Who's Who in the Child Welfare System

Health care providers caring for children in the child welfare system may need to interact with a number of different child welfare professionals. Sometimes, understanding everyone's role can become confusing. Below is a list of key child welfare professionals and their responsibilities.

Child protective services

Child protective services(CPS) investigators are State or County employees assigned to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect. In most jurisdictions, the CPS investigator's involvement in a child's case is limited to the investigation period, after which the case is transferred to an "ongoing" caseworker. While their roles are the same, child protective services agencies in different States or Counties may have different names. For example, one County CPS agency may be called the "Department of Human Services," while a neighboring County's CPS agency could be named the "Office of Children and Youth."

State/County Caseworkers

State/County caseworkers are public employees responsible for ongoing case management and oversight. They assess child and family needs, write Family Service Plans (FSP), arrange treatment services and other supports, schedule and monitor visitation, make periodic visits to foster and adoptive homes, work with birth parents, plan for children's permanency, and report to the Court on child and family progress. In some jurisdictions, the State/County caseworker may also be responsible for supervising foster or adoptive parents, though this role is often "contracted out" (see "Private provider caseworkers" below).

Private Provider Caseworkers

Private provider caseworkers are employees of agencies that contract with State/County child protective services agencies. They work together with State/County caseworkers to ensure that children and families involved with the child welfare system receive the services they require. Typically, private provider agencies recruit, train, and maintain foster and adoptive homes, and their caseworkers supervise children's placement experiences in these homes. Their duties sometimes overlap with those of the State/County caseworker, though the State/County caseworker retains oversight of the case. Whenever there is a private provider caseworker assigned to a case, there is also a State/County caseworker involved.

Dependency Court Judges

Dependency Court judges hear cases involving abuse, neglect, or abandonment of minors. There are no juries in Dependency Court. The judge weighs information presented by attorneys, social workers, service providers, family members, and others whose testimony may be required and makes decisions about the child's placement and about services for the child and birth family.

Child Advocate Attorneys

Child advocate attorneys are assigned by the Court to protect the rights of minors in abuse and neglect cases. They represent children in court proceedings and present the child's views and desires for consideration by the judge.

Guardians ad Litem

Guardians ad litem (GAL) are adults appointed by judges to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in Court. GALs are legally responsible for safeguarding the well-being of children involved in dependency proceedings, though they are not usually attorneys. GALs may engage in interviewing relevant parties, gathering facts, giving testimony, and making recommendations to the Court. (NOTE: GALs are not assigned to every child.)

Court Appointed Special Advocates

Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) are volunteers appointed by judges to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in Court and in other settings. Though CASA volunteers do not always have legal training, they do have a strong voice in Court and are expected to advocate for children, help ensure their needs are met, and help move cases through social service and Court systems. (NOTE: CASA volunteers are not assigned to every child.)

Resource Parent

Resource parent is a broad term used to refer to foster and adoptive parents.

  • Foster parents provide a temporary home for children who cannot remain with their birth parents. Foster parents are recruited, trained, licensed, and supervised by State, County, or private provider agencies. They are responsible for providing day-to-day care for children; ensuring they attend school, all necessary appointments, and other activities; and working with caseworkers to facilitate visitation with birth family. Foster parents do not have legal custody of the children placed in their homes. (See Tips for Working with Child Welfare Teams below for more on consent issues.)
  • Adoptive parents are caregivers who are granted legal custody of children placed in their care by child welfare authorities. They often adopt children who have been living with them in a foster care arrangement, but not all adoptive parents begin as foster parents. As with foster parents, adoptive parents are recruited, trained, and approved by State, County, or private provider agencies. If an adoptive parent has no previous relationship with the child they wish to adopt (i.e., they have not fostered that child), a supervised pre-adoptive placement period is required before an adoption is finalized.
  • Kinship caregivers are foster or adoptive parents who are also relatives of the children placed in their care. Their role and responsibilities are the same as with non-kin foster or adoptive parents.