This article presents the findings of a research process undertaken by Child Frontiers to map and assess the child protection systems of five West African countries. It highlights that the primary obstacle to the effective functioning of these systems is the lack of congruence between formal strategies, actual state capabilities and resources, and community values and priorities. The findings are discussed within the context of the emerging global debate about child protection systems. The conclusions demonstrate that policy makers at national, regional and international levels should look beyond transplanting external models to the West African context, but rather adopt long-term processes to design systems that are culturally appropriate and operational within the boundaries of available and planned resources. Policy makers at all levels should avoid the temptation of ‘quick fixes’ but, in building and reforming child protection systems in West Africa and beyond, endeavour to promote sustained, government-led processes that redefine the core principles and foundations of the system. The outcome will be that child protection systems function in an optimal way for children and families.