The purpose of the hotline tools is to assess:
  • Whether a referral meets the statutory threshold for an in-person CWS response;
  • If not, whether a referral to an alternative community response is appropriate; and
  • If so, how quickly to respond and the path of response.
Which Cases
Preliminary Screening and Appropriateness of a Child Abuse/Neglect Report for Response

All referrals that are created in CWS/CMS.

Response Priority

All referrals that meet statutory threshold for an in-person response, per the Preliminary Screening and Appropriateness of a Child Abuse/Neglect Report for Response tools.

Path of Response Decision*

All referrals that did not meet the statutory threshold for in-person response are assessed using A, Path Decision for Evaluate Out.
All referrals that meet statutory threshold for in-person response are assessed using B, Path Decision for In-Person Response.

*Path of response refers to the response track for referrals under the State of California differential response system. Refer to your local differential response program for specific definitions and practice guidelines related to response paths. The path of response decision is only used in counties with a differential response program.

Preliminary Screening and Appropriateness of a Child Abuse/Neglect Report for Response

Worker receiving the referral.

Response Priority

Worker receiving the referral.

Path of Response Decision*

Worker receiving the referral OR the designated differential response worker.

Preliminary Screening and Appropriateness of a Child Abuse/Neglect Report for Response

Immediately upon receipt of the call.

Response Priority

Immediately upon receipt of the call.

Path of Response Decision*

Referrals with a 24-hour response priority—complete immediately.
Referrals with a 10-day response priority—complete within 24 hours.
Referrals that are evaluated out—complete within five working days.

Preliminary Screening and Appropriateness of a Child Abuse/Neglect Report for Response

Does the referral meet statutory threshold for in-person CWS response (yes or no)?

Response Priority

How quickly to respond. First face-to-face contact should begin or be attempted within 24 hours or within 10 days.

Path of Response Decision*

Records the path of response decision and documents criteria present at the time of the referral.

Appropriate Completion

If a referral was/will be created in CWS/CMS, complete a hotline tool.

Note: For reports of alleged maltreatment in out-of-home care to a dependent or ward child/youth ONLY, the definition of caregiver should include “a person responsible for the child’s care and welfare (including a licensee, administrator or employee of any facility licensed to care for children)” in accordance with PC 11165.5. All other reports should be screened using the standard SDM definition for caregiver.

If the referral does not involve a child under 18 (does not apply in reports of death of the only child or all children in household where death is suspected to be related to abuse or neglect), is a duplicate referral; is being referred to another county, or concerns a safely surrendered baby, select the specific reason under “Review of screening criteria is not required.”

In these cases, the screening decision is complete. Step II, Appropriateness of a Child Abuse/Neglect Report for Response; Step III. Response Priority; and Step IV. Path of Response Decision are not required.

Record the specific reasons in CWS/CMS.


A. Screening Criteria Based on the caller's concerns, select all criteria that apply. Do not select items if the caller's information does not reach the threshold of the definition for an item.

B. Screening Decision Indicate the screening decision. If one or more criteria are marked, the referral is assigned for an in-person CWS response (proceed to Step III. Response Priority). Note that not all referrals assigned for in-person response require the same investigatory action. Refer to state regulatory guidance, the Policy and Procedures sections of the SDM safety and risk assessments, and local protocol to determine the type of CWS response required and the SDM tools that will apply. If no criteria are selected, the referral will be evaluated out (for differential response counties, go to Step IV. A. Path Decision for Evaluate Out; all others require no further action).

Overrides If an override is used to assign a referral for in-person response when no screening criteria are marked in Step II, Section A, no further SDM assessments are required.

A. Decision Trees
  • Allegation concerns maltreatment by current substitute care provider AND county policy requires response within 24 hours (automatic 24-hour). Select if the child is in out-of-home care as a dependent or ward child/youth, and the allegations concern the substitute care provider AND county policy requires a response within 24 hours, making the referral an automatic 24-hour response. If not applicable, proceed to the decision trees.
  • Child is already in custody (automatic 24-hour). If a child has already been taken into protective custody, the referral will be an automatic 24-hour response. Workers in differential response counties should proceed to Step IV. Path of Response Decision.
Select the response priority decision tree that corresponds with the allegation type (physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse). If there is more than one allegation, begin with the most serious allegation. Start with the first question, and gather information from the caller that will lead to an answer of yes or no. Be sure to consult definitions. The response will lead to either a decision regarding response time or to another question. Continue to ask as many questions as are required to arrive at a recommended response time.
  • Additional allegations. Once a response time of 24 hours is reached, it is not necessary to complete additional decision trees, even if there are other allegations. If the first tree leads to a time of 10 days, complete additional decision trees until all allegations are completed or a 24-hour response time has been determined, whichever comes first.
  • Unknown answers. If the reporter's information cannot clearly distinguish between a yes or no response to a question, try asking additional questions, or asking questions in different ways. If it remains unclear, answer in the way that is most protective of the child.
B. Overrides
After completing all required decision trees, proceed to the overrides and determine whether any apply. Consider overrides even if response priority trees have been bypassed based on screening criteria.
  • Policy. If 10 days is the presumptive response, consider whether any of the policy overrides to 24 hours apply. If 24 hours is the presumptive response, consider whether any of the policy overrides to reduce response priority by one level apply.
  • Discretionary. If the caller reported any information, or information from any other source suggests that the child's safety, permanency, or well-being is best served by a different response time than the presumptive response, mark whether the response time will be increased or decreased. For example, consider the ability to locate child/caregiver and protective capacities. Briefly describe the fact(s) that led to this conclusion. Discuss a discretionary override with a supervisor and obtain approval.

Final Response Priority
Indicate a final response priority.

If reported concerns involve alleged harm in out-of-home care to a dependent or ward child/youth, the county where the facility is geographically located should respond to reports with a 24-hour response priority. Reports with a 10-day response priority should be referred to the placing county as soon as possible.

STEP IV. PATH OF RESPONSE DECISION (differential response counties only)

Based on screening criteria, complete either Path Decision for Evaluate Out OR Path Decision for In-Person Response.

A. Path Decision for Evaluate Out
If the county has a differential response system, all referrals that were evaluated out will be considered for Path 1 assignment. Mark any applicable items listed that were present at the time of the referral based on reported information. Record the path decision for referrals that did not meet any screening criteria (No Response or Path 1).

B. Path Decision for In-Person Response
If the county has a differential response system, all referrals that are assigned for in-person response should be forwarded to the differential response coordinator. If the response priority decision is within 24 hours, the worker may bypass the criteria and mark “yes” for automatic Path 3 response. The criteria that resulted in the 24-hour response time would often also result in a Path 3 decision. Alternatively, the worker may review the criteria and base the path decision on the criteria.

Practice Considerations

Workers will make every effort to elicit information from the reporter to make the key hotline decisions of whether to initiate an in-person response, how quickly to respond, and the path of response. To the extent time allows and if the reporter has additional information, the worker should also elicit information regarding the reporter's knowledge of family strengths, use of services, and the reporter's perspective on family needs.

In all calls, workers will gather as much identifying information as the reporter has available, information on the family's language, cultural identity, current location of child and ability to locate, and issues that have an impact on the safety of responding workers (e.g., weapons, propensity to violence, dangerous animals).

Note: The following guidelines were developed in consultation with several SDM® counties to provide recommendations for a consistent process to document subsequent referrals received for the same incident/allegation, or referrals of new information received prior to the first face-to-face contact. Some counties may use different CWS/CMS documentation practices to record these types of referrals. Whatever the county's method, ensure that these referral types are appropriately identified/coded so that it is clear that additional SDM assessments are not required.
  1. Duplicate or secondary referrals. If, after gathering all information from the reporter, it is apparent that all of the allegations made by the reporter are identical to allegations made in an existing open referral, the worker should create a second referral in CWS/CMS and mark it accordingly. This second referral may contain an additional description of the family/events but should not contain a new incident or allegation. No new hotline tool is required for a secondary referral. (If the second call contains information that would change screening, response priority, or path decision, that is an indicator that it is NOT a secondary referral.)
  2. Associated referrals. If a second or subsequent call is received that does contain new information, but the worker has not yet made a first face-to-face contact with the family, the referrals should be combined in CWS/CMS as an associated referral. The hotline worker should complete a new hotline tool to determine whether the response should change. However, the investigating worker will complete only one safety and risk assessment that will be linked to all associated referrals. If the second call is received AFTER an initial safety assessment was completed but BEFORE a risk assessment was completed, the worker should associate the referrals in CWS/CMS. In webSDM, complete the risk assessment in the first referral. With rare exceptions, a second safety assessment should be added to the first referral based on changing circumstances.
  3. Changing decisions. Prior to worker contact with the family, it is possible that additional information will lead to different answers to the various components of the hotline tool. Retain the original completed tool to show what decision was made and the basis for that decision. In webSDM, open the FIELD UPDATE option and indicate the NEW decision. Provide a brief explanation of the basis for the change. THE CHANGE MUST BE CONSISTENT WITH DECISION CRITERIA, OR AN APPROPRIATE OVERRIDE REASON SHOULD BE STATED.