Step Four: Determining Substance
After its initial investigation, ACS determines where a case is "unfounded" or "indicated." The vocabulary of ACS is littered with acronyms and abbreviations. It also employs a range of terms unique to child welfare.
In this context, "unfounded" means that the concerns articulated in the complaint cannot be substantiated as neglect or abuse. (It doesn't mean there hasn't been abuse, only that the specific complaint does not meet the ACS standard of abuse.)
Unfounded cases can simply end or a caseworker can recommend that the family receive voluntary preventive social services, like counseling or parenting classes, that are designed to strengthen the whole family. In most cases, referrals are to programs run by nonprofit organizations, from large social-service agencies to community-based centers. These recommendations are not binding and there's little follow-up to see if families take the caseworker's advice or how long they stay with suggested programs. Unfounded cases end at this step; families go home, with their children.
"Indicated" cases, on the other hand, means that a complaint meets ACS criteria for investigation. It is not a conclusion of guilt, but a decision to open a formal investigation. About 40 percent of initial investigations result in 'indicated' cases.
Indicated cases are those that show "some credible evidence" of abuse or neglect, according to ACS. These are the cases that officially enter the ACS network.
The human factor:
"Some credible evidence" is a broad term that is subject to interpretation: It's wholly possible that one investigator may determine that a child whose family permits her to stay home often from school is a victim of educational neglect, for example, while another may look at the same child's repeated absences as symptoms of family unemployment or homelessness and not deliberate neglect. Workload, case-management demands, and geography also influence how often a caseworker actually sees the child and family. Case determinations are the product of team meetings, each of which involve a number of individuals, increasing the range of possible responses and determinations. And families who are directed to receive voluntary services may in fact elect not to participate.