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Process reduces caseload for child protective services

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Social workers with the state Division of Child Protective Services are responding to far fewer cases than five years ago.

Officials attribute those lower numbers to a three-year-old, three-tier process for responding to potential child abuse cases.

Last week, Child Protective Services took custody of a 2-year-old boy after authorities found the toddler wandering alone in Charleston twice in two days. His mother, Freda Gilmore, 20, now is charged with child neglect creating risk of injury.

Despite that widely reported case, CPS statistics indicate there are far fewer child abuse and neglect cases now than in 2007.

CPS took action on 1,569 child welfare cases in March 2013, according to the latest data available from the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Those figures include children removed from their homes and cases where social workers placed parents accused of abuse or neglect on improvement plans to remedy potentially dangerous home situations.

CPS is working significantly fewer cases than in 2007, when the agency took action on an average of 2,300 cases per month.

Active cases steadily declined from 2008 to 2010, dropping as low as 1,483, but have increased slightly over the last two years.

In 2012, CPS social workers took action on an average 1,542 cases per month. That still is nearly 800 fewer cases per month than in 2007.

DHHR spokeswoman Marsha Dadisman attributed the overall decrease in active cases to the state's Safety Assessment and Management System, which in 2010 established a three-step process for examining child protection cases.

While anyone can report suspected child abuse or neglect to CPS, certain individuals including social workers, teachers, clergy, police and emergency medical services personnel are required by law to do so.

The first step in the process is an "intake assessment," with a social worker interviewing the individual who made the report. If the social worker finds the child in question is not in danger, they refer the family to other resources that could help the situation.

If the child is in danger, the social worker moves to the second step, a "family functioning assessment." During this stage social workers will interview the child and his or her siblings, parents, caregivers, the alleged abuser and any other persons who might have information.

State law requires a CPS social worker have face-to-face contact with the child within 72 hours of the intake assessment if the child is in imminent danger. Otherwise, they must contact the child within 14 days.

If the social worker still believes the child has been neglected or abused, or is in danger of being neglected or abused, they move to the third and final step, a "family case plan evaluation."

Social workers develop a plan with the family to improve living conditions in the home, to ensure the child will be safe. CPS continues monitoring the situation until social workers determine the children are safe at home or have been permanently placed in another living arrangement.

CPS has several options to ensure the child's safety until their home situation is remedied. They can implement an improvement plan for parents. If problems in the home stem from shut-off utilities or a lack of food, social workers connect families with appropriate aid agencies.

"We go out and the children may be safe, or there may be some minor issues we can help the family out with and refer them to the appropriate services," said Toby Lester, child protective services policy specialist for the state Bureau for Children and Families.

But in drastic cases, CPS workers must remove children from their homes.

Lester said CPS does that for a number of reasons.

 "It can run the gamut from physical injuries to lack of food," he said. "Any kind of behavior that is threatening to the child, that could be from substance abuse to domestic violence to neglect, lack of supervision."

He said most cases involve substance abuse or domestic violence, however.

Social workers file a petition with the circuit court, requesting that the judge grant CPS custody of the child. If a circuit judge is not available and the child is in imminent danger, Lester said workers can file an emergency petition with a magistrate.

Kathie King, program manager for social services policy at the Bureau for Children and Families, said the agency prefers to place children with extended family members when they must be removed from their parents' custody.

"That's less traumatic for the child. It helps the child maintain some family connections and perhaps even get to reside in their own neighborhood and their own school," she said.

Social workers perform a preliminary inspection before the child moves in, making sure the living conditions are acceptable and there is no evidence of crime or abuse in the family members' home. Workers will continue to make visits to the home, performing background checks and more thorough assessments of the home.

If there are no family members available, children are moved to foster families.

King said in most cases children eventually are reunited with one or both parents. When that is not possible, children go to another permanent placement that could include adoption, a legal guardianship agreement or long-term foster care.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.

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