For many families, their first encounter with the child welfare system is a life-changing one. They receive support services, and the children experience positive and hopefully permanent changes in their home lives.

For other families, reports to Child Protective Services (CPS) add up over the years. There’s the first report, then the 10th, the 20th and even higher. These families often deal with a toxic combination of poverty, mental illness and addiction issues, and the children suffer from chronic neglect, physical and sexual abuse. Depending on the extent of the intervention, change may not happen for the family or, most critically, the children even as repeat reports accumulate.

Some researchers call these families with many CPS reports “frequently encountered families.” For frequently encountered families, the concern is that children suffer lifetime damage due to maltreatment which then extends into the next generation.

These families often slip through the cracks of a large and complex system, but they take up disproportionately more CPS resources than other families. Meanwhile, the strained system often fails to recognize these families as ones experiencing chronic maltreatment.

For children, the results can be devastating. Chronic, severe neglect is linked to lifelong adverse health outcomes, learning and behavioral issues and, most devastatingly, a greater risk of death.

Much of the research done on frequently encountered families is out of date. But a study from the 1990s showed that of more than 33,000 Missouri families with CPS reports, one-fifth had five or more reports in five years. Of those, nearly half had five or six reports in the following five-year period, a quarter had seven or eight reports and the remaining quarter had nine or more reports. One CPS supervisor referred to it as the “500 families,” not large in numbers but large in impact on the entire child welfare system.

In a recent blog post at the Child Welfare Monitor, author Marie Cohen cites a climate of anti-interventionism, combined with a reluctance to spend money and a lack of public concern about child maltreatment as reasons why these families go overlooked with no relief in sight.

In Texas, where child welfare officials have been facing a long-term shortage of foster homes and therapeutic placements, children living in hotels, CPS offices or other unlicensed facilities often are those from frequently encountered families. Due to the cognitive, emotional and physical challenges of living through severe, chronic neglect, many of these children are exceedingly difficult to place in foster homes or are prone to being expelled from facilities when they break rules or are too hard to handle.

Texas Family Based Safety Services (FBSS) are a stop-gap measure for families, a chance for intervention before a legal action involving involuntary child removals. But FBSS has become a less frequent option, with 77% of Dallas County substantiated investigations closing last year without any referral of the family or children to services. A very small percentage of families whose children are confirmed victims are being referred to FBSS today.

So what can those who care about children do?

  • Dallas CASA volunteers assigned to the same family on subsequent CPS reports can ensure that all parties to the case are aware of the history.
  • Dallas CASA volunteers can always ask to review case history at CPS to gain an understanding of the full history of the case.
  • Focus on safe, permanent homes as soon as possible and prioritize the search for relatives to maintain a family connection.

As Nelson Mandela said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”