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Are You Cut Out for a Career in Child Protective Services?

Being a CPS social worker can be one of the most challenging and rewarding social work careers.

In 2016, nearly 3.5 million U.S. children received a child protective services (CPS) investigation or alternative response.1 For abused and/or neglected children, these responses are often their best hope of getting out of a bad situation. In some cases, the professionals in a state’s CPS system literally save children’s lives.

If you’re a social worker or want to start a social work career focused on helping children in terrible situations, you’ve likely considered working for child protective services. But are you cut out for it? Here’s what you need to ask yourself.

Are You Cut Out for a Career in Child Protective Services?

Do You Know How the CPS System Is Governed?

While the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act provides guidance on how to protect children from abuse and neglect, no federal agency oversees child protection. Instead, each state has its own CPS system with its own guidelines. If you want to work in child protective services, you will need to understand your state’s specific laws and regulations pertaining to child abuse and neglect.

Do You Know How CPS Typically Works?

There are quite a few social worker jobs within CPS agencies. Some social workers are directly involved in the investigation of abuse or neglect, while others provide counseling services to at-risk families as well as to victims and families in recovery. However, all CPS social workers need to be aware of how the system operates—and aware that protecting children requires following the proper guidelines and legal procedures. In most states, CPS procedure includes these basic steps:

  • Someone reports to CPS a case of suspected child abuse or neglect.
  • CPS screens the case to determine if there is enough evidence to warrant an investigation.
  • For screened-in cases, CPS requests to visit the child’s home and interview the child. They may also request to drug-test the child’s guardian and/or interview the guardian and other adults familiar with the child’s situation.
  • If the individuals under investigation refuse to comply with CPS requests, CPS must drop the case or obtain court orders. 
  • If, at any point, CPS believes a child is being abused or neglected, it can remove the child from the home. However, in most states, CPS must receive a court order for the removal within 24 hours of removing the child.
  • Guardians who’ve had a child removed can challenge that removal in court.
  • The child will live in foster care or with a family member while the guardian resolves issues relating to the child’s care.
  • Whether the child returns to the guardian depends on CPS discretion and/or legal rulings.  

Do You Have the Right Traits?

As a CPS social worker, you’ll work with children who’ve suffered trauma, the guardians who’ve inflicted trauma, other family members who’ve witnessed the trauma, and/or the family members tasked with taking care of children after they’ve been removed from their guardian. It’s not a job everyone can excel at. However, having the following four traits can help:

Empathy: All types of social workers need empathy, because in order to help people get through difficult situations, you have to understand what they are feeling.

Trustworthiness: CPS cases, particularly those dealing with the removal of a child, can leave those affected feeling unmoored. For them to get through the situation, they have to trust that you have their best interests at heart.

Flexibility: Situations—and people’s emotions—can change quickly when dealing with cases of child abuse and neglect. You have to be able to adjust course at moment’s notice.

Resilience: It’s emotionally draining to work closely with children who’ve suffered abuse and/or neglect. To keep going, you have to be the kind of person who can rebound quickly.

Do You Have the Right Social Worker Degree?

Before you’re qualified to begin any type of social work practice—CPS social worker, clinical social worker, medical social worker, etc.—you have to earn a degree in social work. For CPS work—particularly if you want to rise to the managerial level—one of the most useful degrees to earn is a Master of Social Work.

Why should you choose a master’s degree in social work? Because it can give you the skills and qualifications you need to make an impact at all levels of CPS, from the local agency level to the state level. And the good news is, you don’t have to upend your life to earn a master’s degree. Some of the top online universities with a School of Social Work have CSWE accreditation and allow you to earn a high-quality Master of Social Work (MSW degree) without having to drive to a campus or attend class at inconvenient times. Through these accredited online master’s programs, you can complete coursework from home on a schedule that lets you choose when in the day you attend class—making online education an excellent choice for anyone working full time and/or handling family responsibilities.

Working with CPS can be one of the most challenging and rewarding careers in social work. Through the right online degree program, you can gain the skills and credentials you need to help vulnerable children receive the protection and services they need.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a CSWE-accredited Master of Social Work degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,