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Child protective services has 'outlived its usefulness,' pediatrician says

October 05, 2010
  • Visits by child protective services often fail to help children in the long term.
Visits by child protective services often fail to help children in the long… (Alexander Gallardo / Los…)

Much attention has been focused on the inadequacy of child protective services agencies in the United States. That attention includes a Los Angeles Times' 2009 series on flaws in local CPS operations titled "Innocents Betrayed." A new study confirms the difficulty of child protective services agencies nationwide in altering the fate of abused or neglected children.


Researchers used a national database to examine the outcomes of 595 children ages 4 to 8 who were considered at high risk for abuse or neglect. About one-quarter of the children had been the subject of a child protective services investigation for suspected child maltreatment. But when researchers examined the children at age 8, they found that children who were subjects of investigations fared no better than noninvestigated children in the study on such measures as social support, family functioning, poverty, maternal education and child behavior problems. In other words, being the subject of a CPS investigation did nothing to improve the lives of the children.

In fairness, the focus of a child protective services investigation is not larger issues such as poverty or lack of parental education. Instead, CPS targets immediate threats to safety. But, the authors wrote: "The lack of change in household characteristics known to be associated with repeat abuse suggests that CPS intervention represents a missed opportunity to improve outcomes for children at high risk for future maltreatment, medical problems and behavioral problems." Moreover, they said, it's not clear that the actions taken by child protective services to reduce an immediate threat do anything to reduce future threats of abuse and neglect.


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill targeted at the Los Angeles County database that will provide social workers with information about a family's history during a child-abuse investigation. Improvements to the child protective services system are desperately needed, but piecemeal measures may not be enough. According to an editorial, titled "Child Protective Services Has Outlived Its Usefulness," that accompanied the study, the system, which was launched by the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974, needs an overhaul. Although physical and sexual abuse of children has declined nationwide, many abuses today are related to neglect, a category that CPS has not done a satisfactory job of responding to, according to Dr. Abraham B. Bergman of Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He suggests that allegations of physical or sexual abuse be investigated by law enforcement personnel while public health nurses should be the first responders to cases of child neglect. Professionally trained social workers, he writes, can do assessments and counseling and secure resources and services for families.

The study and commentary were published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.


-- Shari Roan / Los Angeles Times


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