What to Know About Child Protective Services?

Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on September 21, 2022

Child Protective Services is tasked with the welfare and protection of children. While each state has its own agency with stated responsibilities, there are also some federal guidelines. We will look at some of the duties of Child Protective Services and how it goes about doing them.

What Is Child Protective Services?

Child Protective Services (CPS) is a division of your state’s social services. This division is responsible for evaluating, analyzing, and intervening in cases of child abuse and neglect, including possible sexual abuse. CPS follows state and federal laws to decide whether a child has been abused or is at risk of abuse by their parents or caretakers.

The term “Child Protective Services” is broadly used to identify the agency, but the division is known by different names in various states. For example, in Texas, it’s called the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), while in Georgia, it’s known as the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS). All of these agencies work to secure the welfare of children in their respective states.

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) was passed in 1974. It highlighted the need to look after vulnerable children in the U.S. This act defines child abuse as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

The U.S. does not have a federal agency tasked with upholding child protection laws. It depends on the state agencies to enforce CAPTA. This act is widely regarded as the basic definition of child maltreatment but allows states to widen its scope. Several U.S. states identify four major forms of maltreatment:

State agencies typically act in cases where children face one or more of these forms of abuse. 

According to a 2015 report prepared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Around 75% of child abuse victims were neglected, 17% faced physical abuse, and roughly 8% were sexually abused.
  • In 2015, 1,670 children in the United States died of abuse and neglect.

How Does Child Protective Services Work?

The state agencies typically get involved when incidences of suspected abuse or neglect are reported. Any concerned citizen can approach the CPS to report possible child abuse or neglect. Many incidents are reported by “mandatory reporters,” professionals obligated under state law to report such incidents. They often include:

  • Law enforcement officers
  • Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers
  • Social workers
  • Teachers, principals, and other school staff
  • Mental health professionals
  • Probation or parole officers

The list of mandatory reporters differs from one state to another. Once the CPS gets a report of a possible incident of abuse, the agency analyzes the situation and decides whether it warrants a thorough investigation. 

When the agency does not have enough evidence to follow up or if the incident does not meet the agency’s criteria of abuse and neglect, it’s screened out. Sometimes, CPS workers may ask the individual reporting the incident to approach other law enforcement or agencies for support.

CPS agencies are authorized to carry out the following activities.

Look into reports. This includes reports of abuse and neglect that the agency gets from mandatory reporters, in accordance with state laws.

Give adequate support. CPS will give prevention services to families that need help taking care of their children. Prevention services are free and structured to keep children in their homes and communities. Prevention services help:

  • Consolidate families
  • Lower the chances of children being placed in foster care
  • Lower the risks of children encountering repeated abuse and neglect
  • Encourage continuity and stability for children in foster care
  • Lower the risk of children going back into foster care once they’ve returned home

Give temporary shelter. If the CPS decides that the child is not safe in their current residence, they will make arrangements for the child to live with a foster family or kin.

Bring children to their families. The CPS works to return children to their families once they’re sure it’s safe. The agency also arranges permanent measures such as adoption or securing their future with family connections once they leave foster care.

What Does Child Protective Services Do?

Once a report is screened in, the CPS usually visits the child’s home and interviews them. They may also interview the guardian and other adults in the house or others familiar with the situation. In some cases, CPS may also ask the guardian to undergo a drug test. As CPS personnel are not law enforcement, individuals being investigated by the agency may refuse their requests. CPS can get court orders, though, to carry out the necessary procedures.

The primary responsibility of the CPS is to secure the child’s future. They consider various factors such as the child’s well-being, including lodging and safety. The CPS also takes measures to help families care for their children. When this is not possible, they attempt to provide stability by helping children find alternative living arrangements. Many children who enter foster care eventually return to their own families, live with their relatives, or are accepted into an adoptive family.

The CPS takes adequate measures to make a home safe for the child’s growth. In some cases, the CPS prefers to remove the child to create a safe environment for them. The CPS considers removing the child from the abusive home only as a last resort, though, after exhausting all other options.

Bear in mind that child abuse, including sexual or neglect, is a crime in all 50 states. This usually calls for the involvement of other law enforcement agencies. While the law enforcement agencies focus on the criminal proceedings against the abuser, the CPS focuses on the family, especially the protection and welfare of the child.

When Should You Call Child Protective Services?

If you believe a child has been physically or sexually abused or is in danger of abuse or neglect, you should call the CPS. If you notice any injuries such as bruises or cuts not caused by accidents, or if you suspect sexual abuse, you can approach your state agency. Other reasons to file a report include neglect by a parent or guardian, due to which the child does not get adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.

Show Sources


Administration for Children’s Services: “Prevention Services.”

California Department of Social Services: “Child Protective Services.”

Child Welfare Information Gateway: “How the Child Welfare System Works,” “Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect.”

Good Therapy: “Child Protective Services.”

Stop It Now: “What is Child Protective Services?”

Walden University: “What Every Social Worker Should Know About Child Protective Services.”

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