolina statutes, research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and various states. The abuse screening tools include: physical injury, cruel/grossly inappropriate behavior modification, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and moral turpitude. The neglect screening tools include: improper care, improper supervision, improper discipline, abandonment, improper medical/remedial care, injurious environment, and illegal placement/adoption. Reports alleging dependency necessitate consulting the dependency screening tool. When a reporter alleges maltreatment pertaining to substance abuse and/or domestic violence, the substance abuse and/or domestic violence screening tool should be consulted. Your review of the screening tool enables you to answer the question: If the reported information were true, does it minimally meet the statutory guidelines for child abuse, neglect or dependency? This requires that Intake social workers have a current knowledge of statutory guidelines in order to identify and categorize child abuse, neglect and dependency. Screening decisions at Intake remain two level decisions; incorporating the social worker and supervisor’s professional judgement along with the consistency provided through the use of the screening tools.
A decision tree approach incorporates and prioritizes critical factors which lead to a staff decision about the speed of response. Upon receipt of a CPS report, the appropriate Screening Tools are consulted. After determining that the CPS report is valid it is necessary to determine the speed of response required. Consulting the appropriate Response Priority Decision Tree results in a determination regarding response time:
• Physical Abuse Response Priority Decision Tree
• Sexual Abuse Response Priority Decision Tree
• Neglect Response Priority Decision Tree
• Dependency Response Priority Decision Tree
Making effective intake decisions requires social workers to have competent interviewing skills, awareness of the information needed, the skill to organize and analyze information to arrive at accurate conclusions, and the ability to support reporters. The reporter’s information/impressions regarding the allegations need to be listened to and documented in detail for the agency’s needs and in order to make the reporter feel they have been heard. Each reporter must be given support and encouragement for his/her decision to make a report. In addition, the reporter's fears and concerns should be elicited and addressed. These can range from fear that the family will retaliate to fear of having to testify in court. It is important to understand that it is often very difficult for the reporter to make the call. The telephone call usually comes after much thought has been given to the possible consequences to the child and family. More than likely, the reporter has considered that it would be easier just to do nothing or that the CPS system may not be able to help the family. It is difficult for a reporter to think that his/her call will actually help the family rather than hurt it. While gathering information from the reporter, the distinction between events and judgement is important. The position of the caller can be determined from a compilation of the judgements he/she is making about the case. CPS social workers will be able to make better judgements about the case if they have a good understanding of the reporter’s position. Helpful questions that can be used to establish the reporter’s position include:
1.) What, in your view are the worst aspects of the behavior you are talking about?
2.) What convinced you to take action and call us now?
3.) What have you done (besides making the report) to address the problem?
4.) What do you see as the cause of the problem?
5.) Have you talked about these matters with anyone who knows the family? Would others agree with your perspective? What would they say?
6.) Would the parents of the family agree with your assessment of the situation?
Many times reporters will think more carefully about family situations when they are questioned about exceptions and family strengths. Focusing on strengths at Intake is central. While it is important to know the reporter’s concerns about the risk to the children, it is crucial that the message is conveyed that CPS is about ensuring safe homes for children, not about identifying bad parents and taking children away.
In some instances, the reporter may know about exceptions to the current family situation, and some of the following questions may be useful:
1.) It sounds like this has happened before, have you ever seen the family do anything to work this out on their own?
2.) Are there times when the parent is attentive instead of neglectful? Tell me more about those times. What did the parent and child do instead? What do you think made the parent respond differently?
3.) You said the child always seems depressed. Are there any times when you’ve seen the child be happy? What is going on then?
Some questions that may be useful in eliciting strengths include:
1.) Can you share anything good about these parents?
2.) How do family members usually solve this problem? What have you seen them do in the past?
3.) What do you see as a positive regarding the relationship between parent and child?
Another line of questioning that may be helpful includes talking with the reporter about what they hope can be accomplished for the family. Discussing safety shifts the focus from problems to possible solutions. Some of these questions include:
1.) This situation sounds serious. What do you think should happen? How would that solve the problem?
2.) Calling DSS is a big step. In your opinion, what would it take to make the child safer?
3.) What do you imagine us doing to make the child safer?
4.) What do you think this family should do? What are they capable of doing?
5.) You are saying this family has problems, can you tell me how we will know when the problem is solved?
Talking with the reporter about goals can also be initiated through the use of scaling questions. The social worker can ask the reporter to rate the seriousness of the situation through a safety scaling question; “On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 meaning you are certain the child will be abused again and you believe we should take action immediately, with 10 meaning the problems are solved, where would you rate the seriousness of this situation?” Following this question, the Intake social worker can then ask, “You rated the situation a 3, what can be done to increase the situation to a 4?” The use of a scaling question here gives information about immediate progress as compared to complete resolution.
Questions associated with a safety approach may be unexpected, causing the reporter to think more critically about the situation. It may be necessary for the Intake social worker to take more time to explain the questions and acknowledge that some of the questions may be unexpected. There will be some reporters who are willing to engage in a discussion regarding safety and some reporters will not be willing to enter this discussion because they feel they have done their job by notifying DSS. Exceptions, strengths and goal-oriented questions cause the reporter to think about the family’s situation and stress the idea that child safety and protection is a community issue which calls for collective responsibility. (Turnell, A., Edwards, S., Signs of Safety: A Solution and Safety Oriented Approach to Child Protection)
In our desire to move towards a more family-centered, strengths based perspective it is important to remember that the reporter’s first impression at Intake is crucial. The expectation is that the reporter is able to speak to a professional regarding their concerns and is not forced to leave a message or required to say the exact words, I want to make a CPS report, in order to share their safety concerns regarding the child and family. Every effort should be made to speak with the reporter at the time the call is placed. It is important to remember that time frames for responding to reports of abuse, neglect and dependency begin at the time the reporter contacts the agency. In messaging situations, this means that the time frame for response begins at the time the reporter left the message, not the time the call was returned. There may be many times where the reporter does not have access to a telephone on a regular basis and can not leave a number for the call to be returned. The absence of an immediate personal response to a reporter sends a message of apathy to that reporter and the general public. We are mandated to provide Child Protective Services 24 hours per day, 7 days per week and we are required to respond immediately to emergency situations. Assessing whether an immediate response is required is impossible when those concerns are left on a messaging system. The absence of a personal response at Intake jeopardizes our ability to provide quality protective services to children.
For questions or clarification on any of the policy contained in these manuals, please contact your local county office.