A Glimpse at the Child Welfare System: An Introduction to Child Protective Services

(June 9, 2023)

How does a child become involved in the child welfare system?

There are many different ways that a child may become involved in the child welfare system or child protective services. These state agencies may go by many different names: In Allegheny County, the child protective services agency is called Children Youth and Families (CYF). In Westmoreland County, on the other hand, the child protective services agency is called Children and Youth Services (CYS). Regardless of the name, the missions are all the same: to protect children from abuse and neglect while preserving the family unit when at all possible. Child protective services are crucial to help ensure the safety of all children with the ultimate goal of keeping children out of the child welfare system whenever possible. If there is any concern or suspicion that a child is being abused or neglected, a report should be made to Pennsylvania’s ChildLine and Abuse Registry, known commonly as “ChildLine,” no matter which county the child resides in. Anyone can call the toll-free hotline at 1-800-932-0313, 24 hours a day, seven days a week to report suspected child abuse. In Allegheny County, a report can also be made directly to the CYF Intake/Call Screening Department at 412-473-2000.

Who can make a report of suspected child abuse or neglect?

Any concerned person can report suspicions of child abuse or neglect, and reports may be made anonymously. Reports often come from “mandated reporters.” Mandated reporters are certain adults who are required by law to report suspected or known instances of abuse. In Pennsylvania, some examples of mandated reporters are school employees, childcare workers, religious or spiritual leaders, medical professionals, law enforcement, coroners/funeral directors, and social services professionals. Reports do not need to just come from mandated reporters. The general public can make a report of abuse or neglect as well. Reports may also come from concerned neighbors, friends, or family members. As mentioned earlier, a report made can be a suspicion of abuse or neglect, if you have a strong suspicion that abuse or neglect is happening, but you are not completely sure, it is still crucial that you report this suspicion.

The report was made, so what’s next?

Caseworkers respond within a few hours to a few days after a report is entered, depending on the type of maltreatment alleged, the potential severity of the situation, and requirements under State law. They begin their investigation, which should include speaking with the parents and other people in contact with the child, such as doctors, teachers, or childcare providers. They should also speak with the child, alone or in the presence of caregivers, depending on the child’s age and level of risk. They also should talk to the reporting source for additional information or documentation. In addition to investigating the allegations, the caseworker should engage the family to assess their strengths and needs, and initiate connections to community resources and services. At the end of the investigation, CYF has to make a determination of whether abuse or neglect exists.

When removal is necessary

CYF works diligently to try and keep the children at home with their family with appropriate and needed supportive services in place. Unfortunately, this is not always an option and children have to be removed from their home. This should only be done when there is imminent risk of harm or safety because research shows that when a child is removed from the home, there are detrimental and permanent effects on the child. The removal process causes irreversible trauma to both children and their families. Children who are believed to be in immediate danger of continued maltreatment may be moved to a shelter, a foster home, or a relative’s home during the investigation and while court proceedings are pending. If a child is removed, a shelter hearing is required by law within 72 hours to determine whether that course of action is warranted and if there is a need for continued out-of-home placement.

Based on testimony and other evidence that may be presented by the CYF caseworker, the child, the parents, and their legal representatives, the court will need to make several different determinations, detailed below.


  • Order that CYF file a Petition for Dependency – see below for more information
  • Appoint an educational and/or medical decision maker if the parents are unable to fulfill this role
  • Terminate court activity if no evidence of abuse or neglect occurred


  • Order that the child be returned to the parents
  • Order that the child remain in the current placement
  • Order that a child be moved to a less restrictive environment (i.e. if a child is in a shelter, the judge may order that the child be placed in a relative placement/kinship care or foster care)


  • Order services to assist the child and family to help with the issues at hand
  • Order transportation assistance for the parents to visit their children and/or attend services or treatment
  • Order financial assistance, clothing, or other concrete goods to help the family

Petition for Dependency Explained

If the court determines that a child needs ongoing court supervision, a dependency petition will need to be filed. The petition will outline the allegations as to why the child needs to be “dependent,” which means the court makes decisions concerning the protection, well-being, care, and custody of a child. In other words, the parents still maintain their paternal rights but the judge will temporarily make decisions for the child. A dependency petition can be filed by anyone but most often it is filed by CYF. It can also be filed for a child who is residing at home or who has already been removed from the home. All parties have a right to representation at a petition hearing. Parents who meet the financial guidelines can be appointed a parent advocate to represent them at the hearing. In Allegheny County, children are appointed an attorney through KidsVoice at no cost, unless KidsVoice determines that there is a legal conflict. In that case, a conflict attorney will be appointed to the child to provide representation at the petition hearing and any subsequent proceedings. The role of KidsVoice or any other attorney in dependency proceedings is to make best interest recommendations to the court. At the petition hearing, the court must determine if there is clear and convincing evidence that this is a dependent child based on the evidence provided by the petitioner (in most cases, CYF). If a child is adjudicated dependent and it is determined that court supervision is necessary, the court must consider dispositional issues including:

  • Where the child should reside (is it safe for the child to remain at home or be returned home with court supervision)
  • What services does the child and/or family need to mitigate the issues/concerns which led to dependency
  • What visitation should look like for the child and parents/siblings (supervised, unsupervised, location, duration, etc.)
  • Appropriate permanency goals for the child (remain home, reunification if the child has been removed, adoption, etc.)
  • The next hearing date

If there is not sufficient evidence of dependency, the petition will be dismissed and the court activity will immediately cease. CYF can still work with and support the family without court involvement. If dependency/court involvement is necessary, the goal is to remedy the situation as quickly as possible but with the safety of the child at the forefront of any decision-making. CYF is legally obligated to provide services and support to parents to help reach reunification and court closure. When at all possible, children should be with their parents. Perfection is not the goal. Children need safe and loving homes, not perfect homes.

The child welfare system is quite complex and can be rather confusing. This is just a peek into what can happen if a child becomes involved with the child welfare system. I look forward to writing a series of blogs to help unpack this complicated system and how prevention can help reduce abuse and neglect as well as family separation.