Skip to Content
Resource Articles //

What Every Social Worker Should Know About Child Protective Services

All types of social workers can come into contact with an abused child. Fortunately, CPS can help.

There are few things more disturbing than the thought of a child being neglected or abused. And yet, all across the U.S., children are maltreated every day.

If you plan on starting or continuing a social work career, you may at some point encounter a case of child abuse or neglect. That’s because all types of careers for social workers—from clinical social workers to child and family social workers to school social workers—work with people and families experiencing difficult situations. Sometimes, these situations can lead to or involve the maltreatment of children.

What Every Social Worker Should Know About Child Protective Services

Fortunately, there are systems in place to help. Every state in the U.S. has an agency devoted to helping ensure child welfare. Called Child Protective Services (CPS) in most states, these agencies investigate and respond to cases of child abuse and neglect. In your social work practice, if you encounter a situation where you suspect child mistreatment, CPS is where you can turn for help. But to know how much they can help, you need to understand how the system works and who it affects.

All States Have Their Own Laws

There is no federal agency that oversees the administration/execution of laws designed to protect children from abuse or neglect. However, the federal government does provide guidance. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), 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.

This statute is considered the minimum definition of child maltreatment and states are free to enact more comprehensive definitions. Most states recognize four major types of maltreatment: neglect, physical abuse, psychological maltreatment, and sexual abuse. These can occur separately or in any combination.

There Are Millions of Investigations a Year

Every year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services releases a report on child maltreatment and states’ efforts to combat it. The report from 2015 provides a number of insights,* reconfirming the need for passionate social workers:

  • CPS agencies received an estimated 4 million referrals involving approximately 7.2 million children.
  • Professionals made approximately 63.4% of reports alleging child abuse and neglect.
  • The national estimate of children who received a child protective services investigation response or alternative response increased 9% from 2011 to 2015.
  • The number and rate of victims have fluctuated during the past 5 years. Comparing the national estimate of victims from 2011 (658,000) to the rounded number of reported victims in 2015 (683,000) shows an increase of 3.8%.
  • 75.3% of victims were neglected, 17.2% were physically abused, and 8.4% were sexually abused.
  • A nationally estimated 1,670 children died of abuse and neglect in 2015 at a rate of 2.25 per 100,000 children in the national population.

The CPS Process Is Thorough

In most states, a CPS investigation begins when anyone reports a case of suspected child abuse or neglect. Once a case is reported, CPS is required by law to investigate, although some cases are screened-out quickly due to a serious lack of evidence.

For cases that are screened-in, CPS will typically request 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. CPS workers are not law enforcement, so individuals under investigation may refuse to follow CPS requests. However, CPS can obtain court orders.

If CPS believes a child is being abused or neglected, they can remove the child and put the child in the legal care of another family member or in a foster home. In most states, CPS must receive a court order for removal within 24 hours of removing a child. Guardians who’ve had a child removed can challenge that removal in court. In lieu of removal, CPS can give guardians the option of placing the child with a friend or family member while the guardian resolves issues relating to the child’s care.

CPS, however, is not just about investigations. In most states, CPS agencies also provide child services designed to keep families stable. CPS can help secure resources such as diapers and formula, and can also provide counseling services. In fact, there are quite a few social worker jobs within CPS agencies.

How To Become a Social Worker Who Helps Maltreated Children

If you want to help children who are being or have been maltreated, one of the best choices you can make is to earn a social work degree. Depending where you are in your career path, you may wish to consider a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree program. These degrees in social work can help you gain the skills you need to help children and families through difficult times.

The good news is, you can earn a bachelor’s or master’s in social work online. This means you can attend a school of social work even if you’re working full time or don’t live close to a university with a BSW or MSW program. Unlike campus-based programs, online social work degree programs allow you to complete the majority of your coursework from home. Plus, online BSW and MSW programs offer you a flexible schedule, giving you the opportunity to attend class at the time of day that works best for you. You can even find online universities with CSWE accreditation, so you can be sure your online education meets the highest standards.

Maltreated children need social workers capable of helping them move past abuse and neglect. By earning an MSW, you can put yourself on the path to making a difference in the lives of at-risk children.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a CSWE-accredited Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work degree programs online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


*Children’s Bureau, Child Maltreatment 2015, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on the internet at as PDF at www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2015.pdf.

Walden University’s Master of Social Work (MSW) program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), a specialized accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation is responsible for developing standards that define competent preparation for professional social workers and ensuring that social work programs meet these standards.

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission, www.hlcommission.org.

Walden University’s Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and Master of Social Work (MSW) programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), a specialized accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation is responsible for developing standards that define competent preparation for professional social workers and ensuring that social work programs meet these standards.

Submitting...