Strengths-Based Practice in Child Welfare: A Systematic Literature Review

  • Original Paper
  • Published: 06 April 2021
  • Volume 30 , pages 1586–1598, ( 2021 )

Cite this article

  • Karmen Toros   ORCID: 1 &
  • Asgeir Falch-Eriksen   ORCID: 2  

3716 Accesses

9 Citations

6 Altmetric

Explore all metrics

This paper examines the academic research discourse on strengths-based practice in child welfare. A gap in the literature exists concerning systematic research studies addressing strengths-based practices with families in the child welfare system. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to examine how a strengths-based approach facilitates working relationships between child welfare services and families. A systematic review was performed following the principles of the PRISMA statement and included 11 peer-reviewed articles, published in English, in academic journals from multiple scientific databases, reporting primary research. Strengths-based skills were found to be essential to fostering a stronger rapport with families and to building relationships with them. Furthermore, strengths-based approaches facilitate personal engagement, which can increase the sense of empowerment and encourage families to find solutions and to make decisions about their own lives. One of the study’s findings suggests that in the process of empowering families, workers themselves learned to empower themselves. Workers shifting towards strengths-based thinking enhanced their sense of self-empowerment, which increased their knowledge and skills to help empower families. The findings of this review indicate that the strengths-based perspective reported from the studies facilitates positive interaction between workers and families, including collaboration and the building of relationships.

The strengths-based approach fosters stronger relationships and enhances self-empowerment.

Workers learned to help empower families by learning to empower themselves.

A strengths-based perspective promotes the client-as-the-expert view.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price includes VAT (Russian Federation)

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Rent this article via DeepDyve

Institutional subscriptions

social work research on child welfare

Similar content being viewed by others

Using strengths-based approaches in early years practice and research.

Angela Fenton, Kerryann Walsh, … Tamara Cumming

social work research on child welfare

Building Strengths and Resilience: Supporting Families and Disabled Children

social work research on child welfare

Strong families: a new family skills training programme for challenged and humanitarian settings: a single-arm intervention tested in Afghanistan

Karin Haar, Aala El-Khani, … the Afghanistan field implementation team

Ahn, H., Keyser, D., & Hayward-Everson, R. A. (2016). A multi-level analysis of individual and agency effects on implementation of family-centered practice in child welfare. Children and Youth Services Review , 69 , 11–18. .

Article   Google Scholar  

Akiva, T., Li, J., Martin, K. M., Horner, C. G., & McNamara, A. R. (2017). Simple interactions: piloting a strengths-based and interaction-based professional development intervention for out-of-school time programs. Child Youth Care Forum , 46 , 285–305. .

Albuquerque, C. P., Santons, C. C., & Santos Almeida, H. S. N. (2017). Assessing ‘empowerment’ as social development: goal and process. European Journal of Social Work , 20 (1), 88–100. .

Arbeiter, E., & Toros, K. (2017). Participatory discourse: engagement in the context of child protection assessment practices from the perspectives of child protection workers, parents and children. Children and Youth Services Review , 74 , 17–27. .

Ayón, C., Aisenberg, E., & Erera, P. (2010). Learning how to dance with the public child welfare system: mexican parents’ efforts to exercise their voice. Journal of Public Child Welfare , 4 (3), 263–286. .

Barnes-Lee, A. R. (2020). Development of protective factors for reducing juvenile reoffending: a strengths-based approach to risk assessment. Criminal Justice and Behavior , 47 (1), 1371–1389. .

Benbenishty, R., Davidson-Arad, B., López, M., Devaney, J., Spratt, T., Koopmans, C., Knorth, E. J., Witteman, C. L. M., Del Valle, J. F., & Hayes, D. (2015). Decision making in child protection: an international comparative study on maltreatment substantiation, risk assessment and interventions recommendations, and the role of professionals’ child welfare attitudes. Child Abuse & Neglect , 49 , 63–75. .

Blundo, R. (2001). Learning strengths-based practice: challenging our personal and professional frames. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services , 82 (3), 296–304. .

Blundo, R. (2006). Shifting our habits of mind: learning to practice from a strengths perspective. In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The strengths perspective in social work practice (pp. 25–45). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Google Scholar  

Bone, J., & Fenton, A. (2015). Spirituality and child protection in early childhood education: a strengths approach. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality , 20 (2), 86–99. .

Bozic, N., Lawthom, R., & Murray, J. (2018). Exploring the context of strengths – a new approach to strengths-based assessment. Educational Psychology in Practice , 34 (1), 26–40. .

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology , 3 (2), 77–101. .

Brun, C., & Rapp, R. C. (2001). Strengths-based case management: individual’s perspectives on strengths and the case manager relationship. Social Work , 46 (3), 278–288. .

Article   PubMed   Google Scholar  

Chapin, R. K. (1995). Social policy development: the strengths perspective. Social Work , 40 (4), 506–514. .

Dawson, K., & Berry, M. (2012). Engaging families in child welfare services: an evidence-based approach to best practice. Child Welfare , 81 (2), 293–317.

Drolet, M., Paquin, M., & Soutyrine, M. (2007). Strengths-based approach and coping strategies used by parents whose young children exhibit violent behavior: collaboration between schools and parents. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal , 24 (5), 437–453. .

Douglas, E. M., McCarthy, S., & Serino, P. A. (2014). Does a social work degree predict practice orientation? Measuring strengths-based practice among child welfare workers with the strengths-based practices inventory-provider version. Journal of Social Work Education , 50 , 219–233. .

Duncan, M., & Duncan, M. (2019). Children’s experiences of statutory child protection interventions. Participation in child protection. Theorizing children’s perspectives (pp. 13–42). Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland AG.

Chapter   Google Scholar  

Dunn, W. (2017). Strengths-based approaches: what if even the ‘bad’ things are good things? British Journal of Occupational Therapy , 80 (7), 395–396. .

Early, T. J., & GlenMaye, L. F. (2000). Valuing families: social work practice with families from a strengths perspective. Social Work , 45 (2), 118–130. .

Eve, P. M., Byrne, M. K., & Gagliardi, C. R. (2014). What is good parenting? The perspective of different professionals. Family Court Review , 52 (1), 114–127. .

Forrester, D., Westlake, D., Killian, M., Antonopolou, V., McCann, M., Thurnham, A., Thomas, R., Waits, C., Whittaker, C., & Hutchison, D. (2019). What is the relationship between worker skills and outcomes for families in child and family social work? British Journal of Social Work , .

Franklin, C. (2015). An update on strengths-based, solution-focused brief therapy. Health & Social Work , 40 (2), 73–76. .

Fusco, R. A. (2015). Second generation mothers in the child welfare system: factors that predict engagement. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal , 32 , 545–554. .

Fusco, R. A. (2019). Perceptions of strengths-based child welfare practices among mothers with drug use histories. Journal of Family Issues , 40 (17), 2478–2498. .

Galloway, R., Reynolds, B., & Williamson, J. (2020). Strengths-based teaching and learning approaches for children: perceptions and practices. Journal of Pedagogical Research , 4 (1), 31–45. .

Gibson, K., Samuels, G., & Pryce, J. (2018). Authors of accountability: paperwork and social work in contemporary child welfare practice. Children and Youth Services Review , 85 , 43–52. .

Gladstone, J., Dumbrill, G., Leslie, B., Koster, A., Young, M., & Ismaila, A. (2012). Looking at engagement and outcome from the perspectives of child protection workers and parents. Children and Youth Services Review , 34 , 112–118. .

Gladstone, J., Dumbrill, G., Leslie, B., Koster, A., Young, M., & Ismaila, A. (2014). Understanding worker–parent engagement in child protection casework. Children and Youth Services Review , 44 , 56–64. .

Golightley, M., & Holloway, M. (2019). Editorial: from zero to hero? Or a strengths-based approach. British Journal of Social Work , 49 , 1373–1375. .

Gottlieb, L. N., & Gottlieb, B. (2017). Strengths-Based Nursing: a process for implementing a philosophy into practice. Journal of Family Nursing , 23 , 319–340. .

Graybeal, C. T., & Konrad, C. (2008). Strengths-based child assessment: locating possibility and transforming the paradigm. In M. C. Calder (Ed.), Contemporary risk assessment in safeguarding children (pp. 185–197). Dorset: Russell House Publishing.

Green, B. L., McAllister, C. L., & Tarte, J. M. (2004). The strengths-based practices inventory: A tool for measuring strengths-based service delivery in early childhood and family support programs. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services , 85 (8), 326–334. .

Guo, W., & Tsui, M. (2010). From resilience to resistance: a reconstruction of the strengths perspective in social work practice. International Social Work , 53 (2), 233–245. .

Harris, N. (2012). Assessment: when does it help and when does it hinder? Parents’ experiences of the assessment process. Child and Family Social Work , 17 , 180–191. .

Healy, K. (2014). Social work in theories in context: Creating frameworks for practice . London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Book   Google Scholar  

Healy, K., & Darlington, Y. (2009). Service user participation in diverse child protection contexts: principles for practice. Child & Family Social Work , 14 , 420–430. .

Healy, K., Harrison, G., Venables, J., & Bosly, F. (2014). Collaborating with families in differential responses: practitioners’ views. Child & Family Social Work , 21 , 328–338. .

Hultman, E., Forkby, T., & Höjer, S. (2018). Professionalised, hybrid, and layperson models in Nordic child protection - Actors in decision-making in out of home placements. Nordic Social Work Research , .

Jarpe-Ratner, E., & Smithgall, C. (2017). Supporting strengths-based child welfare practice through a dual professional family assessment program. Journal of Family Social Work , 20 (4), 271–287. .

Keddell, E. (2014). Theorising the signs of safety approach to child protection social work: positioning, codes and power. Children and Youth Services Review , 47 , 70–77. .

Kemp, S. P., Marcenko, M. O., Lyons, S. J., & Kruzich, J. M. (2014). Strength-based practice and parental engagement in child welfare services: an empirical examination. Children and Youth Services Review , 47 , 27–35. .

Keys, M. (2009). Determining the skills for child protection practice: Emerging from the Quagmire! Child Abuse Review , 18 , 316–332. .

Khan, A. K., Miles, D., & Francis, A. (2018). Re-visioning child protection management embedded in family empowerment. Children Australia , 43 (3), 208–216. .

Kisthardt, W. E. (2012). The strengths approach to practice. In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The strengths perspective in social work practice (pp. 171–196). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Lauri, K., Toros, K., & Lehtme, R. (2020). Participation in the child protection assessment: voices from children in Estonia. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal , .

Lietz, C. A. (2011). Theoretical adherence to family centered practice: are strengths-based principles illustrated in families’ descriptions of child welfare services? Child and Youth Services Review , 33 , 888–893. .

Lietz, C. A. (2018). Infusing clinical supervision throughout child welfare practice: advancing effective implementation of family-centered practice through supervisory processes. Clinical Social Work Journal , 46 , 331–340. .

Lietz, C. A., & Rounds, T. (2009). Strengths-based supervision: a child welfare supervision training project. The Clinical Supervisor , 28 (2), 124–140. .

Loman, L. A., & Siegel, G. L. (2015). Effects of approach and services under differential response on long term child safety and welfare. Child Abuse & Neglect , 39 , 86–97. .

Lwin, K., Versanov, A., Cheung, C., Goodman, D., & Andrews, N. (2014). The use of mapping in child welfare investigations: a strength-based hybrid intervention. Child Care in Practice , 20 (1), 81–97. .

MacFarlane, C. D. (2006). My strength: a look outside the box at the strengths perspective. Commentary. Social Work , 51 (2), 175–176. .

Mainstone, F. (2014). Mastering whole family assessment in social work: Balancing the needs of children, adults and their families . London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Manthey, T. J., Knowles, B., Asher, D., & Wahab, S. (2011). Strengths-based practice and motivational interviewing. Advances in Social Work , 12 (2), 126–151. .

McCormick, A. J., Becker, M. J., & Grabowski, T. J. (2018). Involving people with memory loss in the development of a patient handbook: a strengths-based approach. Social Work , 63 (4), 357–364. .

Michalopoulos, L., Ahn, H., Shaw, T. V., & O’Connor, J. (2012). Child Welfare worker perception of the implementation of family-centered practice. Research on Social Work Practice , 22 (6), 656–664. .

Min, T. (2011). The client-centered integrative strengths-based approach: ending longstanding conflict between social work values and practice. Canadian Social Science , 7 (2), 15–22. .

Mirick, R. G. (2013). An unsuccessful partnership: behavioral compliance and strengths-based child welfare practice. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services , 94 (4), 227–234. .

Moher, D., Liberati, A., tetzlaff, J., & Altman, D. G. (2009). Preferred reporting items for systematic reviews and meta-analyses: the PRISMA statement. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology , 62 , 1006–1012. .

Moher, C. (2019). Putting families first: a strengths-based approach to serving families with young children. International Journal of Birth and Parent Education , 6 (3), 24–26.

Muench, K., Diaz, C., & Wright, R. (2017). Children and parent participation in child protection conferences: a study in one English local authority. Child Care in Practice , 23 (1), 49–63. .

Munro, E. (2011). The Munro review of child protection. Interim report: The child’s journey . Retrieved from

Murphy, D., Duggan, M., & Joseph, S. (2012). Relationship-based social work and its compatibility with the person-centred approach: principled versus instrumental perspectives. British Journal of Social Work , 43 , 703–719. .

Nelson-Dusek, S., Rothe, M. I., Roberts, Y. H., & Pecora, P. J. (2017). Assessing the value of family safety networks in child protective services: early findings from Minnesota. Child & Family Social Work , 22 , 1365–1373. .

Noble, D. N., Perkins, K., & Fatout, M. (2000). On being a strength coach: child welfare and the strengths model. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal , 17 (2), 141–153.

Odell, T. (2008). Promoting foster carer strengths Suggestions for strengths-based practice. Adoption & Fostering , 32 (1), 19–28. .

Oliver, C. (2017). Strengths-based child protection. Firm, fair, and friendly . Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.

Oliver, C., & Charles, G. (2015). Which strengths-based practice? Reconciling strengths-based practice and mandated authority in child protection work. Social Work , 60 (2), 135–143. 10.10937sw/swu058.

Owens, R. L., Allan, B. A., & Flores, L. Y. (2019). The strengths-based inclusive theory of work. The Counseling Psychologist , 47 (2), 222–265. .

Pace, R. P., Pluye, P., Bartlett, G., Macaulay, A. C., Salsberg, J., Jagosh, J., & Seller, R. (2012). Testing the reliability and efficiency of the pilot Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool (MMAT) for systematic mixed studies review. International Journal of Nursing Studies , 49 (1), 47–53. .

Pack, M. J. (2013). Building safe communities: teaching social work students about the importance of comprehensive strengths-based approaches of offender rehabilitation. Practice , 25 (4), 221–231. .

Palmer-House, K. E. (2008). The perceived impact of strengths-based family worker training: workers’ learning that helped empower families. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services , 89 (3), 428–437. .

Parton, N., & O’Byrne, P. (2000). Constructive social work: towards a new practice . New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pinkney, S. (2018). New directions in children’s welfare: professionals, policy and practice . London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rajeev, S. P., & Jeena, A. V. (2020). Strengths perspective in working with elderly. Indian Journal of Gerontology , 34 (3), 377–393.

Rice, K., & Girvin, H. (2010). Using a strengths-based perspective to change perceptions: an exploratory study. The Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work , 15 (2), 1–16. .

Sabalauskas, K. L., Ortolani, C. L., & McCall, M. J. (2014). Moving from pathology to possibility: integrating strengths-based interventions in child welfare provision. Child Care in Practice , 20 (1), 120–134. .

Saint-Jacques, M.-C., Turcotte, D., & Pouliot, E. (2009). Adopting a strengths perspective in social work practice with families in difficulty: from theory to practice. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services , 90 (4), 454–461. .

Saleebey, D. (1996). The strengths perspective in social work practice: extensions and cautions. Social Work , 41 (3), 296–305.

PubMed   Google Scholar  

Saleebey, D. (2012a). The strengths approach to practice. In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The strengths perspective in social work practice (pp. 77–92). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Saleebey, D. (2012b). Introduction: power in the people. In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The strengths perspective in social work practice (pp. 1–24). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Saleebey, D. (2012c). The strengths perspective: possibilities and problems. In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The strengths perspective in social work practice (pp. 279–303). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Smith, G. T., Shapiro, V. B., Sperry, R. W., & LeBuffe, P. A. (2014). A strengths-based approach to supervised visitation in child welfare. Child Care in Practice , 20 (1), 98–119. .

Song, L., & Shih, C. (2010). Recovery from partner abuse: the application of the strengths perspective. International Journal of Social Welfare , 19 (1), 23–32. .

Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry , 13 (4), 249–275. .

Svavarsdottir, E. K., & Gisladottir, M. (2019). How do family strengths-oriented therapeutic conversations (FAM-SOTC) advance psychiatric nursing practice? Journal of Nursing Scholarship , 51 (2), 214–224. .

Zimmermann Wilson, S. (2006). Field education: linking self-efficacy theory and the strengths perspective. The Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work , 12 (1), 261–274. .

Taylor, A., Toner, P., Templeton, L., & Velleman, R. (2008). Parental alcohol misuse in complex families: the implications for engagement. British Journal of Social Work , 38 , 843–64. .

Thurber, K. A., Thandrayen, J., Banks, E., Doery, K., Sedgwick, M., & Lovett, R. (2020). Strengths-based approaches for quantitative data analysis: a case study using the Australian Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children. SSM – Population Health , 12 , 100637 .

Article   PubMed   PubMed Central   Google Scholar  

Toros, K. (2014). Graduate social work students’ approaches and ways of thinking in child protection assessment: case vignette reflections from Estonia. Social Work Education , 33 (7), 890–895. .

Toros, K., & LaSala, M. C. (2018). Estonian child protection workers’ assessment perspectives: the need for competence and confidence. International Social Work , 61 (1), 93–105. .

Toros, K., LaSala, M. C., & Medar, M. (2015). Assessment of children in need in a post-soviet context: reflections of child protective workers in Estonia. Journal of Family Social Work , 18 (4), 267–287. .

Turnell, A., & Edwards, S. (1997). Aspiring to partnership: the Signs of Safety approach to child protection. Child Abuse Review , 6 , 179–190. 10.1002/(SICI)1099-0852(199708)6:33.0.CO;2-J.

Turnell, A. (2004). Relationship-grounded, safety organized child protection practice: dreamtime or real-time option for child welfare? Protecting Children , 19 (2), 14–25.

Underwood, K., & Killoran, I. (2012). Parent and family perception of engagement: lessons from early years programs and supports. Canadian Journal of Education , 35 (4), 376–414.

Van Hook, M. P. (2019). Social work practice with families: a resiliency-based approach . New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Weick, A., Rapp, C., Sullivan, W. P. & & Kisthardt, W. (1989). A strengths perspective for social work practice. Social Work , 34 , 350–354.

Weick, A., Kreider, J., & Chamberlain, R. (2012). Solving problems from a strengths perspective. In D. Saleebey (Ed.), The strengths perspective in social work practice (pp. 116–127). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Young, S., McKenzie, M., Schjelderup, L., more, C., & Walker, S. (2014). What can we do to bring the sparkle back into this child’s eyes? Child rights/community development principles: key elements for a strengths-based child protection practice. Child Care in Practice , 20 (1), 135–152. .

Download references


This study was funded by the Estonian Research Council (grant number PSG305).

Author information

Authors and affiliations.

School of Governance, Law and Society, Tallinn University, Tallinn, Estonia

Karmen Toros

Oslo Metropolitan University, Oslo, Norway

Asgeir Falch-Eriksen

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar


Both authors contributed to the study conception and design, material preparation, data collection and analysis; both, authors read and approved the final paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Karmen Toros .

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest.

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Toros, K., Falch-Eriksen, A. Strengths-Based Practice in Child Welfare: A Systematic Literature Review. J Child Fam Stud 30 , 1586–1598 (2021).

Download citation

Accepted : 19 March 2021

Published : 06 April 2021

Issue Date : June 2021


Share this article

Anyone you share the following link with will be able to read this content:

Sorry, a shareable link is not currently available for this article.

Provided by the Springer Nature SharedIt content-sharing initiative

  • Strengths-based practice
  • Child welfare
  • Systematic review
  • Family engagement
  • Relationship building
  • Find a journal
  • Publish with us
  • Track your research
  • Search Menu
  • Advance articles
  • Author Guidelines
  • Submission Site
  • About Social Work Research
  • National Association of Social Workers
  • Editorial Board
  • Advertising and Corporate Services
  • Journals Career Network
  • Self-Archiving Policy
  • Dispatch Dates
  • Journals on Oxford Academic
  • Books on Oxford Academic

Issue Cover

Article Contents

  • < Previous

Ableism in the Child Welfare System: Findings from a Qualitative Study

  • Article contents
  • Figures & tables
  • Supplementary Data

Sasha M Albert, Robyn M Powell, Ableism in the Child Welfare System: Findings from a Qualitative Study, Social Work Research , Volume 46, Issue 2, June 2022, Pages 141–152,

  • Permissions Icon Permissions

It is well established that parents with disabilities are likely to have adverse experiences within the U.S. child welfare system, including disproportionately high rates of involvement and termination of parental rights. However, no known studies have examined the child welfare system through the lens of ableism. This qualitative phenomenological study included interviews with 15 parents with disabilities, 15 child welfare workers, and 15 attorneys who represent parents. Interviews revealed four levels of ableism within the child welfare system: (1) internalized, (2) interpersonal, (3) institutional, and (4) structural. Participants described their own internalized ableism, offered examples of interpersonal prejudice against disabled parents in the child welfare system, and discussed the institutional practice of using parents’ disabilities as a reason to separate them from their children and deny them services and accommodations. Interviews with parents also revealed that ableism across the child welfare system and other institutions could make it more difficult for them to reunify with their children. At the same time, child welfare workers and attorneys noted that disabled parents are disadvantaged by federally mandated reunification timelines. Ameliorating ableism in the child welfare system requires interventions at each level.

People with disabilities—including physical, sensory, intellectual, and psychiatric disabilities—are as likely to be parents as people without disabilities ( Kaplan et al., 2019 ; National Council on Disability [NCD], 2012 ). Current research suggests that about 5% to 10% of parents in the United States are disabled ( NCD, 2012 ; Sonik et al., 2018 ). Although families headed by disabled parents exist in significant numbers, a substantial body of research from the United States and abroad demonstrates that parents with disabilities have disproportionately high rates of child welfare system involvement and termination of parental rights, compared with nondisabled parents ( Booth et al., 2005 ; Kaplan et al., 2019 ; Lightfoot & DeZelar, 2016 ). For example, among U.S. children in foster care in 2012, 19% were removed from their homes in part due to a parent’s disability ( Lightfoot & DeZelar, 2016 ). Parents with psychiatric or intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable to child welfare system involvement, child removal, and termination of parental rights ( Booth et al., 2005 ; Kaplan et al., 2019 ; Lightfoot & DeZelar, 2016 ).

Parents with disabilities are likely to have adverse experiences when involved with the child welfare system. Child welfare workers may hold parents with disabilities to higher standards than nondisabled parents ( Lightfoot & LaLiberte, 2011 ), and may decide to remove children from parents with disabilities based on assumptions that they cannot care for or will endanger their children ( Callow et al., 2011 ; Lightfoot et al., 2010 ; R. M. Powell, 2016 ). Presumptions about disabled parents’ ability to care for their children can also affect the services and supports they and their families receive ( Lightfoot et al., 2017 ; Slayter & Jensen, 2019 ) as well as their case outcomes ( Callow et al., 2011 ; R. M. Powell, 2016 ). Parents with disabilities often receive services that are not useful to them and do not help them reunite with their children ( Collentine, 2005 ; R. M. Powell, 2016 ), at least partly related to a systemwide lack of training for child welfare workers on parenting with disability ( Azar et al., 2013 ; Lightfoot et al., 2017 ). Likewise, disabled parents are often negatively affected by the child welfare system’s legal requirements. While the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires child welfare agencies to make reasonable efforts to reunify families, efforts are often not adapted to the needs of disabled parents and their families ( LaLiberte, 2013 ). Similarly, because appropriate services and supports for disabled parents can be challenging to obtain and may be needed long-term, some parents with disabilities have difficulty complying with ASFA’s timelines, which require termination of parental rights when children have been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months ( Callow et al., 2011 ; Collentine, 2005 ; R. M. Powell & Nicholson, 2019 ).

While there is substantial research on various types of systemic oppression in the context of the child welfare system, including racism (e.g., Miller et al., 2013 ) and sexism (e.g., Bolen, 2003 ), no known studies have explored the child welfare system with the lens of ableism. Ableism is a system of prejudice and discrimination that devalues and excludes people with disabilities ( Campbell, 2014 ). Like other forms of oppression, ableism operates at four levels: (1) internalized, (2) interpersonal, (3) institutional, and (4) structural ( J. A. Powell et al., 2011 ).

Each level of ableism can affect parents with disabilities involved with the child welfare system. Internalized ableism refers to individuals’ negative beliefs about people with disabilities. Child welfare workers may hold biases and assumptions about disabled parents ( McConnell & Llewellyn, 2002 ). For people with disabilities, internalized ableism can involve distancing oneself from other disabled people ( Kattari et al., 2018 ) or trying to avoid conforming to nondisabled people’s negative stereotypes ( Parchomiuk, 2014 ). Additionally, people with and without disabilities may internalize disability hierarchy: Intellectual, developmental, and psychiatric disabilities are more stigmatized than physical or sensory disabilities ( Thomas, 2000 ), including in the child welfare system (e.g., Booth et al., 2005 ; Kaplan et al., 2019 ). Interpersonal ableism involves expressions of prejudice between individuals. It can also include differential treatment justified by misplaced sympathy ( Nario-Redmond & Kemerling, 2019 ), such as child welfare workers treating parents with disabilities as incompetent or unable to care for their children because of their disabilities ( Azar et al., 2013 ; Callow et al., 2011 ). Institutional ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities within an organization's policies and practices ( Fierros, 2006 ). Child welfare system policies and procedures contribute to deeper scrutiny of disabled parents than nondisabled parents ( Booth et al., 2005 ; Lightfoot & LaLiberte, 2011 ), denial of appropriate services ( Lightfoot et al., 2017 ; Slayter & Jensen, 2019 ), and termination of parental rights based on disability rather than alleged deficits in parenting ( Lightfoot & DeZelar, 2019 ). Institutional ableism also includes a lack of education and training on disability for child welfare workers ( Azar et al., 2013 ). Finally, structural ableism involves ableism across institutions, which creates disparities in life outcomes for people with disabilities compared with people without disabilities. For example, the lack of services adapted for disabled parents sometimes leads to long delays in securing appropriate services ( Collentine, 2005 ), and makes it difficult for parents with disabilities to comply with ASFA’s timelines, thereby losing the opportunity for reunification ( R. M. Powell & Nicholson, 2019 ). Nearly two-thirds of state laws list parental disability as grounds for termination of parental rights ( NCD, 2012 ).

Researchers have studied numerous systems using an ableism lens. For example, studies of education using the lens of ableism highlight how curricula can exclude students with disabilities (e.g., Penketh, 2017 ) and illustrate how ableism operates in academia (e.g., Brown & Leigh, 2018 ). Studies have revealed ableism within the healthcare system, such as practices that conflate disability with low quality of life and lead to health disparities (e.g., Janz, 2019 ; Lund & Ayers, 2020 ; Nario-Redmond & Kemerling, 2019 ). Researchers have also studied ableism within employment (e.g., Friedman, 2019 ; Jammaers et al., 2016 ). Accordingly, ableism is an important lens for researchers to use in studying inequities within systems.

Despite an emerging body of literature reporting that parents with disabilities and their families experience significant inequities within the child welfare system, studies have yet to examine these disparities through the lens of ableism. This qualitative phenomenological study ( Creswell, 2013 ; Patton, 2002 ) aims to describe the perspectives and experiences of parents with disabilities, child welfare workers, and attorneys through the lens of ableism. This nuanced understanding will illuminate the inequities disabled parents face when involved with the child welfare system.

Sampling and Recruitment

This study’s sample included parents with disabilities, child welfare workers, and parents’ attorneys. Eligibility criteria for parents included (a) identification as a parent with a disability, (b) involvement with the U.S. child welfare system within the past five years, and (c) being 18 years of age or older. Eligibility criteria for child welfare workers and attorneys included (a) a minimum of two years of experience supporting families involved with the child welfare system, (b) experience working with at least three families that included disabled parents within the past five years, (c) currently supporting families involved with the child welfare system, and (d) being 18 years of age or older. Attorneys were typically private and court appointed to represent parents.

Participants were recruited using convenience sampling ( Hsieh & Shannon, 2005 ) and snowball sampling ( Patton, 2002 ). Recruitment materials were distributed via email lists, websites, and social media of national and state disability, child welfare, and legal services organizations. Participants also referred others to participate in the study.

This study included participants from across the United States. Initially, 107 parents, child welfare workers, and attorneys expressed interest in the study. Subsequently, 27 individuals were screened out as ineligible, and 33 could not be reached for screening. Two interviews were conducted but later excluded because one participant was deemed ineligible, and there were technical issues with the recording equipment during another. The final analytic sample included 45 participants: 15 parents, 15 child welfare workers, and 15 attorneys. This sample size allowed us to collect rich data while reaching saturation of themes ( Guest et al., 2006 ).

Our institutional review board approved this study. Participants opted into the study and provided written consent before interviews commenced. Parents’ understanding of the informed consent materials was verified through a four-item verbal consent quiz to ensure that they understood the risks and benefits of participating in the study.

Data Collection

From January to June 2019, we conducted semistructured telephone interviews in English, using interview guides for parents, child welfare professionals, and attorneys based on a comprehensive literature review and informed by our prior research. Detailed information on the interview guides used in this study has been published elsewhere ( Albert & Powell, 2021 ; R. M. Powell & Albert, 2021 ). Each interview lasted approximately one hour. Following interviews, participants completed a brief demographic questionnaire. Each participant received a $15 gift card to thank them for their time. The interviews were audio recorded and professionally transcribed.

Interview transcripts were analyzed iteratively and inductively with conventional content analysis procedures ( Hsieh & Shannon, 2005 ; Sandelowski, 2010 ). We both reviewed one randomly selected interview transcript from each of the three participant groups to conduct in-depth, line-by-line analysis and develop an initial set of codes. We then met to develop a preliminary codebook to code interview transcripts from all three groups of participants. Interview transcripts were uploaded to Dedoose (Version 8.2.14) for qualitative analysis ( SocioCultural Research Consultants, 2019 ). The first author completed line-by-line coding in Dedoose using the codebook and met regularly with the second author to discuss and refine codes. Once initial coding was complete, the second author reviewed the coding, and any disagreements were discussed and resolved ( Saldaña, 2016 ). Together we approved the final codebook, including themes, codes, and definitions.

Participant Characteristics

Table 1 shows the characteristics of the parents who participated in this study. Most parents were mothers, White or Caucasian, married or partnered, heterosexual, and 36 to 45 years old. Most parents had annual household incomes of less than $25,000 and received Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance. Nearly three-quarters of parents had more than one child; most had children under age six. Parents were distributed roughly evenly throughout the Northeast, Southeast, and West of the United States. Parents reported a range of disabilities, including PTSD, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, depression, and chronic illness. Many parents had more than one disability.

Characteristics of Parents ( N = 15)

Notes: SSI = Supplemental Security Income; SSDI = Social Security Disability Insurance; SNAP = Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Missing data due to nonresponse.

Categories are not mutually exclusive.

Child Welfare Workers and Attorneys

Table 2 shows the characteristics of the child welfare workers and attorneys. Most child welfare workers and attorneys were women, White or Caucasian, and between 31 and 50 years old. All attorneys had law degrees, and a majority of child welfare workers had master’s degrees. Most attorneys worked in private practice, while most child welfare workers worked for their state or county. Geographically, a plurality (47%) of attorneys worked in the West, while a plurality (40%) of child welfare workers worked in the Southeast.

Characteristics of Professionals

Ableism within the Child Welfare System

Interviews with parents with disabilities, child welfare workers, and attorneys found four levels of ableism within the child welfare system (see Table 3 ): (1) internalized, (2) interpersonal, (3) institutional, and (4) structural. Findings are described in the following sections with case examples and quotes. Parents’ perspectives are presented separately from those of child welfare workers and attorneys in order to center their voices.

Themes and Definitions

Internalized Ableism

Interview responses indicated that parents, child welfare workers, and attorneys all held internalized ableism. Responses from several parents with physical disabilities revealed disability hierarchy: they made a point to distinguish themselves from people with psychiatric or intellectual disabilities. One parent described her physical disability as being more legitimate than psychiatric disabilities. Another parent with physical disabilities said that a child welfare worker treated him as if he had intellectual disabilities, which he found “offensive.”

Parents also expressed that the child welfare system often assumes that disabled parents cannot care for their children and described their efforts to avert that perception. Several parents avoided seeking needed assistance for themselves and their families because they expected that the child welfare system would learn that they were disabled and separate them from their children. One parent did not access mental health treatment for this reason: “I don’t even entertain that idea … they just remove kids from parents that have mental illness.” Similarly, a parent whose child welfare involvement occurred while leaving an abusive spouse had been hesitant to leave the relationship because “they use a disability diagnosis against you … I needed to be extremely careful with how I proceeded … due to the risk of loss of custody.”

There was evidence of internalized ableism among child welfare workers and attorneys as well. Child welfare workers and attorneys indicated that their own and their colleagues’ perceptions of parents with disabilities varied by parental disability type. One attorney noted that child welfare workers in her area made “a bunch of assumptions” that parents with psychiatric disabilities were dangerous. Similarly, a child welfare worker said that her colleagues compared disabled parents negatively with parents without disabilities, assuming that children “might have more opportunities if they were in the foster home with a mom and a dad that were able-bodied rather than being with a disabled, poor mom in a wheelchair.”

Some child welfare workers and attorneys viewed parents with disabilities as defenseless or overly trusting and in need of protection when involved with the child welfare system. One attorney said that disabled parents “hear, ‘I’m the social worker,’ and they believe everything they say. . . . They’re … walked all over because … they don’t understand.” Another attorney felt disabled parents could not advocate for themselves if their disabilities were not accommodated.

Interpersonal Ableism

Interviews with all participant groups revealed examples of interpersonal ableism. Parents felt that child welfare workers treated them in biased ways because of their disabilities. One parent said, “Disabled people are treated so poorly by [child welfare] … it’s really discriminatory.”

Another parent was treated “like it was my fault that I had a disability.” Some parents reported that child welfare workers and attorneys treated them as if they could not parent because they were disabled. A parent described a child welfare worker assuming that he posed a threat to his children: “It seemed like it was there is a disabled person here. This is an emergency … they were looking for something to be wrong.” Another parent experienced bias from a judge, who “told me as long as I have [the disabilities] I have, I can’t get my kids back.”

Similarly, both child welfare workers and attorneys reported that parents with disabilities were likely to encounter “prejudice” from child welfare workers because “there’s a huge fear associated with parenting through difference.” One attorney thought any problems in the child welfare system were “amplified” for disabled parents, because “assumptions and stereotypes and presumptions [can] spiral with parents with disabilities.” A child welfare worker noted that her colleagues are “a lot more judgmental” of parents with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities who have co-occurring substance use disorders than of nondisabled parents who have substance use disorders.

Child welfare workers also reported that their colleagues’ personal biases might impact how they assess disabled parents’ ability to care for their children. One child welfare worker said, “It’s definitely implicit bias all over the place that plays into decision making.” Another child welfare worker noted that her colleagues’ dismissive attitudes affected how they worked with disabled parents: “A lot of social workers … lose their motivation to get kids home in a timely fashion,” and fail to give disabled parents “the opportunity” to reunite with their children.

Institutional Ableism

Participants discussed institutional ableism in the child welfare system when parental disability was used to separate disabled parents from their children, and disabled parents were denied services and accommodations and held to unreasonable standards. Participants agreed that the child welfare system does not adequately train child welfare workers and attorneys to work with disabled parents.

Many parents said that the child welfare system had used their disabilities as a reason to separate them from their children. One parent said, “They tried to say that because of my [disability] I was really an unfit parent.” Another parent said, “My disability was their reason for taking [my children]. For not having them come back.” A parent involved with the child welfare system after leaving an abusive spouse reported feeling “targeted for having a disability by child welfare.” This parent explained that her disability was used as a reason to remove her children.

Child welfare workers and attorneys agreed that the child welfare system often assumes that disabled parents cannot care for their children and uses parental disability as a reason to remove children from their parents. Sometimes this meant removing children at birth. One attorney remarked, “Many of our cases involve children taken from the hospital before a parent has had the opportunity to be a mother or a father.” Likewise, another attorney said that many of her cases involved “representing parents who, solely because of their disability, are facing neglect proceedings.” According to one child welfare worker, agencies “see those type of cases as easy win cases to have children removed.” Another child welfare worker said she was taken aback when a colleague sought to terminate a mother’s parental rights due to her physical disabilities.

Parents described being denied accommodations and needed services during their involvement with the child welfare system. For example, a court rejected a mother’s reasonable accommodation request for remote hearings even though she had difficulty traveling because of physical disabilities. Another parent had tried to advocate for her legal rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): “I said … ‘You’re required by law to provide me services.’ And they said, ‘Well, we’re not doing that, and we’re moving forward with the [termination of parental rights].” Parents with intellectual, developmental, or psychiatric disabilities had the most difficulties accessing services and accommodations. One parent found it difficult for her disabilities to be acknowledged, much less accommodated, because they were invisible: “They denied that I even had disabilities.”

Child welfare workers and attorneys also reported that parents with disabilities were often denied needed services and accommodations. Frequently the child welfare system would not tailor services for disabled parents. One attorney said, “They have to provide services and accommodations and take their disabilities into consideration, and they’re not doing that.” Similarly, a child welfare worker explained that a parent who was a wheelchair user had trouble accessing her services because “she couldn’t just hop in a car,” and described the system’s failure to accommodate disabled parents as “a setup,” in which they were almost certain to be found noncompliant with their service plans. An attorney had a similar perspective: “We have parents who … those cookie-cutter programs wouldn’t work for … it’s setting them up to fail.”

Child welfare workers and attorneys felt that the child welfare system was more likely to provide accommodations to parents with visible disabilities than to parents with invisible disabilities. One attorney said, “If they can deny it and go la, la, la, and pretend it’s not happening, then they don’t [provide accommodations].” Similarly, a child welfare worker said, “If they’re Deaf, blind, or hard of hearing, we have to get an interpreter … [but] there’s nothing around mental health.”

Often, the absence of services was used to justify terminating disabled parents’ rights. A child welfare worker said that her agency was “quick to say, ‘Oh well, we’re just going to move toward termination because … we don’t know if we can get services.’ ” An attorney likewise noted that treating termination of parental rights as a foregone conclusion could justify denying services: disabled parents were “less likely … to get a large amount of help in that arena because we are aware that the end result of their case is likely that they’re not going to have their child.”

Parents described being held to unreasonable standards by the child welfare system. As one parent put it, “It’s kind of like they read in a textbook this is what [parenting] should be. . . . You have to be completely organized … almost militant, but not quite militant, because that’s too far.” For some parents, fitting the child welfare system’s narrow definition of appropriate parenting meant trying to surmount seemingly endless hurdles: “Any time I would fulfill something that they said they wanted me to do, they would be like, ‘Oh, now we need you to do this.’ I couldn’t win.” Another parent felt defeated by the institutional barriers she faced in trying to complete her service plan: “One was letting out, one was starting up, and they were across town. . . . I would constantly be docked for being late. . . . I was told repeatedly no matter what I did, I wouldn’t get my daughters back.”

Attorneys and child welfare workers agreed that parents with disabilities are held to different, and often higher, standards than parents without disabilities. One attorney said that the child welfare system “asks them to prove their ability to parent instead of just trying to specify the deficiencies and then address them through services. Which is how they deal with most parents.” For disabled parents, there could be little room for error. One attorney had represented a parent who “had done all her services, and her and her son had so bonded.” However, she was denied time alone with her child because once “she had crossed in front of a parking lot not holding her child’s hand. . . . That’s a standard of parenting that is not applied to most parents in this country.” A child welfare worker tried to prepare parents for being held to high standards: “My mantra to my clients is the rules that apply to you apply to nobody else.”

Last, parents felt that child welfare workers were insufficiently trained to support them. One parent said that child welfare workers “need to be better trained, and there needs to be better oversight.” Another parent said that child welfare workers needed training on the ADA to have “awareness that disabled parents are different,” and so they would know that it is inappropriate to evaluate disabled parents using standards designed for nondisabled parents.

Child welfare workers and attorneys explained that insufficient training on working with parents with disabilities impeded their ability to support and advocate for disabled parents. One attorney said that without training, attorneys often do the “bare minimum” and send parents “a service letter saying, ‘These are your services, contact these people,’ ” rather than working with parents to make sure they can complete their service plans. A child welfare worker expressed a need for “more training in regard to how to accommodate parents with disabilities.” Another attorney needed training on services for parents with disabilities: “To actually legally advocate for them, I feel like I do need to know as many services that are actually out there.” Child welfare workers and attorneys also reported a need for training on working with parents with intellectual, developmental, and psychiatric disabilities.

Structural Ableism

Parents reported different experiences of structural ableism in the child welfare system than child welfare workers and attorneys. Parents described the negative impact of ableism across child welfare agencies and other institutions. One parent with complex medical needs, who was involved with the child welfare system while leaving an abusive spouse, said that child welfare workers were unaware of the “risk you are putting the woman in if she cannot just walk away. . . . I would be risking my life” because shelters could not accommodate her medical needs. Another parent lost needed benefits while trying to reunify with her children: “I was receiving welfare. . . . As soon as they took possession of the kids, they … cut that off. . . . If the goal is supposed to be family reunification, how is … cutting off any source of income or support going to help?” Another parent felt hopeless about the ableism she had experienced: “It’s not just supports, it’s not just child welfare, it’s not just attorneys. It’s the whole system, when it comes to disability, that’s very broken.”

According to the child welfare workers and attorneys in this study, disabled parents were often required to demonstrate that they could parent independently, without accommodations. In one attorney’s experience, courts often “think that if this parent can’t do it on their own that maybe they shouldn’t be a parent.” A child welfare worker agreed:

If a parent is like a coparent, say with Grandma … rather than thinking about the grandparent as actually the accommodation to help them parent … they would say, “Well, if you can’t do it without them there, you can’t do it at all.”

This, according to one attorney, “violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Child welfare workers and attorneys also explained how mandated ASFA timelines disproportionately impacted disabled parents. One child welfare worker said that seeking eligibility for tailored services for parents with intellectual disabilities could take much of the timeline: “To get an eligibility letter, to get a Medicaid service coordinator, to then get those services … could take 15 months.” Another child welfare worker said that establishing eligibility for services for parents with developmental disabilities “takes five months … and we have ASFA and the clock’s ticking.” Similarly, an attorney explained how an appeals court decision in her state put parents with disabilities at a structural disadvantage. The court decided that assessments of whether the child welfare agency was making reasonable efforts to reunify disabled parents with their children did not have to occur “within the six-month increments as long as they were doing it at all.” As a result, “the court … was essentially saying, ‘It’s OK for disabled parents if they don’t get the services within the six-month period as long as they get them eventually.’ ” The attorney said that this did not change the ASFA timeline, and put disabled parents at a disadvantage.

Interviews with parents with disabilities, child welfare workers, and attorneys revealed internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and structural ableism in the child welfare system. Participants recounted their own internalized ableism, offered examples of interpersonal prejudice against parents with disabilities in the child welfare system, and discussed the institutional practice of using parents’ disabilities as a reason to separate them from their children and deny them needed services and accommodations. Additionally, interviews with parents revealed that ableism across the child welfare system and other institutions could make it more difficult for them to reunify with their children. At the same time, child welfare workers and attorneys noted that federally mandated reunification timelines may disadvantage disabled parents. This study has important implications for policy, practice, and research.

The present study adds parents’ perspectives to previous research indicating that child welfare system decisions concerning parents with disabilities, including available services, are often based on biased assumptions about their parenting capabilities ( Callow et al., 2011 ; Lightfoot et al., 2010 ). Study findings suggest that high rates of child welfare involvement among disabled parents, and the adverse outcomes they experience, may be related to ableist beliefs, policies, and practices regarding parents with disabilities.

Similar to addressing other types of oppression, addressing ableism in the child welfare system requires a multifaceted approach ( J. A. Powell et al., 2011 ). Research indicates that peer support from other disabled parents, including social media and online groups, provides opportunities for parents to share their experiences of parenting with disabilities, helps to bolster their social support systems ( Peterson-Besse et al., 2019 ), and provides parents with social resources to advocate for their needs in a system not designed to support them ( Mitra et al., 2016 ). It may therefore be a useful way to help address internalized ableism among disabled parents. The present study bears out parents’ concerns about being perceived as incapable of caring for their children. Prior research indicates that peer support may also help parents cope with interpersonal discrimination ( Iezzoni et al., 2015 ). Peer support for parents with disabilities could be organized by independent living centers or disability advocacy groups ( NCD, 2012 ).

Ameliorating internalized ableism among child welfare workers and attorneys also requires individual-level intervention. Adding education about disability as a social phenomenon to child welfare workers’ and attorneys’ academic and professional training would be especially useful ( Rao et al., 2019 ; R. M. Powell & Albert, 2021 ; R. M. Powell et al., 2020 ). Education on disability may also help address child welfare workers’ and attorneys’ interpersonal ableism, especially if followed by ongoing training on working with disabled parents and their families. Research has found that child welfare workers often lack this training ( Azar et al., 2013 ) and want to improve their work with disabled parents ( Albert & Powell, 2021 ). Training should include appropriate parenting assessments, adaptive parenting strategies and equipment, and opportunities for parents with disabilities to share their insights.

In addition to ongoing professional training for child welfare workers and attorneys, changes to child welfare system policies and practices are needed to address institutional ableism where it exists. Building checks and balances into decision making may help mitigate the ableist practices revealed in this study and in past research, such as holding parents with disabilities to higher standards than nondisabled parents ( Miller et al., 2013 ). Increased access to accommodations, services, and supports tailored for disabled parents is urgently needed, especially for parents with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities ( Lightfoot et al., 2018 ; R. M. Powell & Nicholson, 2019 ). The lack of tailored services and supports can make reunification more challenging ( Lightfoot et al., 2018 ; R. M. Powell & Nicholson, 2019 ). This study found that the absence of needed services may also be used to support terminating disabled parents’ rights. Services and supports for parents with disabilities and their families could be provided via referrals to community-based resources, rather than only as part of child welfare investigations.

Policy and programmatic changes are also needed to address structural ableism. For example, states should reform their laws so termination of parental rights decisions can no longer be based on parental disability ( NCD, 2012 ). Further, child welfare agencies and courts continue to misapply the ADA, which leads to inequities ( R. M. Powell, 2016 ). Although the U.S. Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Health and Human Services (HHS) issued guidance in 2015 for child welfare agencies and courts on their legal obligations under the ADA ( DOJ & HHS, 2015 ), child welfare workers and attorneys continue to be unfamiliar with it ( Albert & Powell, 2021 ; R. M. Powell & Albert, 2021 ). The DOJ/HHS guidance should be made available to child welfare agencies and courts to ensure that they comply with their legal obligations to parents with disabilities. Additionally, study findings indicate that child welfare agencies need to collaborate with community-based service providers to ensure that the needs of parents with disabilities and their families are accommodated across institutions. Last, state Medicaid programs should fund services and supports for disabled parents, such as adaptive parenting equipment and personal care attendant services to assist with parenting tasks ( R. M. Powell et al., 2019 ).

This study has limitations. First, the sample lacks diversity and may not reflect the perspectives or experiences of all parents with disabilities, child welfare workers, and attorneys. Future research should aim to include a more diverse sample. Research should also explore how parents’ experiences of ableism in the child welfare system may intersect with experiences of bias and oppression related to other marginalized identities, such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, immigration status, or class. Second, selection bias is possible, as study participants may have had different experiences than individuals who did not participate in the study. Parents were recruited primarily through social media and disability organizations, and less-connected parents may have been excluded. Moreover, some child welfare workers and attorneys may not have participated because of concerns about professional ramifications. Third, social desirability bias is possible because the study was based on self-reporting, and participants’ responses were not verified. Fourth, the credibility of participants’ responses was not established with member checking or peer debriefing. Nonetheless, rigor was maintained throughout the coding process to ensure agreement. Fifth, recall bias may exist, especially for participants whose experiences were not recent. Parents were involved with the child welfare system within the past five years. This number of years was chosen because of known challenges related to recruiting disabled people ( Banas et al., 2019 ), and because a study of nondisabled parents involved with the child welfare system used similar criteria ( Buckley et al., 2011 ). Further, the study was limited to child welfare workers and attorneys currently supporting families involved with the child welfare system. While some may have reflected on past experiences, most had fewer than 15 years of professional experience, and primarily discussed recent cases. Sixth, the aim of the study was not to compare and contrast the experiences of parents, child welfare workers, and attorneys, but rather to offer their respective insights on ableism within the child welfare system. While child welfare workers and attorneys often reported similar perspectives, future research should compare and contrast the two groups further. Last, parents had diverse, often coexisting disabilities, and findings do not account for differences in parents’ experiences by disability type. Given the evidence of disability hierarchy in child welfare workers’ and attorneys’ perceptions of disabled parents and the accessibility of services and accommodations, future research should explore disability-specific differences in parents’ experiences of ableism in the child welfare system.

This study provides evidence about experiences and manifestations of ableism in the U.S. child welfare system, according to parents with disabilities, child welfare workers, and attorneys who represent parents. Study findings suggest that ableism within the child welfare system persists across four levels: (1) internalized, (2) interpersonal, (3) institutional, and (4) structural. Eliminating ableism in the child welfare system requires multiple levels of interventions. These include peer support for parents; increased education and training for child welfare workers and attorneys; consistent policies, practices, services, and accommodations tailored for disabled parents; legal changes to protect parents’ rights; and increased public funding for parenting services and supports. With these interventions, the child welfare system can improve how it works with and supports parents with disabilities and their families.

Funding for this study was provided by the Brandeis University Office of the Provost, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (Award Number: 90DPGE0001), and the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University. The opinions and conclusions are solely those of the authors and should not be construed as representing the sponsor.

Albert S. , Powell R. M.  ( 2021 ). Supporting disabled parents and their families: Perspectives and recommendations from parents, attorneys, and child welfare professionals .  Journal of Public Child Welfare , 15 .

Google Scholar

Azar S. T. , Maggi M. C. , Proctor S. N. ( 2013 ). Practices changes in the child protection system to address the needs of parents with cognitive disabilities . Journal of Public Child Welfare , 7 , 610 – 632 .

Banas J. R. , Magasi S. , The K. , Victorson D. E. ( 2019 ). Recruiting and retaining people with disabilities for qualitative health research: Challenges and solutions . Qualitative Health Research , 29 , 1056 – 1064 .

Bolen R. M. ( 2003 ). Nonoffending mothers of sexually abused children: A case of institutionalized sexism? Violence Against Women , 9 , 1336 – 1366 . https://doi .org/10.1177/1077801203256001

Booth T. , Booth W. , McConnell D. ( 2005 ). Care proceedings and parents with learning difficulties: Comparative prevalence and outcomes in an English and Australian court sample . Child & Family Social Work , 10 , 353 – 360 . .2005.00378.x

Brown N. , Leigh J. ( 2018 ). Ableism in academia: Where are the disabled and ill academics? Disability & Society , 33 , 985 – 989 .

Buckley H. , Carr N. , Whelan S. ( 2011 ). ‘Like walking on eggshells’: Service user views and expectations of the child protection system . Child & Family Social Work , 16 , 101 – 110 .

Callow E. , Buckland K. , Jones S. ( 2011 ). Parents with disabilities in the United States: Prevalence, perspectives, and a proposal for legislative change to protect the right to family in the disability community . Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights , 17 , 9 – 41 .

Campbell F. K. ( 2014 ). Ableism as transformative practice. In Cocker C. , Hafford-Letchfield T. (Eds.), Rethinking anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive theories for social work practice (pp. 78 – 92) . Palgrave Macmillan .

Google Preview

Collentine A. C. ( 2005 ). Respecting intellectually disabled parents: A call for change in state termination of parental rights statutes . Hofstra Law Review , 34 , 535 – 564 .

Creswell J. W. ( 2013 ). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among the five approaches . SAGE .

Fierros E. G. ( 2006 ). One size does not fit all: A response to institutionalizing inequity . Disability Studies Quarterly , 26 .

Friedman C. ( 2019 ). Ableism, racism, and subminimum wage in the United States . Disability Studies Quarterly , 39 .

Guest G. , Bunce A. , Johnson L. ( 2006 ). How many interviews are enough? An experiment with data saturation and variability . Field Methods , 18 , 59 – 81 .

Hsieh H. F. , Shannon S. E. ( 2005 ). Three approaches to qualitative content analysis . Qualitative Health Research , 15 , 1277 – 1288 .

Iezzoni L. I. , Wint A. J. , Smeltzer S. C. , Ecker J. L. ( 2015 ). “How did that happen?” Public responses to women with mobility disability during pregnancy . Disability and Health Journal , 8 , 380 – 387 . https://doi .org/10.1016/j.dhjo.2015.02.002

Jammaers E. , Zanoni P. , Hardonk S. ( 2016 ). Constructing positive identities in ableist workplaces: Disabled employees’ discursive practices engaging with the discourse of lower productivity . Human Relations , 69 , 1365 – 1386 .

Janz H. L. ( 2019 ). Ableism: The undiagnosed malady afflicting medicine . CMAJ , 191 , E478 – E479 .

Kaplan K. , Brusilovskiy E. , O’Shea A. M. , Salzer M. S. ( 2019 ). Child protective service disparities and serious mental illnesses: Results from a national survey . Psychiatric Services , 70 , 202 – 208 .

Kattari S. K. , Olzman M. , Hanna M. D. ( 2018 ). “You look fine!”: Ableist experiences by people with invisible disabilities . Afflilia , 33 , 477 – 492 .

LaLiberte T. ( 2013 ). Are we prepared? Child welfare work with parents with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities . Journal of Public Child Welfare , 7 , 633 – 657 .

Lightfoot E. , DeZelar S. ( 2016 ). The experiences and outcomes of children in foster care who were removed because of a parental disability . Children and Youth Services Review , 62 , 22 – 28 . .1016/j.childyouth.2015.11.029

Lightfoot E. , DeZelar S. ( 2019 ). Social work with parents with disabilities: Historical interactions and contemporary innovations . Revista de Asistenţa˘ Sociala˘ , XVIII , 19 – 29 .

Lightfoot E. , Hill K. , LaLiberte T. ( 2010 ). The inclusion of disability as a condition for termination of parental rights . Child Abuse & Neglect , 34 , 927 – 924 .

Lightfoot E. , LaLiberte T. ( 2011 ). Parental support for parents with intellectual and developmental disabilities . Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities , 49 , 388 – 391 . .388

Lightfoot E. , LaLiberte T. , Minhae C. ( 2017 ). A case record review of termination of parental rights cases involving parents with a disability . Children and Youth Services Review , 79 , 399 – 407

Lightfoot E. , LaLiberte T. , Minhae C. ( 2018 ). Parental supports for parents with disabilities: The importance of informal supports . Child Welfare , 96 , 89 – 110 .

Lund E. M. , Ayers K. B. ( 2020 ). Raising awareness of disabled lives and health care rationing during the COVID-19 pandemic . Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy , 12 , S210 – S211 .

McConnell D. , Llewellyn G. ( 2002 ). Stereotypes, parents with intellectual disability and child protection . Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law , 24 , 297 – 317 .

Miller K. M. , Cahn K. , Anderson-Nathe B. , Cause A. G. , Bender R. ( 2013 ). Individual and systemic/structural bias in child welfare decision making: Implications for children and families of color . Children and Youth Services Review , 35 , 1634 – 1642 .

Mitra M. , Long-Bellil L. M. , Iezzoni L. I. , Smeltzer S. C. , Smith L. D. ( 2016 ). Pregnancy among women with physical disabilities: Unmet needs and recommendations on navigating pregnancy . Disability and Health Journal , 9 , 457 – 463 .

Nario-Redmond M. R. , Kemerling A. A. ( 2019 ). Hostile, benevolent, and ambivalent ableism: Contemporary manifestations . Journal of Social Issues , 75 , 726 – 756 .

National Council on Disability. ( 2012 ). Rocking the cradle: Ensuring the rights of parents with disabilities and their children.

Parchomiuk M. ( 2014 ). Social context of disabled parenting . Sexuality and Disability , 32 , 231 – 242 . https://doi .org/10.1007/s11195-014-9349-5

Patton M. Q. ( 2002 ). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). SAGE .

Penketh C. ( 2017 ). ‘Children see before they speak’: An exploration of ableism in art education . Disability & Society , 32 , 110 – 127 .

Peterson-Besse J. J. , Knoll J. E. , Horner-Johnson W. ( 2019 ). Internet networks as a source of social support for women with mobility disabilities during pregnancy . Disability and Health Journal , 12 , 722 – 726 .

Powell J. A. , Heller C. C. , Bundalli F. ( 2011 ). Systems thinking and race: Workshop summary. The California Endowment.

Powell R. M. ( 2016 ). Safeguarding the rights of parents with intellectual disabilities in child welfare cases: The convergence of social science and law . CUNY Law Review , 20 , 127 – 149 .

Powell R. M. , Albert S. M. ( 2021 ). Barriers and facilitators to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act by the child welfare system: Insights from interviews with disabled parents, child welfare workers, and attorneys .  Stanford Law & Policy Review ,  32 , 119 – 178 .

Powell R. M. , Mitra M. , Smeltzer S. C. , Long-Bellil L. M. , Smith L. D. , Rosenthal E. , Iezzoni L. I. ( 2019 ). Adaptive parenting strategies used by mothers with physical disabilities caring for infants and toddlers . Health and Social Care in the Community , 27 , 889 – 898 .

Powell R. M. , Nicholson J. ( 2019 ). Disparities in child protective services: Commentary on Kaplan et al . (2019). Psychiatric Services , 70 , 209 – 210 .

Powell R. M. , Parish S. L. , Mitra M. , Nicholson J. ( 2020 ). Responding to the legal needs of parents with psychiatric disabilities: Insights from parent interviews . Law & Inequality , 38 , 69 – 116 .

Rao T. , Reiman E. , Ausikaitis A. ( 2019 ). Child welfare caseworkers and children with developmental disabilities: An exploratory study . Social Work , 64 , 131 – 138 .

Saldaña J. ( 2016 ). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (3rd ed.). SAGE .

Sandelowski M. ( 2010 ). What’s in a name? Qualitative description revisited . Research in Nursing & Health , 33 , 77 – 84 .

Slayter E. M. , Jensen J. ( 2019 ). Parents with intellectual disabilities in the child protection system . Children and Youth Services Review , 98 , 297 – 304 . https://doi .org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.01.013

SocioCultural Research Consultants. ( 2019 ). Dedoose (Version 8.2.14) [Web app]. http://www.dedoose .com

Sonik R. A. , Parish S. L. , Mitra M. , Nicholson J. ( 2018 ). Parents with and without disabilities: Demographics, material hardship, and program participation . Review of Disability Studies , 14 , 1 – 20 .

Thomas A. ( 2000 ). Stability of Tringo’s hierarchy of preference toward disability groups: 30 years later . Psychological Reports , 86 , 1155 – 1156 .

U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ( 2015 ). Protecting the rights of parents and prospective parents with disabilities: Technical assistance for state and local child welfare agencies and courts under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act . http://www.ada .gov/doj_hhs_ta/child_welfare_ta.html

Email alerts

Citing articles via.

  • Recommend to your Library


National Association of Social Workers

  • Online ISSN 1545-6838
  • Print ISSN 1070-5309
  • Copyright © 2024 National Association of Social Workers
  • About Oxford Academic
  • Publish journals with us
  • University press partners
  • What we publish
  • New features  
  • Open access
  • Institutional account management
  • Rights and permissions
  • Get help with access
  • Accessibility
  • Advertising
  • Media enquiries
  • Oxford University Press
  • Oxford Languages
  • University of Oxford

Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide

  • Copyright © 2024 Oxford University Press
  • Cookie settings
  • Cookie policy
  • Privacy policy
  • Legal notice

This Feature Is Available To Subscribers Only

Sign In or Create an Account

This PDF is available to Subscribers Only

For full access to this pdf, sign in to an existing account, or purchase an annual subscription.

Transforming Child Welfare: Prioritizing Prevention, Racial Equity, and Advancing Child and Family Well-Being

April 2021 Policy Brief Cover

Download Policy Brief (PDF) Download Executive Summary (PDF) Download Brief with Summary (PDF)

  • A substantial transformation of the child welfare system is needed that prioritizes prevention of child maltreatment, racial equity, and improves and sustains child and family well-being.
  • The Family First Prevention and Services Act is an important first step toward greater investment in child maltreatment prevention, support to kin caregivers, and proper placements for children and youth needing temporary foster care.
  • Institutionalized racism and inherent bias in child welfare policy, practice, and decision making contribute to families and communities of color disproportionately experiencing the failings of the current child welfare system.
  • Different child welfare response options are needed, especially for families with neglect-only allegations.
  • Authentic partnerships among human service agencies, community agencies, and families are critical for creating responsive and flexible primary prevention service arrays.
The child welfare system is overdue for substantial transformation. Families and communities of color have experienced the brunt of the failings and limitations present in current policy and practice. A transformed approach is needed that prioritizes maltreatment prevention, racial equity, and child and family well-being. The Family First Prevention Services Act is an important step in this effort, although its scope falls short of the significant changes that are needed to effectively serve children and families. Transformation requires intentional efforts to disentangle poverty and child neglect, and investments in communities to build robust, accessible continua of prevention services.

After decades of moderate reforms, 1 the Family First Prevention Services Act (Family First) represents a significant, but limited shift toward maltreatment prevention. Child welfare leaders, advocates, and policymakers are well positioned to leverage Family First and extend it to create new child- and family-serving systems that prioritize maltreatment prevention and racial equity, and also improve and sustain child and family well-being.

Since the establishment of states’ formalized child protection systems, most child welfare resources have been directed toward investigations and out-of-home care expenditures. In 2016, only 15% of the $30 billion invested nationally was directed toward prevention services. 2 Strengthening and supporting families and communities in order to reduce risk and build protective capacity has not been the primary focus or resource investment; annually more than 260,000 children and their families experience separation and removal. 3

The failings of child welfare strategies are especially important during the present challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Families living in poverty or facing economic insecurity have disproportionately felt the stressors of stay-at-home orders, school and child care closures, unemployment uncertainty, and diminished social

connectedness and support.⁴ Yet during these times, a prevailing narrative has been concern about states receiving a decreased number of child maltreatment reports, a result of lack of surveillance by mandated school and child-care reporters,⁵ rather than a coordinated human services response to increase outreach and preventive support to families.

Concerns about decreasing reports of child maltreatment are understandable; however, it is important to note that there are no national training standards for mandated reporters.⁶ Moreover, reports by schools, child-care providers, and mental health personnel represent the lowest percentage of substantiated child victims despite accounting for the greatest percentage of screened-in reports.⁷ Substantial numbers of families experience a child maltreatment investigation without a corresponding determination of abuse or neglect. This phenomenon suggests an opportunity to think about new proactive and adaptive strategies to help families meet their needs and keep children safe.

The child welfare system since its inception has intervened with and systematically separated children of color from their families, fragmenting communities and causing intergenerational trauma.⁸ A representative example of this includes the establishment of Native American boarding schools and the removal of significant populations of American Indian/Alaskan Native (AI/AN) children and youth from their families, tribes, and native land.⁹ Another is the intentional targeting of Black and Brown communities during the war on drugs, which resulted in skyrocketing numbers of children of color being placed into foster care. 10 Today Black and AI/AN children are still disproportionately represented at all stages of the child welfare system. 11, 12, 13 Once in foster care, they often experience increased placement disruptions, longer times to permanency, and more frequent reentry into foster care. 14 Presently, 53% of all Black children and their parents will experience a child welfare investigation before the child’s 18th birthday. 15 Undoing the institutionalized racism inherent in the child welfare system is a critical part of a broader call for actionable change.

Family First Prevention Services Act: An Important First Step

In 2018, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act. 16 Family First arguably is the most transformational child welfare legislation in recent history, largely because of its focus on prevention. It also emphasizes supporting kin caregivers and reducing the inappropriate use of residential placements for children and youth in foster care.

Family First allows for states, tribes, and territories to access federal Title IV-E funds for select evidence-based programs (EBPs) for child maltreatment prevention that are provided to children, parents, and/or kin caregivers and address issues related to mental health, substance use disorders, or in-home parent skill building. 17 Title IV-E is the only uncapped federal funding stream for child welfare services. Title IV-E funding was previously available to states only to reimburse certain percentages of their expenditures related to foster care. Now, these substantial Family First federal resources can be accessed to support the provision of certain EBPs that meet a specific evidence threshold as part of a broader prevention strategy, potentially allowing families to address key challenges and prevent their children from entering or reentering foster care.

Family First also includes important provisions related to ensuring proper foster care placements. The legislation restricts federal funds for youth placed in residential (i.e., congregate care) settings unless the providers meet specified criteria, and clinical assessments show that youth would be best served through temporary and time-limited residential treatment. 18 In addition, providers must have processes in place to engage family members in assessment processes and service delivery and provide discharge planning and aftercare services for at least 6 months post-discharge. This set of reforms is designed to promote family-based foster care placements as the best choice whenever possible, as well as to improve the quality of care received by youth who require temporary placement in residential settings.

Family First’s emphasis on kinship caregivers is also notable. Kinship caregivers include relative family members or close family friends (often referred to as fictive kin) that assume temporary or permanent responsibility for caring for their relative children. 19 The legislation also authorizes Title IV-E reimbursement for evidence-based kinship navigator programs. These programs are designed to ensure that relative and fictive kin caregivers have access to the resources and supports they need to care for children living with them. An immediate challenge though is that there are currently no kinship navigator programs reaching the evidence threshold required for reimbursement through Title IV-E funding. 20 This signals the need for increased development and testing of programs designed for relative and kin caregivers.

Investing in Prevention: Limitations of Family First

There are several limitations with the Family First preventive provisions. First, funds are available to states only to reimburse a percentage of costs associated with providing select EBPs to families with children identified as at “imminent risk” of entering foster care. 20 Although states have the ability to operationalize what imminent risk means within their child welfare system, the deficit-based nature of the requirement means that states are more likely to target families at the deeper end of the risk continuum. This limits the likelihood that these EBPs will be made available to families early enough to prevent maltreatment. Furthermore, the imminent risk classification potentially could stigmatize and threaten parents in need of support with child removal, thwarting authentic engagement in assessment and planning activities as well as participation in services.

Second, funds are available only for evidence-based mental health, substance use, or in-home parenting skill-based programs that have been reviewed and approved by a federal evidence-based services clearinghouse. 20 Programs can achieve a rating of “does not currently meet criteria,” “promising,” “supported,” or “well-supported.” Efforts to invest in programs that are known to work make sense. However, the evidence base in child welfare is still quite limited, particularly for proven programs that have been specifically designed for children and families of color. 21 In addition, EBPs are often difficult and expensive to scale up, implement with fidelity, 22 and rigorously evaluate. EBPs are also often unavailable in rural areas where child welfare agencies have long struggled to develop and maintain responsive service arrays. 23 

Last, although it is imperative to address the clinical needs covered by Family First EBPs, families often experience other challenges that create conditions for maltreatment. These include poverty-related problems related to housing instability, food security, inadequate child care, and/or unemployment or underemployment often experienced by families with neglect allegations. 24 These issues can worsen co-occurring challenges with substance abuse, mental illness, and parenting and interfere with families’ ability to meaningfully address them.

Disentangling Poverty and Neglect

Comprehensive child welfare transformation beyond the scope of Family First will require holistic efforts to disentangle the issues of poverty and maltreatment, particularly neglect, and will necessitate a reconceptualization of how the child welfare system responds to families lacking sufficient resources. 25 This is especially imperative given that neglect-only cases represent more than 60% of maltreatment determinations. 26 Being poor does not make someone a poor parent; poverty, though, can create conditions by which maltreatment is more likely to occur. Rather than further stigmatize and punish families living in poverty with investigations and maltreatment determinations, families and communities would be better served by a coordinated human services response. 25 This response could focus on addressing the range of family needs (e.g., child care, food insecurity, unemployment), building strengths, and linking families with supportive structures. 27 For example, when economic interventions have been evaluated, even modest financial supports have been shown to reduce child abuse and neglect by enabling families to better access resources and address their basic needs. 28

Further, families without stable housing are also disproportionately represented in the child welfare system. 29   For one in six children involved in a child maltreatment investigation, housing instability contributes to their risk of entering foster care. 30 Moreover, unstable housing can delay reunification between parents and their children in out-of-home care, even when all other safety and risk factors have been addressed. 31

A child and family well-being system that legitimately acknowledges and simultaneously addresses the interrelated issues of housing, child care, jobs, and health care will be much more effective in preventing maltreatment and fostering improved child and family well-being.

Transforming Child Welfare to Child and Family Well-Being

The child welfare field must transform in order to achieve coordinated state and local child- and family-serving systems that acknowledge and dismantle institutionalized racism, 32 preventively address the range of stressors affecting families’ protective capacities, prioritize keeping families together, and promote improved child and family well-being. The child welfare field can achieve such a transformation through the following:

Advancing child and family well-being requires investing in communities and making resources and supports available before families destabilize to the point that foster care becomes necessary. In addition to implementing and scaling the EBPs available via Family First, this system should expand the preventive continuum of services to include permanent housing programs, affordable child care, food pantries, employment services, and other resources that substantively contribute to family stability and well-being. Innovative collaborations with community-based organizations outside of formal public agency systems, including faith-based organizations, nonprofits, private businesses, and philanthropy should be created. Partnering with families and communities to expand the child welfare evidence base to include programs and interventions specifically designed with and for families and communities of color is needed. Listening directly to families about what they most need and making those supports available is critical.

Building a robust prevention continuum requires human service agencies to work together very differently than how they do now. Rather than siloed public agencies that provide fragmented service delivery, human service leaders must collaborate to develop innovative ways to coordinate service delivery and coordinate different strands of funding to address families’ interconnected challenges. Families need a coordinated response that goes beyond simply a referral to another public system (e.g., housing authority, public assistance office), which are often challenging to navigate and may not result in the provision of needed services.

Investing in and supporting kin caregivers is a cornerstone of a child and family well-being system. This includes maximizing the opportunities represented in the Family First kinship care provisions to ensure that children and youth can remain within their known support networks when living with their parents is temporarily or permanently not possible. At a minimum, this means providing financial resources to kin at the same levels that the child welfare system resources nonrelative foster parents, and without tying the money to foster parent licensure and home-study requirements. Most often, unlicensed kinship caregivers have access only to the child-only benefits available through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which generally represent less than half of what is available to licensed foster parents. 33 Kin caregivers should not be denied critical financial resources and supports because of non-safety-related licensing requirements, such as number of bedrooms in their home or past convictions for nonviolent criminal charges, which disproportionately have an impact on families of color. Ensuring that children and youth can remain with family is essential for promoting connectedness, stability, and well-being.

With the public support of federal child welfare leaders, national experts, and advocates, many jurisdictions are taking initial steps toward conceptualizing and implementing broader visions for child welfare transformation. This includes examples of forward-thinking Title IV-E Prevention Program plans (i.e., Family First plans), 34 as well as a demonstrated commitment by several jurisdictions to the collaborative Thriving Families, Safer Children initiative, led by the Children’s Bureau in partnership with Casey Family Programs, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Prevent Child Abuse America. 35 These strategies have the capacity to meaningfully combat racial inequities and support families facing adversity in ways that value their inherent humanity and contribute to strong, vibrant, and resourceful communities.  

Recommendations for Policymakers

The following recommendations are applicable to federal, state, and local policymakers. Decision makers at all levels of government have the ability to advance a child and family well-being agenda within their sphere of influence.

Mandatory reporting system. Consider reconceptualizing the mandatory reporting system and the child welfare “front door,” particularly for neglect-only cases. Explore alternative options and training mechanisms that would enable mandatory reporters to pursue other avenues for connecting families observed to need support with resources (e.g., help line, linkages to community resource centers) without defaulting to a child maltreatment report.⁷

Primary prevention. Expand the available array of primary prevention programs to families within their communities and make them easily accessible long before families are at serious risk of experiencing maltreatment. 36 Foster leadership within community-based organizations to promote the amplification of youth and family voice, particularly from communities of color, in the design and implementation of prevention programs and strategies.

Race equity. Acknowledge and address the institutionalized racism that is reflected in the policies that guide child welfare programs and the ways they are implemented. Prioritize and provide resources for the hard work needed for child welfare leaders, staff, partners, and stakeholders to examine, confront, and dismantle racist policies and programs, and partner with communities of color to design and implement a child and family well-being system that values, respects, and equitably serves all families. 37

Evidence-based interventions. Continue to invest in the development and testing of interventions to grow the evidence base for child welfare. Specifically prioritize the development of interventions that are designed with and for communities of color. Consider evaluation designs and methodologies that do not marginalize or devalue community-grown interventions that may be more difficult to assess using traditional evaluation frameworks. 23

Kinship care. Make financial resources and supports available to kinship caregivers that are equal to what is available to nonrelative foster parents. 35 Ensure that kinship caregivers are not prevented from being considered temporary or permanent placement resources for children because of non-safety-related concerns, such as insufficient bedrooms available or past nonviolent criminal convictions.

Coordinate human service programs. Explore opportunities to address fragmented service delivery across siloed public agencies, which are often difficult for families to successfully navigate. Develop more explicit strategies to allow for the blending of funding across different programs, and “no wrong door” approaches that provide opportunities for families to connect with multiple public agencies to address a range of human service needs regardless of which agency they initially engage for support. 

Author Bios

Krista Thomas, Ph.D. , is a Policy Fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. She leads blended teams of policy, practice, and research experts in efforts to build the capacity of state and local child welfare systems across the country to execute large-scale transformation initiatives and improve safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes for children and families.

Charlotte Halbert, M.Pub.Pol. , is an Associate Policy Analyst at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. She provides targeted assistance to Chapin Hall’s work with state government and child welfare agencies implementing system transformation initiatives.

1 Sanders, D. (2020, October). The time is now for a new path forward. CBExpress, 21 (7).…

2 Rosinsky, K., & Williams, S. C. (2018). Child welfare financing SFY 2016: A survey of federal, state, and local expenditures . Child Trends.…

3 Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2019). The AFCARS report: Preliminary FY 2018 estimates as of August 22, 2019 (No. 26). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

4 Sharma, S. V., Chuang, R.-J., Rushing, M., Naylor, B., Ranjit, N., Pomeroy, M., & Markham, C. (2020). Social determinants of health–related needs during COVID-19 among low-income households with children. Preventing Chronic Disease, 17 , 200322.

5   Schmidt, S., & Natanson, H. (2020, April 30). With kids stuck at home, ER doctors see more severe cases of child abuse. Washington Post .…

6   Kenny, M. C. (2015). Training in reporting of child maltreatment: Where we are and where we need to go. In B. Mathews & D. Bross (Eds.), Mandatory reporting laws and the identification of severe child abuse and neglect: Vol. 4. Child maltreatment . Springer.

7   Weiner, D., Heaton, L., Stiehl, M., Chor, B., Kim, K., Heisler, K., Foltz, R., & Farrell, A. (2020). Chapin Hall issue brief: COVID-19 and child welfare: Using data to understand trends in maltreatment and response . Chapin Hall, University of Chicago.

8 Roberts, D. (2002). Shattered bonds: The color of child welfare . Civitas Publishing.

9 Child, B. (1999). Boarding school seasons . University of Nebraska Press.

10 Levy-Pounds, N. (2010). Can these bones live: A look at the impacts of the war on drugs on poor African-American children and families. Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal, 7(2), 353–380.…

11 Font, S., Berger, L., & Slack, K. (2012). Examining racial disproportionality in child protective services case decisions. Children and Youth Services Review, 34 (11), 2188–2200.

12 Putnam-Hornstein, E., Needell, B., King, B., & Johnson-Motoyama, M. (2012). Racial and ethnic disparities: A population-based examination of risk factors for involvement with child protective services. Child Abuse & Neglect, 37 , 33–46.

13 Yi, Y., Edwards, F., & Wildeman, C. (2020). Cumulative prevalence of confirmed maltreatment and foster care placement for US children by race/ethnicity, 2011–2016. American Journal of Public Health, 110 (5), 704–709.

14 Cooper, T. A. (2013). Racial bias in American foster care: The national debate. Marquette Law Review, 97 (2), 215–277.

15 Kim, H., Wildeman, C., Jonson-Reid, M., & Drake, B. (2017). Lifetime prevalence of investigating child maltreatment among US children. American Journal of Public Health, 107, 274–280.

16 Family First Prevention Services Act, Pub. L. No. 115-123, §§ 50711, 50741-43, 50753 (2018).…

17 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. (2018). Information Memorandum ACYF-CB-IM-18-02. NEW LEGISLATION—Public Law 115-123, the Family First Prevention Services Act within Division E, Title VII of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 .

18   U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—Administration for Children and Families. (2018). ACYF-CB-PI-18-09 State Requirements for Electing Title IV-E Prevention and Family Services and Programs .

19 Child Welfare Information Gateway. (n.d.). Kinship care .

20 Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse. (2020). Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse: Description.

21 Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2017). Considering culture: Building the best evidence-based practices for people of color .

22 Farley, A. J., Feaster, D., Schapmire, T. J., D’Ambrosio, J. G., Bruce, L. E., Oak, S. C., & Sar, B. K. (2009). The challenges of implementing evidence-based practice: Ethical considerations in practice, education, policy, and research. Social Work and Society International Online Journal, 7 (2).

23   JBS International. (2020). Child and family services reviews aggregate report: Round 3: Fiscal years 2015–2018 . Report prepared for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. Children’s Bureau.

24 Sedlak, A. J., Mettenburg, J., Basena, M., Petta, I., McPherson, K., Greene, A., & Li, S. (2010). Fourth national incidence study of child abuse and neglect (NIS-4): Report to Congress . U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.

25 Milner, J., & Kelly, D. (2020, January 17). It’s time to stop confusing poverty with neglect. The Imprint .…

26   Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2018). Child maltreatment 2018 .

27   Britner, P. A., & Farrell, A. F. (2017). A safe, stable place to call home: Policy implications and next steps to address family homelessness. Advances in Child and Family Policy and Practice , 101–112.

28   Raissian, K., & Bullinger, L. (2017). Money matters: Does the minimum wage affect child maltreatment rates? Children and Youth Services Review, 72 , 60-70.

29 Park, J. M., Metraux, S., Brodbar, G., & Culhane, D. P. (2004). Child welfare involvement among children in homeless families. Child Welfare, 83 (5), 423–436.

30 Fowler, P. J., Henry, D. B., Schoeny, M., Landsverk, J., Chavira, D., & Taylor, J. J. (2013). Inadequate housing among families under investigation for child abuse and neglect: Prevalence from a national probability sample. American Journal of Community Psychology, 52 , 106–114.

31 Casey Family Programs (2019). What do we know about the impact of homelessness and housing instability on child welfare-involved families?

32  Kendi, I. (2019). How to be an antiracist . Oneworld.

33   Casey Family Programs. (2020). How can we prioritize kin in the home study and licensure process, and make placement with relatives the norm?

34 Child and Family Services Agency. (2020). Putting families first in DC .

35   Cagle, B. (2020, October). Upending the status quo. CBExpress, 21 (7).…

36   Capacity Building Center for Courts (Producer). (2018). Imagine a new child welfare system [video file].

37   Samuels, B. (2020, August–September). Family and child well-being: An urgent call to action. CBExpress, 21 (6).…

Copyright © 2021 National Council on Family Relations

This policy brief may be duplicated, distributed, or posted electronically with attribution to the National Council on Family Relations.

Inclusion of portions or all of this brief in printed or electronic textbooks, anthologies, or other publications requires permission from NCFR.

The views expressed within this publication may not represent the views or policies of the entire organization.

To see all NCFR research briefs and policy briefs, visit

Elaine A. Anderson, Policy Brief Editor

Family Science is a vibrant and growing discipline. Visit Family.Science to learn more and see how Family Scientists make a difference.

NCFR is a nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose members support all families through research, teaching, practice, and advocacy.

Get the latest updates on NCFR & Family Science in our weekly email newsletter:

Connect with Us

National Council on Family Relations 661 LaSalle Street, Suite 200 Saint Paul, MN 55114 Phone: (888) 781-9331 [email protected] Terms & Conditions | Privacy Policy

© Copyright 2023 NCFR

  • Tools and Resources
  • Customer Services
  • Addictions and Substance Use
  • Administration and Management
  • Aging and Older Adults
  • Biographies
  • Children and Adolescents
  • Clinical and Direct Practice
  • Couples and Families
  • Criminal Justice
  • Disabilities
  • Ethics and Values
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Health Care and Illness
  • Human Behavior
  • International and Global Issues
  • Macro Practice
  • Mental and Behavioral Health
  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Populations and Practice Settings
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
  • Religion and Spirituality
  • Research and Evidence-Based Practice
  • Social Justice and Human Rights
  • Social Work Profession
  • Share This Facebook LinkedIn Twitter

Article contents

Child welfare: history and policy.

  • Christina Paddock , Christina Paddock University of Southern California
  • Debra Waters-Roman Debra Waters-Roman University of Southern California
  •  and  Jessica Borja Jessica Borja University of Southern California
  • Published online: 11 June 2013
  • This version: 23 March 2022
  • Previous version

Child welfare services in the United States evolved from voluntary “child saving” efforts in the 19th century into a system of largely government-funded interventions aimed at identifying and protecting children from maltreatment, preserving the integrity of families that come to the attention of child welfare authorities, and finding permanent homes for children who cannot safely remain with their families. Since the 1970s, the federal government has played an increasing role in funding and creating the policy framework for child welfare practice. Today, communities of color receive a disproportionate amount of attention from child welfare services, yet often have access to fewer resources.

  • foster care
  • social policy
  • race and ethnicity
  • macro social work

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.

Social work practice in the field of child welfare involves the provision of child welfare services. Child welfare services in the United States are a response to society’s commitment to protecting children from maltreatment by their primary caregivers. This commitment and early social work responses emerged in the context of what has been referred to as the “child saving movement.” Prior to that time, children were considered the property of their parents; parents were generally allowed to treat their children as they wished.

In the mid- 19th century , societal attitudes regarding parental authority and the needs of children had changed to the extent that religious and civic leaders began to seriously question the wisdom of allowing children to remain in what came to be considered “unfit” homes. Criminal cases involving child abuse in the United States date to the 17th century , and by the 19th century , many localities had laws that codified Poor Law traditions allowing children to be indentured to protect them from neglect or remove them from the streets (Bremner, 1970 ). In addition, by the 19th century , some voluntary “child rescue” societies had begun to investigate complaints of child neglect, exploitation, and cruelty. Nevertheless, historical accounts generally trace the origin of widespread media attention and public concern over the plight of maltreated children to the case of Mary Ellen Wilson, a young girl living in New York City. Mary Ellen was removed from the home of her abusive caregivers in 1874 due to the intervention of the leader of the New York chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NYSPCA), Henry Bergh (Costin, 1991 ). After intervening for Mary Ellen, Bergh and others established the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC). Within a few years, many large cities had similar organizations, to whom courts gave quasi-judicial power to remove children from homes that were deemed unfit and place them in foster homes or children’s institutions. Most of the early societies for the prevention of cruelty to children made little or no effort to rehabilitate the parents of these children, believing them to be characterologically deficient and therefore beyond help.

Decades earlier, Charles Loring Brace, motivated by a deep commitment to Protestant religious charity and influenced by the terrible living conditions he witnessed in his charitable work in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City, founded the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) (O’Connor, 2001 ). Brace had seen that many children of the European immigrants who lived in the neighborhoods where he worked ended up largely fending for themselves on the street or living in very tenuous conditions with their families. He came to believe that these children could find a better life living away from the evils of the city with good Protestant families. Reflecting this belief, beginning in 1854 , the CAS took in orphans, “half-orphans” (children with only one parent), and children whose parents were convinced to relinquish them to the CAS, and put them on “orphan trains.” The trains transported the children primarily to small towns and rural areas where families would come forward to take the children in and raise them in what Brace and his supporters believed were more suitable surroundings than New York City for the rearing of children (O’Connor, 2001 ).

As the first large-scale effort at foster family care, the orphan trains represent a milestone in the development of child welfare services, but they are also important for another reason. Unlike the later child-saving efforts of the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Brace and the CAS did not remove children from their homes with the rationale that they were trying to save children from parental maltreatment (i.e., from “deviant” parents); rather, they were interested in moving them from the dangerous conditions that were typical of the immigrant communities and families in which the children lived into “better” homes and communities. In this way, the programs of the CAS represent an early example of the use of child welfare services to “save” children by removing them from ethnic or racial minority families and communities and assimilating them into majority families and communities. A later example of this use of child welfare services can be found in the removal of indigenous children from their homes during the late 19th and mid- 20th centuries , and their placement in boarding schools where they were prohibited from engaging in the cultural practices of their home communities (Holt, 2001 ).

Progressive Era reformers with a broader set of interests in children also influenced early child protection efforts. For example, laws restricting child labor both reflected and contributed to changing expectations regarding society’s responsibility for the well-being of children (Costin, 1991 ). Moreover, many advocates for legislation affecting children, particularly early feminists, were also involved in child protection efforts.

Although protecting children from harm by their caregivers, or removing them from “undesirable” communities, were the foci of the late 19th-century child savers, this did not mean that the sanctity of the family as a social institution had been entirely lost. For example, early in its work, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, while taking on the child placement function of other SPCCs, focused on trying to help families that came to its attention to be able to care for their children (Costin, 1992 ). The Progressive Era championing of the family reached a high point in 1909 during the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, which had been called largely in response to concern about institutional placement of children. The conferees concluded that “home life is the highest and finest product of civilization” and recommended that measures be taken to prevent the removal of children from their homes and to place them with families instead of in institutions (U.S. Children’s Bureau, 1967 , p. 4). The U.S. Children’s Bureau, the first department of the federal government devoted to the welfare of children, was created in 1912 in response to the recommendations of the 1909 White House Conference; to this day the Children’s Bureau remains the agency primarily responsible for implementing federal child welfare initiatives.

Child Welfare Policy in the United States

Today, child welfare services are provided by state and local public child welfare agencies. Services are also provided by private agencies, such as nonprofits, through contracts (McBeath et al., 2012 ). The U.S. government influences child welfare services primarily through provision of funding to states, which is contingent upon states using these funds in ways that are consistent with federal law. In 2016 , the United States spent $29.9 billion on services to serve and protect children who are at risk or victims of abuse and neglect (Child Trends, 2018 ). Close to 2 million children received services to prevent child abuse or neglect, while 1.3 million children received services after maltreatment occurred (Children’s Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019 ).

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA)

Enacted in 1974 and amended several times since then, CAPTA represents the federal government’s commitment to protecting children from maltreatment. It provides funding to states for child abuse and neglect prevention, identification, prosecution, and treatment activities. It also provides grants to public agencies and nonprofit organizations for demonstration projects. CAPTA defines the federal role in supporting research, evaluation, technical assistance, and data collection activities pertaining to child maltreatment. To receive CAPTA funds, states must meet a number of requirements, including enacting statutes that define and prohibit child maltreatment, establishing a child maltreatment reporting system, designating an agency responsible for investigating child maltreatment, providing immunity from prosecution for individuals making good faith reports of suspected or known instances of child maltreatment, and protecting the confidentiality of data generated by the maltreatment reporting system. In 2010 , CAPTA was reauthorized to renew programs covered by the act and to improve services to families exposed to domestic violence, to increase services for abandoned babies, and to strengthen adoption assistance (Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, 2010 ).

The Social Security Act

The Social Security Act includes the most significant federal laws that provide the legal framework and funding for child welfare services. The federal government started providing grants to states for preventive and protective services and foster care payments in 1935 with the Child Welfare Services Program (Title V), which in 1967 became Title IV-B. Beginning in 1961 , legislation provided for foster care maintenance payments under the Aid to Dependent Children Program, Title IV-A of the Social Security Act. Title IV-A was amended in 1980 to create the Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance program. The Title XX Social Services Block Grant was created in 1975 to provide states with funding for a wide range of social services, including those targeted at preventing or remedying child maltreatment, preserving, rehabilitating or reuniting families, and preventing or reducing inappropriate institutional care. Since its creation in 1997 , the Title IV-A Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (TANF) has also become a significant source of funding for child welfare services. States may use TANF funds for family reunification, parenting education, in-home and crisis intervention services, and to support children whom child welfare agencies have removed from their parents’ homes and placed with relatives or kinship caregivers. Lastly, state child welfare agencies use Medicaid (Title IXX) funds to pay for transportation, targeted case management, and therapeutic and psychiatric services provided in children’s institutions. Federal, state, and local government funding for child welfare services totaled $29.9 billion in state fiscal year 2016 , 45 percent ($13.5 billion) of which was from federal funding. Funds from Titles IV-B and IV-E of the Social Security Act, TANF, the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), and Medicaid accounted for the majority of these expenditures (Rosinsky & Williams, 2018 ).

Title IV-B and Title IV-E

Titles IV-B and IV-E account for over half of federal child welfare expenditures and provide the legal framework for child welfare services in the United States. Title IV-B now has two parts. The Subpart 1 Child Welfare Services program provides states with federal funding directed toward protecting and promoting the welfare of all children; preventing and responding to problems that may result in child maltreatment, exploitation, or delinquency; preventing the unnecessary separation of children from their families; reunifying children in out-of-home care with their families; placing children in adoptive homes; and assuring adequate care of children in out-of-home care. Subpart 1 requires states to create a state plan for the delivery of these child welfare services, approved by the federal government, that specifies how such services will be coordinated with services funded under Title XX, TANF, and the Title IV-E foster care program. The budget authorization for Subpart 1 is $325 million per year. Subpart 2, Promoting Safe and Stable Families, allocates funds to states for a more targeted set of services: coordinated programs of community-based family support services; family preservation services; time-limited family reunification services; and adoption promotion and support services. The budget authorization for Subpart 2 is $345 million per year. Historically, Congress has generally not appropriated the full amount possible under Title IV-B. In fiscal year 2016 , federal Title IV-B funds accounted for 4% of child welfare expenditures, a figure that has remained steady for over a decade (Rosinsky & Williams, 2018 ).

The Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance program provides funds to states for the board and care and administrative costs of out-of-home care of children removed from families deemed unwilling or unable to care for them and subsidy payments to the parents of children adopted from state-supervised out-of-home care. Eligible children are those 18 years old and younger, who have been removed from their parents’ custody and whose families would have been income-eligible under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, the predecessor of TANF. The latter eligibility requirement reflects the fact that the federal foster care program emerged from federal anti-poverty efforts and has always provided reimbursement primarily for the care of poor children. Federal law uses the term “foster care” to apply to all forms of out-of-home care, including family foster care, kinship foster care, and group care. Unlike Title IV-B child welfare services funding, foster care and adoption assistance are means-tested entitlements under Title IV-E, meaning that there is no cap on federal expenditures and states can claim reimbursement for expenses incurred on behalf of all eligible children in the state. Amendments to Title IV-E, beginning in the late 1980s, have added funding for independent living services intended to help foster youth make a successful transition to adulthood, and for education and training vouchers that can be used to support postsecondary education and training. Congressional appropriations for independent living services and education and training vouchers are currently limited by law to $140 million and $60 million per year, respectively. States used approximately $7.5 billion in federal Title IV-E funds in fiscal year 2016 (Rosinsky & Williams, 2018 ).

Title IV-E embodies the “permanency planning” philosophy that has guided child welfare practice since the enactment of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 and was reinforced by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). In general, states receive IV-E funding only for children in out-of-home care who are placed there by order of the juvenile or family court of the relevant jurisdiction to protect them from abuse or neglect; voluntary child placement agreements between child welfare agencies and parents are eligible only for time-limited federal reimbursement. Title IV-E requires child welfare agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to prevent placement of children in out-of-home care, usually in the form of social services for their families. If the child welfare agency and court deem these efforts unsuccessful and the child enters out-of-home care, the court must approve a “permanency plan” for the child according to timelines provided in Title IV-E. Most commonly, the court requires the child welfare agency to make reasonable efforts to preserve the child’s family of origin, in this case by providing services intended to help reunite the child with the family. In many cases, however, children cannot return to the care of their families. When this happens, the child welfare agency and the court attempt to find another permanent home for the child through adoption or legal guardianship.

Although this basic approach to child welfare practice has been supported by federal law since 1980 , ASFA shifted the balance between family preservation and child safety and permanency in a child-focused direction in several ways. ASFA identified circumstances under which courts can waive reasonable effort requirements (e.g., in cases of “chronic abuse”), shortened by six months the time that courts are allowed after a child’s placement to hold a hearing to determine whether to send a child home, and required states, with certain exceptions, to file a petition to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 or more of the most recent 24 months. ASFA also required the federal government to work with states to establish a set of measures of child safety, permanency, and well-being to be used to assess state performance in delivering child welfare services and a mechanism for tying part of state reimbursement under Titles IV-B and IV-E to these outcome measures. This led to the creation of an ongoing process of Child and Family Service Reviews through which the Children’s Bureau compares state performance to a set of national standards and monitors state progress in improving performance.

The Family First Prevention Services Act

The Family First Prevention Services Act was passed into law on February 9, 2018 (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b ). This act was designed to establish partnerships between child welfare agencies and community partners to improve outcomes for children and families who come to the attention of public child welfare agencies (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b ). Prior to 2012 , the number of children residing in out-of-home care had been declining (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020a ). However, since 2012 , the number of children in out-of-home care has been consistently increasing (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020a ). This act is constructed upon three major principles. First is the belief that families who are at risk of having their children removed should be provided with support and services to prevent such removals (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b ). Secondly, there is an emphasis placed on maintaining children in the homes of family members, if possible, when removal is necessary (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b ). Lastly, the act recognizes the importance of ensuring children and youth who need access to residential treatment services are able to receive said services (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b ). The act further establishes provisions to ensure that other populations receive accessible, quality services in a timely fashion. Some of the populations targeted to receive additional services include families impacted by substance abuse, older youth who are making the transition to adulthood, adolescents who are pregnant and/or parenting, and relatives who assume responsibility for caring for their family members when their parents are unable to do so (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b ). This legislation expands the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program to provide services for former foster youth up to age 23 (Brown, 2020 ). The act also institutes new requirements to ensure that effective tools are utilized to deliver quality services. Some of these tools include evidence-based intervention programs, and new mandates for residential treatment programs to improve the quality of the supports and services they provide (Brown, 2020 ).

This law launches certain provisions to guarantee that the major goals of the legislation are realized. To reduce the risk of children entering the foster care system, Title IV-E funds can now be utilized to provide services to children and families to prevent removal (Brown, 2020 ). Some of these services include parent skills training, mental health services, and substance abuse prevention and treatment programs. Service providers must also meet new mandates to demonstrate quality assurance. For example, service providers must conduct regular research to prove treatment effectiveness and also demonstrate that clients continue to benefit from treatment services following the conclusion of services (Brown, 2020 ).

To secure more relative placements, the act establishes that placement with families be prioritized, and that children and youth be placed only in residential treatment settings when in their best interest (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b ). Furthermore, additional supports for family members caring for relative children and youth must be established in order to increase placement success. For instance, federal funding is to be used to link relative caregivers with services and resources. Residential settings are now required to meet additional standards to receive funding. Some of these new mandates include integrating family members into the treatment process when possible, and providing follow-up services for a minimum of 6 months after a child or youth leaves a residential treatment setting (Brown, 2020 ).

To ensure the mandates of this act are successfully implemented, fundamental changes within the public child welfare system are needed. Some of the steps required to complete implementation include having public child welfare agencies establish strong partnerships with community providers and other stakeholders. Further, policies and procedures implemented must consider their impact on families and children first (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b ). Another critical purpose of this act is to serve as a starting point for ongoing reform within the public child welfare system (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b ).

Structured Decision-Making

In an attempt to increase the likelihood that children within the public child welfare system are safe, the majority of U.S. states have adopted the use of risk assessment tools to evaluate child safety (Coohey et al., 2012 ). These empirically based instruments are designed to standardize assessment practices in public child welfare (Wells & Correia, 2012 ). Assessment tools are utilized to identify and rate a variety of child, family, and environmental factors (Wells & Correia, 2012 ). Prior to the development of such tools, public child welfare workers frequently depended upon their previous training and experience to evaluate child and family risk factors.

Structured Decision Making (SDM) tools are both empirically based and consensus-based instruments (Wells & Correia, 2012 ). They are utilized to determine if a child is in imminent danger of being harmed. They provide valuable information to public child welfare workers who need to make immediate decisions regarding what actions to take. Some of the categories that the SDM tool evaluates include:

Whether a child abuse referral should be investigated in person and how quickly the response should occur.

Safety assessments to determine if it is safe for a child to remain in their home and actions needed to ensure the child’s safety.

Family strengths and needs assessments to determine the underlying needs of the child and family and what services would be of benefit.

Reunification assessments to determine if a child who has been removed from their family’s home can be safely returned home at some point in time.

The SDM tool assigns risk scores in a variety of areas. These scores yield an overall assessment rating that can range from low to high risk. Low risk typically means that an official case with the Child Protection Services Agency is not opened, although the family may be provided with services, including referrals to community-based service agencies. High risk indicates that a Child Protective Services case would be opened, and it is likely that a child would be removed from their home to ensure their safety. Cases are deemed as high risk when, for example, a child has been sexually abused and the offender has ongoing access to the child. A case scored as low risk might involve a parent who is feeling overwhelmed, and as a result her children have been arriving late to school, but there are no allegations of child abuse. Areas that are evaluated and scored include:

Safety Threat: An evaluation is taken of the seriousness of any physical injury and if additional abuse such as sexual abuse is suspected.

The Protective Capacities of the Parent/Caregiver: For example, what are the problem-solving abilities of the parent/caregiver, and do they have a history of substance abuse?

Once the SDM tool is completed, the social worker consults with their supervisor and other team members to consider all the information they have gathered to make the best decisions for the child and family. Again, the SDM tool is designed to be used as an instrument to assist child protection workers with the process of making comprehensive and fair evaluations of risk factors present in a child’s/family’s life.

Challenges: The Continuing Influence of Race, Ethnicity, and Cultural Heritage on Child Welfare Policy

The debates between child advocates during the 19th century over whether it was appropriate to try to “save” poor immigrant children from their communities were certainly not the last time that issues of race, ethnicity, and culture came to the fore in discussions of child welfare policy. In recent decades, observers have noted that families and children from immigrant and minority communities often receive treatment that is distinct from that provided to children and families from majority communities and have often been represented in child welfare services populations at rates in excess of their representation in the overall population (Billingsley & Giovannoni, 1972 ; Courtney et al., 1996 ; Holt, 2001 ; Roberts, 2002 ). This has raised concern on the part of the leaders of these communities and other child welfare advocates. The debate over the proper influence of race, ethnicity, and culture in child welfare practice has contributed over the years to significant changes in child welfare policy.

Even before the passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, the cornerstone of U.S. child welfare policy, Congress saw fit to enact the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978 . At that time, advocates had called attention to the fact that courts were removing a high proportion of indigenous children from their families and tribes (25% and higher in some states) and placing them overwhelmingly in non-indigenous settings (Cross et al., 2000 ; Holt, 2001 ). There was growing concern that these children were losing their indigenous culture and heritage and that court systems did not take into consideration either the tribal relations of indigenous people or the child-rearing standards of indigenous communities. ICWA established federal standards for the removal of indigenous children from their families and termination of parental rights for children in state care, required state and federal courts to give full faith and credit to tribal court decrees, granted preference to indigenous family environments and settings that reflect indigenous culture in adoptive or foster care placement, and gave tribes exclusive jurisdiction over all indigenous child custody proceedings when requested by the tribe or parent. The law also provides funding and technical assistance to tribes in the operation of child and family service programs. ICWA privileges the importance of heritage and culture in the provision of child welfare services, though critics have questioned whether the law has ever been adequately implemented or funded (Cross et al., 2000 ).

In contrast, the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA) and the Interethnic Adoption Provisions of the Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996 (IEPA) amended Title IV-E and Title IV-B to severely restrict the ability of child welfare agencies and courts to take into account race, color, or national origin in making foster care or adoption placement decisions. The push for MEPA and IEPA came from advocates concerned about the disproportionate representation of children of color, particularly African American children, in the child welfare system (Brooks et al., 1999 ). Advocating for a “color-blind” approach to child welfare practice, they argued that the longer length of stay in out-of-home care for minority children was due to delays caused by race-matching policies that existed in some jurisdictions at the time and child welfare practice that favored the placement of children with families that reflected the race and culture of the child. They also argued that available evidence suggested that transracial adoption appeared to convey no lasting harm to children. Opponents of the legislation argued that the disproportionate representation of minority children in out-of-home care had little to do with race-matching policies and that children from minority communities would be harmed if placement practices did not take into account their race, ethnicity, and culture.

Taken together, MEPA and IEPA prohibit states and other entities that receive federal funding and are involved in foster care or adoption placement from delaying, denying, or otherwise discriminating when making a foster care or adoption placement decision on the basis of the parent or child’s race, color, or national origin. They similarly prohibit these entities from categorically denying any person the opportunity to become a foster or adoptive parent solely on the basis of race, color, or national origin of the parent or the child. MEPA allowed an agency to consider the cultural, ethnic, or racial background of a child and the capacity of an adoptive or foster parent to meet the needs of a child with that background as one factor when making a placement, but IEPA repealed that part of the law. MEPA and IEPA also require states to develop plans for recruitment of foster and adoptive families that reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of the children of the state.

Disproportionality Within the Public Child Welfare System

Public child welfare data clearly demonstrates the disproportionate rate at which children of color come into contact with the public child welfare system. For example, 33% of children who reside in the foster care system are African American, while African American children account for only 15% of the total child population (Brown, 2020 ). Indigenous children and those children of Alaskan Native heritage are also overrepresented. Indigenous/Alaskan Native children make up 2.67% of children residing in the foster care system while representing only 1.0% of the total child population (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2021 ). Children of color are more likely to be involved in child abuse investigations, to have allegations of child abuse substantiated, and to be placed in foster care when compared to their White counterparts (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2021 ).

While there has been an acknowledgement of the existence of disproportionality for several years, today many public child welfare professionals, including social workers, and children’s advocacy groups are focused on not only recognizing the issue, but doing something to address it. Public child welfare agencies across the nation are being asked to take action to develop policy and practice behaviors that are designed to reduce the negative effects of disproportionality on children of color, their families, and their communities.

Several theories attempt to explain why disproportionality exists within the public child welfare system. One theory asserts that because families of color are more likely to be living in poverty, and individuals of color are also overrepresented in correctional facilities, children from these families are more likely to come to the attention of public child welfare officials (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011 ). There is also the premise that preventative services are not as readily available to children and families of color, and even when these services are available, the service providers who deliver them frequently lack cultural humility.

There are two common approaches being utilized to reduce disproportionality. First is providing enhanced training to public child welfare staff, such as training designed to make workers aware of dynamics like implicit bias. There is also an emphasis on using standardized assessment tools to help reduce potential worker bias when assessing a child/family (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011 ). The utilization of training and assessment tools is crucial, as there are often cultural differences between the worker completing the assessment and the child/family being evaluated (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011 ).

There has also been an emphasis placed on the types of services that families of color receive. For example, in 1993 Congress approved the Family Preservation and Support Services program to help maintain children in their own homes (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011 ). The differential response program offers workers the option to provide services to families without having to formally open a public child welfare case. Other programs such as Kinship Care and Team Decision Making can either prevent children of color from entering the foster care system in the first place, or reduce the amount of time a child spends in out-of-home care. Effective policy development, worker training, and more culturally competent practice coupled with the expansion of service programs are all proactive steps that can be taken in an attempt to reduce the occurrence of disproportionality within the public child welfare system.

There are also those individuals and organizations who are advancing a movement to reform and/or eliminate the public child welfare system as it currently exists. Organizations such as the upEND Movement refer to what they call the practice of policing families. They propose improving community conditions and family supports to end the public child welfare policies and practices that they believe harm both families and communities (

Intersecting Issues

Mckinney-vento homeless assistance act.

The number of children and youth experiencing homelessness has steadily increased over the last decade. According to national data, there were 1,263,323 homeless children and youth in public schools in the United States during 2014–2015 , up from 1,219,818 during the 2012–2013 school year (National Center for Homeless Education, 2017 ). Historically, the unique educational needs of homeless children and youth have been overlooked. Students who are homeless face challenges to school attendance due to lack of stable housing and face obstacles to graduating or engaging in the academic environment (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017 ). Homeless families face significant stressors due to limited financial resources, unemployment, or loss of a home from a natural or man-made disaster. Children may run away from home because of abuse and neglect becoming homeless themselves (National Center for Homeless Education, 2017 ).

The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act ( 1987 ) was the first piece of federal legislation passed to directly address the well-being of homeless individuals including significant support for homeless children (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017 , p. 806). Since then, the act has been reauthorized several times and was renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1999 . With each reauthorization, more detailed requirements to help homeless students were added. In 2015 , the McKinney-Vento Assistance Act was reauthorized to include the protections and services that homeless children enjoy today (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017 ).

Homeless children and youth are defined in the act as lacking a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” (McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 2015 ). These children may share housing with other families due to economic difficulties or live in motels or shelters (McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 2015 ). They may live in cars or other places not typically used for housing. Unaccompanied minors who are migrating from their home countries due to poverty and other hardships are also included in the act (McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 2015 ).

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act aims to ensure that homeless students can access a free, public education like all children. Objectives include providing transportation or enrolling children in school immediately even if they are lacking documentation. Homeless students can attend their original school or a school within their local education area (National Center for Homeless Education, 2017 ).

This act is significant for families involved in public child welfare. Homeless families living in shelters, including domestic violence shelters, are able to send their children to a school nearby. In the past, children could be removed from their family if they were unable to attend school due to a lack of stability in housing, among other factors. This act provides the flexibility that homeless families need to remain together while ensuring that children receive educational services for their growth and development.

Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act

The SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act ( 2018 ) was passed as a direct response to the opioid crisis in the United States and focuses on prevention, recovery, and treatment services for opioid and substance use disorders. The SUPPORT Act has had a significant impact on child welfare. In addition to the provision of housing, telehealth, and food assistance to all Medicaid recipients with opioid use disorder, the act aims to improve care for infants, children, and parents. For example, a provision in the act requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide information on best practices related to infants with neonatal abstinence syndrome . States are also required to provide prenatal services and residential pediatric recovery centers.

The SUPPORT Act also promotes the use of family-focused residential treatment, where children are allowed to reside with the parent receiving treatment for opioid-use disorder. The act requires the HHS to develop and issue guidance to states in their efforts to support and build capacity for family-focused residential substance abuse treatment programs. The HSS is also mandated to guide states on the use of funding to provide and coordinate a range of services, including medication-assisted treatment, case management, family, group, and individual counseling, parenting education and skills development, transitional support, and the provision, assessment, and coordination of care and services for children.

The act also considers the needs of children, adolescents, and young adults. A provision in the act mandates the HHS to support the prevention, treatment, and recovery of children, adolescents, and young adults with substance use disorders. This includes youth who are in foster care, homeless, or out of school, and those at risk of or that have experienced trafficking. The act also supports incarcerated youth. Previously, incarcerated youth were not eligible for Medicaid following their release. The SUPPORT Act suspends—rather than eliminates—their eligibility during incarceration and provides the possibility of reinstating it after their release. The act also allows former foster youth to keep their Medicaid coverage until the age of 26.

Including Parents/Caregivers in the Child Welfare Reform Process

When child tragedies occur, such as the murders of Eliza Izquierdo in 1995 in New York City and Gabriel Fernandez in 2014 in Palmdale, California, many public child welfare agencies adopt the practice that if there are any concerns regarding a child’s safety, it is best to err on the side of caution and remove the child from the parent’s home. In response to this practice, parent organization/advocacy groups have formed across the nation. One such organization began in New York City. The Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), developed with the goal of ensuring that parents have a greater voice when it comes to the decisions being made by social workers regarding the safety and well-being of their children (Arsham, 2021 ). Parents from this organization demonstrated when they felt excluded from the decision-making process, educated themselves regarding the child welfare system, and engaged in advocacy efforts. Other programs have been also developed, such as the Parents in Partnership Program within the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. In this program, parents who have firsthand experience with the public child welfare system are partnered with parents just entering the system who are likely feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Parent partners are trained to teach parents about a variety of topics, such as their rights, and also familiarize them with the public child welfare system (Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, 2021 ).

Social Work Roles and Future Opportunities

Child welfare is one of the largest employers of social workers. The need for qualified social workers working with children and families continues to rise (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021 ). Research has shown that holding a degree in social work equates with better job performance and less turnover among child welfare staff (General Accounting Office, 2003 ). However, not all child welfare workers who call themselves “social workers” have a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate in social work, and states have moved to “professionalize” the field by passing social worker title protection legislation (Yamada, 2013 ). However, the field of child welfare continues to struggle to attract workers, having problems with salaries, retention, and high turnover (Madden et al., 2014 ). Some innovative programs focusing on providing loan forgiveness, sign-on bonuses, and quality supervision have been developed to address this issue; however, work needs to continue (Capacity Building Center for States, n.d. )

Social workers participate in micro practice, such as psychotherapy and case management, and macro practice, such as policy, advocacy, and leadership (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021 ). Macro practice social workers understand the importance of “community structure and dynamics and the intra- and inter-organizational processes that affect the design and delivery of services” and intervene at the organization and community levels (Reisch, 2016 , p. 259). Macro practice social workers empower clients to collectively make changes, manage programs, and develop and administer policies (Reisch, 2016 ). Some social workers are in public office, impacting local, state, and federal changes (National Association of Social Workers, 2021 ). In addition, policy and advocacy organizations such as Casey Family Programs consult with the child welfare system and lawmakers to improve access to resources for families and address diversity, equity, and inclusion within child welfare.

In summary, child welfare services in the United States have emerged since the mid- 19th century out of public concern about protection of children, tempered by a strong preference for allowing parents to raise their own children and a growing inclination to place children in need of out-of-home care in families rather than institutions. Since the 1970s, the federal government has become increasingly involved in funding child welfare services, particularly out-of-home care, and in tying such funding to state compliance with evolving U.S. child welfare policy. Issues related to the disproportionality of families of color involved in public child welfare, the unique needs of families who are homeless, and the rising use of opioids and the impact on families are emerging areas being addressed through new policy and legislation.

Further Reading

  • Duke SciPol . (2019). Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act (Public Law 115-271) .
  • National Association of Social Workers, Child Welfare Specialty Section . (2004). “If you are right for the job, it’s the best job in the world” .
  • Seth, P. , Scholl, L. , Rudd, R. A. , & Bacon, S. (2018). Overdose deaths involving opioids, cocaine, and psychostimulants—United States, 2015–2016. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report , 67 (12), 349–358.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families . (2006). The AFCARS report: Preliminary FY 2019 estimates as of June 23, 2020—no. 27 .
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau . (2021). Child Welfare Information Gateway .
  • Arsham, M. (2021). How the child welfare organizing project helped bring parent advocacy to NYC’s child welfare system . Toolkit for Transformation .
  • Billingsley, A. , & Giovannoni, J. M. (1972). Children of the storm: Black children and American child welfare . Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
  • Bremner, R. (Ed.). (1970). Children and youth in America: A documentary history. Volume I, 1600–1865 . Harvard University Press.
  • Brooks, D. , Barth, R. P. , Bussiere, A. , & Patterson, G. (1999). Adoption and race: Implementing the multiethnic placement act and the interethnic adoption provisions. Social Work , 44 (2), 167–178.
  • Brown, J. (2020, April 1). Family First Prevention Services Act .
  • Capacity Building Center for States . (n.d.). Inventory of innovations: Workforce development .
  • Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 2010 . 111 U.S.C. § 101 et seq . (2010).
  • Children’s Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway . (2019). Child maltreatment 2019: Summary of key findings .
  • Children’s Defense Fund . (2020a, February 13). Family First Prevention Services Act .
  • Children’s Defense Fund . (2020b). Implementing the Family First Prevention Services Act .
  • Child Trends . (2018). Spending of state and local funds by child welfare agencies .
  • Child Welfare Information Gateway . (2011, January). Addressing Racial Disproportionality in Child Welfare .
  • Coohey, C. , Johnson, K. , Renner, L. M. , & Easton, S. D. (2012). Actuarial risk assessment in child protection services: Construction methodology and performance criteria . Children and Youth Services Review , 35 (1), 151–161.
  • Costin, L. B. (1991). Unraveling the Mary Ellen legend: Origins of the “cruelty” movement. Social Service Review , 65 (2), 203–223.
  • Costin, L. B. (1992). Cruelty to children: A dormant issue and its rediscovery, 1920–1960. Social Service Review , 66 (2), 177–198.
  • Courtney, M. E. , Barth, R. P. , Berrick, J. D. , Brooks, D. , Needell, B. , & Park, L. (1996). Race and child welfare services: Past research and future directions. Child Welfare , 75 (2), 99–137.
  • Cross, T. A. , Earle, K. A. , & Simmons, D. (2000). Child abuse and neglect in Indian country: Policy issues. Families in Society , 81 (1), 49–58.
  • General Accounting Office . (2003). Child welfare: HHS could play a greater role in helping child welfare agencies recruit and retain staff .
  • Holt, M. I. (2001). Indian orphanages . University Press of Kansas.
  • Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services . (2021). Parents in Partnership .
  • Madden, E. E. , Scannapieco, M. , & Painter, K. (2014). An examination of retention and length of employment among public child welfare workers. Children and Youth Services Review , 4 , 37–44.
  • McBeath, B. , Collins-Carmargo, C. , & Chuang, E. (2012). The role of the private sector in child welfare: Historical reflections and a contemporary snapshot based on the national survey of private child and family serving agencies. Journal of Public Child Welfare , 6 (4), 459–481.
  • McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. 42 U.S.C. § 11301 (2015).
  • National Association of Social Workers . (2021). Social workers in elected office .
  • National Center for Homeless Education . (2017). Children and youth experiencing homelessness: An introduction to the issues . McKinney-Vento law into practice brief series.
  • National Center for Juvenile Justice . (2021). Disproportionality rates for children of color in foster care dashboard .
  • O’Connor, S. (2001). Orphan trains: The story of Charles Loring Brace and the children he saved and failed . Houghton Mifflin.
  • Pavlakis, A. E. , & Duffield, B. (2017). The politics of policy in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act: Setting the agenda for students experiencing homelessness. Urban Review , 49 , 805–831.
  • Reisch, M. (2016). Why macro practice matters . Journal of Social Work Education , 52 (3), 258–268.
  • Roberts, D. (2002). Shattered bonds: The color of child welfare . Basic Books.
  • Rosinsky, K. , & Williams, S. C. (2018). Child welfare financing SFY 2016: A survey of federal, state, and local expenditures . Child Trends.
  • Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act . H.R. 558 (1987).
  • SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act . 21 U.S.C. § 301 (2018).
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics . (2021). Occupational outlook handbook: Social work .
  • U.S. Children’s Bureau . (1967). The story of the White House conferences on children and youth .
  • Wells, M. , & Correia, M. (2012). Reentry into out-of-home care: Implications of child welfare workers’ assessments of risk and safety. Social Work Research , 36 (3), 1–3.
  • Yamada, M. (2013). California Assembly Bill 252 Social Worker Title Protection Bill Press Release . Assemblywomen Yamada’s office.

Related Articles

  • Child Care Services
  • Child Foster Care
  • Children's Rights
  • Children: Overview
  • Child Welfare: Overview

Other Resources

  • New & Featured
  • Forthcoming Articles

Printed from Encyclopedia of Social Work. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 04 April 2024

  • Cookie Policy
  • Privacy Policy
  • Legal Notice
  • Accessibility
  • [|]

Character limit 500 /500

School of Social Work

Child welfare.

Areas of child welfare research include foster care, adoption, reunification, placement stability, safety, child abuse and neglect recurrence, outcomes for youth aging out of foster care, and in-home family services outcomes--including intersectional influence of race, economics, and ethnicity in each of these areas.

Family and Child Welfare

"The purpose of my scholarship is to build and disseminate knowledge about the child welfare workforce and child welfare services that attempt to infuse a family-centered approach within a largely coercive system of state control.  The child welfare field is in a continual state of change, and building that evidence base requires keeping up with policy and practice changes and using the most rigorous and feasible methodologies possible in field research." Miriam Landsman

We prepare culturally competent social work scholars and practitioners with a commitment to social justice and social work values and ethics.

The application of these theories and practice approaches to the development, implementation, and evaluation of social welfare policy and practice with vulnerable populations, is a focal point for curriculum, faculty research, and the activities of the National Resource Center for Family Centered Practice (NRCFCP, or simply NRC).

The NRC is a project of the University of Iowa School of Social Work, and has been a leader in family-centered research for more than 40 years. An early pioneer in training for home-based, family-centered child welfare services, the NRC now provides research, training, evaluation, and technical assistance in the areas of child welfare, family support, community and behavioral health, and juvenile justice--across the nation as well as abroad. 

Faculty Specializing in this Area

Aislinn Conrad

Aislinn Conrad, M.S.W., Ph.D.

Carolyn Hartley

Carolyn Hartley, Ph.D.

Miriam Landsman, PhD: Middle aged white woman with brown hair in a pink shirt

Miriam Landsman, Ph.D.

Social Work Research Center Current Projects

  • Social Work Research Center
  • Current Projects

SWRC Current Projects

Applied research in child welfare.

The Applied Research in Child Welfare Project is a 19-year collaboration between the Social Work Research Center in the School of Social Work at Colorado State University, the Colorado Department of Human Services, and the Departments of Human Services in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Garfield, Jefferson, Larimer, and Pueblo counties. The purpose of the ARCH Project is to conduct applied research on child welfare interventions that informs social work practice and policy in Colorado and the United States.

Completed Reports (available upon request)

  • ARCH Fatherhood Engagement Study (2022)
  • ARCH Placement Stability Study (2022)  
  • Review of Literature on Supervised Visitation in the Child Welfare System (2021)  
  • Support Planning in Child Welfare: An Exploratory Study (2020)  
  • ARCH Caseworker Retention Survey Final Report (2018)  
  • An Evaluation of Youth Services Trends and Outcomes in Colorado – Final Report (2016)  
  • Adoption in Colorado’s Child Welfare System: A Study of Trends and Outcomes (2014)  
  • ARCH Comparison of Public and Private Foster Care in Colorado (2012)  
  • ARCH Predictors of Family Preservation Outcomes Study (2011)  
  • ARCH Core Services Replication Study (2010)  
  • Outcome Study of Out-of-Home Care in Colorado (2009)  
  • Descriptive Study of Out-of-Home Care in Colorado (2008)  
  • Core Services Outcome Study (2007)  
  • Juvenile Sexual Offender Treatment: A Systematic Review of Evidence-Based Research (2006)  
  • Child Welfare Outcomes in Colorado: A Matched Comparison between Children in Kinship and Foster Care (2006)  
  • Kinship Care in Colorado: A Descriptive Study of 12 Counties (2005)  
  • Kinship Care in the United States: A Systematic Review of Evidence-Based Research (2005)  

Supported Families, Stronger Community

Supported Families, Stronger Community (SFSC) is a 5-year interagency effort led by the Larimer County (CO) Department of Human Services, supported by a Community Collaborations to Strengthen and Preserve Families grant offered by the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF). The project features a family-level approach that relies on families as experts and utilizes a care coordination model designed to support families in the development and improvement of protective factors, increase support networks, and ensure access to needed services and supports.  

As a coalition-based system, the SFSC project applies an innovative approach to previous and existing best practices by intentionally addressing existing service gaps and by expanding the child maltreatment prevention service array in Larimer County. Featuring a service navigation and case management approach, SFSC leverages the diverse strengths of the community to think differently about how to provide families with access to needed services and resources. Using a “no wrong door” approach which centers interagency collaboration, shared referral processes, data equity principles, and the Protective Factors framework, the initiative guides work to engage families through service alignment, resource sharing, and funding blending and braiding.  

Community-based participatory research (CBPR) methods are prioritized in every aspect of the evaluation. The evaluation team maintains open communication with implementation partners, including the community navigators who bring lived expertise to their roles, to ensure programming is driven by family needs, not metrics. A CQI group of community partners helps the team co-create easily digestible data visualizations that are contextualized within broader initiative goals and accessible to a wide audience. This approach enables the SWRC evaluation team to interpret data in partnership with the community; retains an open process for new perspectives, questions, and challenges; and promotes increased power sharing among all stakeholders. Considerations brought forth by community partners have impacted significant aspects of the initiative’s implementation, including the decision to expand eligibility criteria from two Larimer County zip codes to all 28 Larimer County ZIP codes.  

The SWRC evaluation team integrates a data equity lens to ensure the centering of community voices in the SFSC project. Specifically, members of the evaluation team work directly with the SFSC community navigators to identify, engage, and compensate individuals with lived expertise to partner on data collection, analysis, and knowledge translation. The evaluation team also collects and analyzes data to evaluate activities around racial equity, including developing a shared understanding of the root causes of inequalities in child welfare systems, restructuring policies and practices to incorporate racial equity, institutionalizing program strategies and evaluation activities to support systemic equity, and enhancing existing collaboratives with a focus on increasing community engagement around equity and improved access to prevention services.  

The Social Work Research Center will conduct an outcome evaluation to compare FIT Court families and non-FIT Court families on time-in-care, permanency, child welfare re-involvement, and public health outcomes. SWRC will also design a cost-offset evaluation to compare FIT Court families and non-FIT Court families on actual service costs, case management costs, and county attorney costs.

Connecting Colorado

The goal of the Connecting Colorado (CC) Project is to improve responses to human trafficking of children/youth (HTCY), with a focus on coordination at a statewide level, and to create effective changes across systems. This project will meet this goal by building upon existing promising practices, experience, and expertise of local multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) into a statewide approach that aims to increase statewide identification of children/youth experiencing human trafficking and to connect them with culturally appropriate and trauma-responsive services. The project is implemented by the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ) and funded by a grant award from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Office for Victims of Crime (OVC).  

SWRC will evaluate this project by conducting a strengths and gaps analysis of existing MDTs, assessing the implementation of a statewide toolkit, conducting a utility study of a commonly used human trafficking screening tool, assessing workshops and trainings, and analyzing performance measures. Additionally, the evaluation team will look at outcomes by regularly reporting on human trafficking incidence data.   

Denver Anti-Trafficking Alliance

The Denver District Attorney’s Office (DDA) and the Asian Pacific Development Center (APDC) are collaborating to enhance the structure of the existing Denver Anti-Trafficking Alliance (DATA)/Enhanced Collaborative Model (ECM) Task Force and expand its capabilities to implement victim-centered, coordinated approaches to identifying victims of human trafficking, investigate and prosecute sex and labor trafficking cases, and address the individualized needs of victims through service provision in the Metro Denver area. These enhancements will result in long-term systems change, an increase in comprehensive services for victims of human trafficking, and ultimately the reduction and prevention of human trafficking.  

SWRC will evaluate efforts to expand the Task Force, increase prosecutions, and strengthen service provision to survivors of human trafficking. Using law enforcement and victim services data, SWRC will highlight overall and subgroup trends over time. The evaluation will assess training reach and participation with the goal of increasing awareness of human trafficking among law enforcement, service providers, and community agencies in Metro Denver. SWRC will also conduct a community assessment of Task Force membership to identify which sectors and organizations are missing from membership, with the goal of conducting outreach to and recruiting a diverse array of stakeholders to participate in Task Force activities and, ultimately, contribute to their mission of awareness-raising, investigation and prosecution, and service provision. In addition, the evaluation will explore Task Force effectiveness via Task Force practices and policies, resource sharing, cross-referrals, and perceptions of flexibility, trust, and collaboration among members.  

Kinship Navigator/Colorado Kinnected

Colorado Kinnected expands the scope of services offered to kinship families through the Title IV-E Waiver Demonstration Project Kinship Supports Intervention. Through the Waiver, CDHS offered county departments of human services the opportunity to trade guaranteed federal foster care maintenance and administration reimbursement for up-front funding to implement one or more of five Waiver interventions. The Colorado Kinnected program builds on the synergy between the two interventions by more formally integrating kinship caregivers into child welfare case services and goals through facilitated family engagement meetings. The program also strengthens the kinship supports intervention through increased face-to-face meetings and ongoing contacts with kinship caregivers, increased assessment of caregiver needs, and the addition of family search and engagement activities to build robust support networks around kinship families.    

A randomized controlled trial was conducted to examine the impact of the Colorado Kinnected kinship navigator program on kinship placement outcomes for children and youth with an open child welfare case in seven Colorado Counties. Child welfare staff in each county department of human services provided Colorado Kinnected program services to kinship families allocated to the intervention group and kinship supports as usual to kinship families allocated to the control group. The results indicated that the Colorado Kinnected kinship navigator program promotes reunification with parents and prevents step-ups to non-relative foster care among children and youth in child welfare kinship placements. The study was submitted and approved by the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) Clearinghouse and received a “promising” rating for Colorado Kinnected.

SafeCare Colorado

Prevention of child maltreatment requires the implementation of evidence-based practices at community- and system levels. SafeCare © is an evidence-based program implemented in Colorado as part of statewide child maltreatment prevention efforts. The SafeCare Colorado (SCC) program is administered by the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) Office of Early Childhood (OEC). The Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect (Kempe) serves as the state intermediary. The program is supported by the National SafeCare Training and Research Center (NSTRC) at Georgia State University (GSU). NSTRC, in collaboration with Kempe and the OEC, oversees implementation and fidelity for this manualized, structured home visiting program.  

The Social Work Research Center has served as the independent evaluator since 2013. At present, SWRC continues to conduct a descriptive evaluation to assess implementation activities, proximal impacts, and participant populations reached for families served by SCC each state fiscal year. Additionally, SWRC is partnering with RTI International to conduct a feasibility study to pilot study procedures and build capacity for a larger quasi-experimental study focused on family well-being. This larger quasi-experimental design, to be conducted in subsequent years of the evaluation, aims to rigorously evaluate the program’s effectiveness at improving outcomes in four broad domains: child well-being, adult well-being, parenting practices, and protective factors.   

Larimer County Adult and Aging Services Evaluation

The Larimer County Office on Aging, which is located in the Larimer County Department of Human Services (LCDHS), is the Area Agency on Aging (AAA) for Larimer County. As one of sixteen AAAs in Colorado, the Office on Aging receives funding from the Federal Older Americans Act and the Older Coloradans Fund to provide services to Larimer County residents who are 60 and older and to serve as the lead agency for planning and coordinating those services. Included in the Office on Aging service area are the communities of Berthoud, Estes Park, Fort Collins, LaPorte, Loveland, and Wellington, as well as the rural areas of the county.  

Area Agencies on Aging (AAA), as mandated under the Older Americans Act, play a unique role in not only funding community partners and providing direct services but to innovate, advocate, and lead our community to meet the growing needs of the population. AAAs need to be visible, innovative, collaborative, and responsive to community needs. The Office on Aging provides funding to agencies that provide services for seniors in Larimer County, including congregate meals, transportation, legal assistance, caregiver support, and many more. These agencies are referred to as our funded community partners. In addition, the Office on Aging staff provides direct services and programs to older adults.    

The Social Work Research Center is conducting a strengths and needs assessment for the Office on Aging. The evaluation will be guided by principles of data equity and community-based participatory research (CBPR). The guiding goal of CBPR is not to inform community partners of research and practice goals, but rather to engage community partners as decision-makers at all key steps of the research process.  

Collaborative Management Program (CMP)

In 2004, the Colorado General Assembly passed House Bill 04-1451 (referred to as HB 1451) to establish collaborative management programs at the county level that would improve outcomes for children, youth, and families involved with multiple agencies. Research has demonstrated that interagency collaboration yields important benefits including increased probability of improvement in child, youth, and family outcomes; maximization of available resources for the provision of services; increased coordination within and among service delivery systems; and shared responsibility across systems and service providers.

The Division of Child Welfare in the Office of Children, Youth, and Families at the Colorado Department of Human Services contracted with the Social Work Research Center in the School of Social Work at Colorado State University and RTI International to serve as the evaluation team to conduct the evaluation of the Collaborative Management Program in Colorado. Collectively, the results of the process, outcome, and cost evaluations provide an understanding of CMP and enable the evaluation team to answer the identified evaluation questions. Each component also addresses other relevant evaluation questions to explore how CMP is implemented at the county level and to better understand the contextual and practice factors contributing to child/youth and system outcomes.

Core Services

The Core Services Program was established within the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) in 1994 and is statutorily required to provide strength-based resources and support to families when children/youth are at imminent risk of out-of-home placement, in need of services to return home, or to maintain a placement in the least restrictive setting possible. The Core Services Program is based on a foundation of research and practice in family preservation. Family preservation services are generally short-term services designed to support families in crisis by improving parenting and family functioning while keeping children/youth safe. Family preservation services grew out of the recognition that children/youth need a safe and stable family and that separating children/youth from their families and communities removes them from natural supports and often causes trauma, leaving lasting negative effects. Responding to the complexity and variability in the needs of children, youth, and families, the Core Services Program allows for individualized services to meet the needs of diverse Colorado communities.   

Colorado Revised Statute (C.R.S.) 26-5.5-104(6) authorizing the Core Services Program mandates that the Department annually provide “an evaluation of the overall effectiveness and cost-efficiency of the program and any recommended changes to such program.” The Core Services Program Evaluation, produced by the Social Work Research Center at Colorado State University (CSU), responds to this mandate and is designed to describe the outcomes and costs of the program across the state in order to provide meaningful data to support decisions made by the Office of Children, Youth, and Families, Division of Child Welfare (DCW), and county Core Services programs.  

Project JUSTIS

The CSU Trauma & Resilience Assessment Center (CTRAC) and The Social Work Research Center (Center) received a four-year SAMHSA grant for the Juvenile Justice Trauma Informed Systems Program (Project JUSTIS). Project JUSTIS is intended to serve youth with trauma histories that are currently involved in, previously been involved in, or at risk for involvement in, the juvenile justice (JJ) system in Larimer County. Extant research is clear that (1) youth who have experienced trauma are at higher risk than their peers for engaging in behaviors that could lead to involvement in JJ, (2) youth involved in the juvenile justice system (JJ) have experienced higher rates of trauma in their past than their peers, and (3) youth who are detained and/or incarcerated are at higher risk for experiencing new or additional traumas during detainment. For these reasons, Project JUSTIS hopes to learn what prevention and intervention strategies are most effective in addressing trauma-related symptoms, as well as engagement in high-risk and/or illegal behaviors that could lead to first-time (or additional) involvement in the JJ system. Lastly, Project JUSTIS is invested in supporting community partners in their ability to assess, recognize, and support youth impacted by trauma; to this end, we hope to assess the efficacy of our training efforts with these community partners. There are three primary components of Project JUSTIS, each with their own goals: Clinical, Training, and Research/Evaluation. The research will examine the following topics:  

(1) Rates of trauma and trauma-related symptoms in our population;  

(2) Relation between trauma exposure and juvenile justice involvement and/or risk;   

(3) Relation between trauma exposure and youth, caregiver, and family functioning;   

(4) Changes in youth, caregiver, and/or family symptoms and well-being from the start to the end of engagement in clinical activities;  

(5) Moderators and/or mediators that impact treatment success;  

(6) Changes in knowledge and/or behavior in training participants;   

(7) Moderators and/or mediators that impact training success


Social Work: Child Welfare

  • Article Databases
  • Professional Resources
  • Research Support
  • Child Welfare

This guide contains the many resources available at the University Library to faculty, students and practitioners in the Child Welfare field

Journals Relevant to Child Welfare

  • Child Abuse & Neglect An international, multi-disciplinary journal that looks at causes, conditions, preventative practices, context, and experiences of child neglect and abuse.
  • Child Maltreatment A quarterly journal focused on the interdisciplinary study of child maltreatment.
  • Children and Youth Services Review An interdisciplinary journal about programs for youth.
  • Children's Bureau Express (CBX) Children's Bureau Express (CBX) covers news, issues, and trends of interest to professionals and policymakers in the interrelated fields of child abuse and neglect, child welfare, and adoption.
  • Journal of Applied Research on Children An open-access, peer-reviewed online journal uniquely focused on the needs of children through a holistic prism.
  • Journal of Public Child Welfare The Journal of Public Child Welfare provides a broad forum for theory-based and applied research in child welfare.
  • Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies An essential peer-reviewed journal analyzing vulnerability in childhood from a scholarly and experiential perspective.

Websites for Child Welfare Assistance

  • American Bar Association: Center on Children and the Law
  • CASAGAL: Court Appointed Special Advocates Guardians ad Litem
  • Child Welfare Information Gateway
  • Child Welfare League of America
  • Crimes Against Children
  • Future of Children
  • National Conference on State Legislatures: Child Welfare
  • National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect
  • Prevent Child Abuse America
  • Texas Child Protective Services

Databases for Child Welfare Research

Serves as the central resource for researchers at all levels. Covering more than 160 subjects areas, ProQuest Central is the largest aggregated database of periodical content. This award-winning online reference resource features a highly-respected, diversified mix of content including scholarly journals, trade publications, magazines, books, newspapers, reports and videos.

  • Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection A comprehensive database with more than 470 full-text titles. This database covers information concerning topics in emotional and behavioral characteristics, psychiatry & psychology, mental processes, anthropology, and observational and experimental methods.
  • Social Science Database This database offers indexing and full text for hundreds of academic journals, providing extensive coverage across a wide range of social science disciplines including anthropology, criminology, economics, education, political science, psychology, social work and sociology.
  • SocINDEX with Full Text Full text for 242 "core" coverage journals dating back to 1895, and 72 "priority" coverage journals. This database also includes full text for 547 books and monographs, and full text for 6,711 conference papers. Covers all subdisciplines of sociology, including abortion, anthropology, criminology, criminal justice, cultural sociology, demography, economic development, ethnic & racial studies, gender studies, marriage & family, politics, religion, rural sociology, social psychology, social structure, social work, sociological theory, sociology of education, substance abuse, urban studies, violence, welfare, and many others.

Books for Child Welfare Research

Cover art for "Child and Family Welfare," a blue and green ombre styled background.

Reference Librarian

Profile Photo

Live Research Help

Streaming video sources for child welfare.

  • Academic Video Online Premium Videos spanning many subject areas including psychology, conference presentations, and documentaries.
  • Criminal Justice and Public Safety in Video Includes hundreds of hours of video for professionals and students in criminal justice and public safety.
  • Health and Society in Video Explores today's latest medical progress in health and wellness issues and their impact on society.

Helpful Publications

  • Social Media: Tips for Child Welfare Workers
  • Redes sociales: consejos para trabajadores de bienestar de menores (Social Media: Tips for Child Welfare Workers)
  • Operational Challenges Within ORR and the ORR Emergency Intake Site at Fort Bliss Hindered Case Management for Children.
  • Comprehensive Review of Child Protective Services, Preventive Services, and Foster Care within Children’s Services. [New York]
  • << Previous: Help!
  • Last Updated: Feb 1, 2024 12:14 PM
  • URL:

Shirley Gatenio Gabel speaking into a microphone.

The Future of Social Workers in Child Welfare

To a crowd of over 50 child welfare professionals, Fordham GSS Professor and Mary Ann Quaranta Chair for Social Justice for Children Shirley Gatenio Gabel, Ph.D. , outlined the three main areas of children and family services that led to the formation of the social work profession:

  • Social caseworkers
  • Settlement house workers
  • “Child saving” from orphanages, communities, and families

When these three “streams” conjoined, Gatenio Gabel said, social work was the result. However, differing priorities left many unresolved issues, which have had downstream effects on the systems’ infrastructure and the profession. 

Moreover, the issues have caused a declining interest in children and family services among young social workers.

“In the 1960s, over 50 percent of social workers worked in child welfare. Now, less than 33 percent are,” Gatenio Gabel said. “New social workers enter the system, and they don’t want to be there. In a field we once ‘owned,’ there have been so many changes.” 

Gatenio Gabel gathered child welfare professionals from the Administration of Children’s Services, the New York Foundling, Hunter College, and the JCCA of New York on March 13 to discuss this exodus and its solutions in an event titled “Charting the Next Chapter for Social Workers in Children and Family Services” at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. 

Burnout Leads to Turnover

Child welfare agencies are seeing extreme burnout among staff, which leads to a high level of turnover. This, in turn, has a negative impact on the children and families seeking help. 

Ron Richter

Ron Richter

Ron Richter, Chief Executive Officer of the JCCA of New York , said consistency is key to positive outcomes for children and families. If an organization’s staff suffers from burnout and hiring is a revolving door, it leaves children and families in the lurch to constantly make new connections. Richter said this can degrade trust, which hurts family-staff relationships.

“But there’s no societal imperative to support our work,” Richter said, commenting on federal and state governments’ lack of funding for these programs. 

The issue of poor funding is combined with a more diverse and heavier caseload than ever before, said New York Foundling President & CEO Melanie Hartzog. Since starting her tenure at the Foundling three years ago, she’s seen poorly streamlined workloads and a lack of internal professional development opportunities. 

“Just because you’re a great social worker, doesn’t mean you’re a great manager,” she said. “We need to invest more in management training for leadership teams.”

Hartzog continued by addressing the problematic issues of the agency payment structure. Payment doesn’t reward longevity in these organizations. Workers, realizing this, head elsewhere. 

Melanie Hartzog

Melanie Hartzog

“In city government, you get paid based on longevity. In a nonprofit, your contract stays the same for three years. Someone who comes in [during]your third year can get paid the same as you. Why would you continue?” she asked the room. “How do I retain people if I can’t pay them for the work they’re doing?”

Let’s not forget: even if five different caseworkers can establish enough trust with a family to receive valuable information about their situation—as each caseworker leaves, some information will inevitably be lost. Transitioning to a new staff member is noisy and imperfect, and important details can get overlooked. Multiplied by five, the delta between what’s known and lost grows large. 

“Each time a caseworker leaves, they take a piece of the story with them that hasn’t been told,” said Tricia Stephens, Ph.D., Associate Professor for the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College. “Who is the keeper of the continuity of the families we work with if five caseworkers in one year is common?”

Where do Social Workers Belong?

Less than 10 percent of child welfare agencies require staff to obtain a social work degree, Gatenio Gabel said. If social workers aren’t delivering the services, are they needed in this field?

“The value social workers bring has to do with social justice,” Richter said. “The difference between college grad case workers and someone educated in social work is the concepts and value of understanding that there are ways to help a person advocate, be more independent, and develop agency. Social workers do that.”

“Social workers are vital,” said Jess Dannhauser, Commissioner of NYC ACS . “Folks who come to our system are deeply eager to get an MSW. ACS has supported over 250 staff to get their MSW [degrees].”

Tricia Stephens

Tricia Stephens

Earning that degree can supply some intangible knowledge to help increase positive outcomes. A non-social worker may not have the skill set to take a macro-level, holistic view of someone’s situation, and assess how they can empower the person to advocate for themselves. 

Stephens said she doesn’t expect her students to know everything when they graduate, “but I do expect them to know something different from when they started…and I know that they’re taking it back to their workplace.”

When Training Isn’t Enough

Since the 1980s, Gatenio Gabel said, the U.S. has invested a lot of money in training social workers to be equipped for the profession’s diverse challenges. However, she continued, the literature tells a different story—showing no positive correlation between social work training level and positive child outcomes.

“Why do you think we’re not seeing that correlation?” she asked the panel. 

Jess Dannhauser

Jess Dannhauser

Dannhauser noted that while training is absolutely essential, it is not sufficient to produce success. He noted that agency culture can, at times, stifle staff members—limiting risk-taking and lacking the internal coaching that can build a successful culture. 

“One of my favorite sayings is, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ Well, it eats training for lunch,” Dannhauser said. “We have to undo these systems that we’ve built…That is the place where we need to put our heaviest emphasis—in changing the culture.” 

However, the panel agreed that no matter how good the culture is, systemic barriers prevent positive outcomes. 

“It’s not just about structural racism in child welfare, but racism overall,” Hartzog said. “There’s bias in each of us, and it shows up in many ways. How do we tackle this from leadership to the front line?”

Hartzog continued that the financial assistance from the government in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic was a step in the right direction. However, things returned to the status quo once the virus was under control. 

“We reduced child poverty during COVID because of two things: we gave them a child tax credit and gave them money for food,” she said. “To know what works and then sit here and have the same conversations is frustrating.”

How Do We Move Forward?

After identifying some of the main issues within these systems, one question remained: What do we do now? Obviously, systemic issues need to be addressed, but we cannot stop helping those who need services in the meantime, Gatenio Gabel said. 

Dannhauser believes that a way forward for his organization is to continue supporting staff members’ ongoing education as social workers.

“I don’t think we should do it just so they stick around longer. It’s an investment in, more broadly, system change,” Dannhauser said. “And if they end up in a different place and are changing the system, we should trust that that is an investment across our community.” 

Stephens followed that she would enjoy a “smaller, leaner, more effective” ACS, and Hartzog again addressed the issue of urgency. She said that the swiftness with which organizations moved at the beginning of the pandemic was proof it can be done. 

“Even within these systems, I tell my staff, ‘If not us, then who?’” she said. “We have to find a way to work within, but also push for these changes—but with urgency. I cannot say that enough.”

Richter closed the panel with positivity and optimism. He believes younger generations are primed to make change. 

“Young people come to our agencies and have tremendous energy to advance the interests of children and families, and are raising a lot of the concerns you’ve heard tonight,” he said. “I want to believe we will adapt to the reality described tonight…Every parent loves their kid and wants them to succeed if only they had what they needed to make that happen. The same about people who do this work; it’s a parallel process.”

Want to watch the event in full? The recording is live on YouTube.

Related Posts

panelist Marthe Kiemde (right) speaks whiile co-panelist Adama Bah (left) watches on and smiles.

Fordham GSS Hosts First Annual Global Gender And Migration Forum

social work research on child welfare

Lincoln Center/Westchester New Student Welcome and Open House!

social work research on child welfare

iPIT Team Kicks Off Grant Work at Lincoln Center Campus

Comments are closed.


Minnesota's 'archaic' technology wastes critical social service caseworker time, counties say.

Minnesota county workers and lawmakers have some choice words to describe the state's 25-year-old information system used to manage child protection cases and social service programs: Slow. Archaic. A nightmare.

"It's the most vulnerable people that we have in the state of Minnesota that are in this system," Pine County Commissioner Terry Lovgren said. "They need the most care; they need the most help, and we can't give it to them because we are working on a broken system."

Gov. Tim Walz recently proposed spending $15 million to update the Social Services Information System (SSIS). It was one of the biggest expenditures in his supplemental budget plan.

County officials say more efficient technology could save child protection workers, who are in high demand and short supply , hours every week, allowing them to spend more time with children and families. And lawmakers and advocates stressed that without a technology update, some other efforts at the Capitol to improve child welfare must remain on hold.

But the money that Walz has proposed is only a portion of the estimated $80 million to $100 million needed to entirely replace SSIS.

Half of that money could come from a federal government match, said Tikki Brown, assistant commissioner for children and family services at the Department of Human Services (DHS). In 2023, lawmakers devoted $2 million to analyze SSIS issues and study what a new system would entail, she said. Brown said a report will be issued in the fall.

If lawmakers approve the $15 million, Brown said, the funding would allow the state to start building a framework for a replacement system and help "stabilize" the existing one to prevent what have become frequent crashes.

The system will shut down for hours, or even crash for a full day, county and state officials said. County and tribal government workers lose what they had been writing because the technology often doesn't automatically save their work. Nothing can be copied and pasted, so staff must laboriously enter the same information again and again. The "spinning wheel of death" is a familiar sight as screens slowly load.

Modernizing SSIS is complex, DHS officials said, because agencies use the system to manage many types of services.

It is primarily used for child welfare information, such as maltreatment reports, out-of-home placement plans and adoption information. However, local agencies also rely on it to administer a multitude of other programs, including adult and child mental health services and waiver programs for the elderly and people with disabilities.

An example intake form from Minnesota's Social Services Information System

A 'first step' for child welfare changes

The $15 million for SSIS is the only child protection-related spending in Walz's supplemental budget plan. The governor said he would propose funding to recruit and retain more caseworkers after a 2023 Star Tribune series examined child protection system failures that led to repeat abuse and deaths.

DHS worked with counties to revise Walz's initial proposal and fund the most pressing needs, Walz spokeswoman Claire Lancaster said. The governor's supplemental funding plan this year is a limited adjustment to the two-year state budget passed last spring.

"This funding is a first step that will help address immediate needs within the child welfare system — allowing workers to spend less time on IT and more time with kids and families," Lancaster said. "We plan to revisit the issue in a budget year."

Lovgren, the Pine County commissioner, estimated that the cumbersome SSIS forces child protection workers to spend about 45 minutes longer than they should have to in entering data about a child. Among the time-consuming problems: Workers must repeatedly type the same parent's details for every child in a family.

"That's 45 to 50 minutes that they could be spending with that family and making sure that the children are safe and they are in a good place and the family is OK," Lovgren said.

A more-efficient information system may change the number of child protection workers counties need, said Sen. Nicole Mitchell, DFL-Woodbury. With limited state dollars available this year, she said, spending money on SSIS upgrades makes the most sense as it seems to touch on everything else.

Mitchell, who co-chairs the Legislative Task Force on Child Protection , said technology issues have come up repeatedly whenever lawmakers have asked why something can't be done.

Some bills at the Capitol this session have been deemed "impossible to implement" because of the system's limitations, said Joanna Woolman of the Institute to Transform Child Protection at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

She said the system interferes with legislation that would ensure children in foster care are notified of federal benefits when their parents die. In addition, Woolman said, it keeps ombudsperson offices from getting data they need for investigations.

The technology also prevents the state from learning what is working or failing in the child protection system, Woolman said, because trend data on adoptions, racial demographics or the speed of court process cannot easily be retrieved.

"Child protection is really sensitive, important, high-emotion work," said Laura Bartsch, a child and family intake supervisor in Dakota County. "If we don't have the best, most accurate information or equipment systems to work with, I feel like that's a liability on how we're serving families."

County officials said they hope SSIS improvements will help them retain staff. They said young employees, who recently graduated from college and are passionate about working with kids and families, end up particularly flummoxed by the antiquated technology.

Across Minnesota, child protection workers are juggling higher-than-recommended caseloads and thousands of social work jobs remain unfilled.

Scott County's child protection division has had a 40% to 50% employee turnover rate in recent years, said Deputy Health and Human Services Director Suzanne Arntson,who does exit interviews with departing employees.

"Every one of my staff that have left either attribute SSIS as the primary driver, or a secondary [reason]," she said.

One morning last year, DHS staff members visited Scott County. They had planned to sit with county workers and see what it is like to work with the technology, Arntson said.

The system was down the entire time they were there.

Jessie Van Berkel writes about Minnesota government and politics at the Star Tribune. She previously covered St. Paul City Hall and local government in the south metro.

  • The latest SWLRT problem: Wrong placement of tracks
  • Group pushes replacing Interstate 94 with thoroughfare between Minneapolis, St. Paul
  • Wolves rip Raptors by 48, move atop West, clinch 1st-round home court
  • Scoggins: Transcendent stars meet again in Bueckers vs. Clark battle
  • Ask the Taste team: Espresso martinis, date-night dining, the state of D'Amico and more
  • Grocholski helps well-traveled Gophers beat Troy, advance to WNIT title game

New rule strengthening federal job protections could counter Trump promises to remake the government

Travelers navigate the Uber/Lyft rideshare area in Terminal 1 at the MSP airport on March 22.

How did we get here? A brief history of rideshare apps in Minneapolis

Kansas' governor and gop leaders have a deal on cuts after gop drops 'flat' tax plan, in swing-state wisconsin, democrat hustles to keep key senate seat against trump-backed millionaire.

After taking to Fox News with his doubts about marking COVID-19 on death certificates, Minnesota Sen. Scott Jensen (R-Chaska) says he's being investig

Judge dismisses Scott Jensen's First Amendment lawsuit against the state Board of Medical Practice

Photos of Eli Hart from a family photo album. Eli’s mother fatally shot him 10 days after she was granted full custody.

  • How did we get here? A brief history of rideshare apps in Minneapolis • Politics
  • Judge dismisses Scott Jensen's First Amendment lawsuit against the state Board of Medical Practice • Politics
  • 'Book Senator Hoffman to speak': DFL state senator's consulting firm raises ethical questions • Politics
  • Sports betting sponsors say Racing Commission move on historical horse racing is illegal • Politics
  • Minnesota to expunge misdemeanor marijuana records as early as May • Politics

social work research on child welfare

© 2024 StarTribune. All rights reserved.

  • Study Guides
  • Homework Questions

Advocacy of Social Workers in Child Welfare


  1. Social Work in Child Welfare by Sarah Kitch

    social work research on child welfare

  2. The Child Welfare Challenge: Policy, Practice, and Research (Modern

    social work research on child welfare

  3. Child Welfare Committee And Its Procedure

    social work research on child welfare

  4. Strengthening Child Welfare Supervision

    social work research on child welfare

  5. Addressing the Needs of Young Children in Child Welfare: Part C

    social work research on child welfare

  6. Introduction to Child Welfare

    social work research on child welfare


  1. social welfare administration-meaning, concept and nature in social work I Hindi

  2. Social Work Research 16 September 2023

  3. Social work research social work important topic pms urdu

  4. Research in Social Work

  5. Vlog-3| social work research| @matinavlogs @ravindra_bharti_official @YouTube

  6. Differences Between Social Research and Social Work Research


  1. Theory, research and practice in child welfare: The current state of

    Although there is some resurgence of interest in the importance of relationship-based working in early prevention and child welfare (McGregor & Devaney, 2019; Trevithick, 2014), it could be argued that the focus on child protection continues to overrate influence in policy and social work delivery, which in turn dictates the direction of travel ...

  2. Children and the Child Welfare System: Problems ...

    Securing the welfare of children and the family is an integral part of social work. Modern society has experienced enormous changes that present both opportunities and challenges to the practice of social work to protect the welfare of children. It is thus essential that we understand the experiences of social work practitioners in different parts of the world in order to adapt practice to the ...

  3. Research to Consider While Effectively Re-Designing Child Welfare

    The United States is poised for major child welfare reform. Nationally recognized child welfare administrator Bryan Samuels (2020) recently published a treatise entitled "The Moment is Now: Family and Child Well-Being: An Urgent Call to Action." The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' (DHHS) Administration for Children and Families, in concert with several national foundations ...

  4. Children's Participation in Child Welfare: A Systematic Review of

    Whilst research in the social work field may have been to some extent sluggish to explore children's participation, it has increased more recently in both quality and quantity with a growing number of scholars paying greater attention to this field of study. ... <participation> AND <social work> AND <child welfare> AND <children and young ...

  5. Children and the child welfare system: Problems, interventions, and

    Securing the welfare of children and the family is an integral part of social work. Modern society has experienced enormous changes that present both opportunities and challenges to the practice of social work to protect the welfare of children. It is thus essential that we understand the experiences of social work practitioners in different parts of the world in order to adapt practice to the ...

  6. NASW Standards for Social Work Practice in Child Welfare

    Standards. Standard 1. Ethics and Values. Social workers in child welfare shall demonstrate a commitment to the values and ethics of the social work profession and shall use NASW's Code of Ethics as a guide to ethical decision making while understanding the unique aspects of child welfare practice.

  7. Theory, research and practice in child welfare: The current state of

    Abstract. This paper aims to utilize social theory to inform relationship‐based social work practice with children, young people and families. We see 'direct relationship‐based working ...

  8. Strengths-Based Practice in Child Welfare: A Systematic Literature

    Strengths-based practice (SBP) is considered a cornerstone of social work practice (Douglas et al., 2014) and an approach to achieving best practices in child welfare (Mirick, 2013; Oliver, 2017).Based primarily on the work of Saleebey et al. (Healy, 2014), it was developed in the field of social work in the 1980s at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare, specifically in the mental ...

  9. Ableism in the Child Welfare System: Findings from a Qualitative Study

    This qualitative phenomenological study included interviews with 15 parents with disabilities, 15 child welfare workers, and 15 attorneys who represent parents. Interviews revealed four levels of ableism within the child welfare system: (1) internalized, (2) interpersonal, (3) institutional, and (4) structural.

  10. Transforming Child Welfare: Prioritizing Prevention, Racial Equity, and

    Comprehensive child welfare transformation beyond the scope of Family First will require holistic efforts to disentangle the issues of poverty and maltreatment, particularly neglect, and will necessitate a reconceptualization of how the child welfare system responds to families lacking sufficient resources. 25 This is especially imperative ...

  11. Child Welfare: History and Policy

    Social work practice in the field of child welfare involves the provision of child welfare services. Child welfare services in the United States are a response to society's commitment to protecting children from maltreatment by their primary caregivers. This commitment and early social work responses emerged in the context of what has been ...

  12. Child Welfare

    The NRC is a project of the University of Iowa School of Social Work, and has been a leader in family-centered research for more than 40 years. An early pioneer in training for home-based, family-centered child welfare services, the NRC now provides research, training, evaluation, and technical assistance in the areas of child welfare, family ...

  13. Standards for Social Work Practice in Child Welfare Revisions

    NASW is developing a task force for the revision of the 2013 Child Welfare Standards . NASW reviews and revises these standards to incorporate and update the best practices in the field of Child Welfare. We encourage social workers who have a minimum of 5 years of Child Welfare experience to apply. This includes direct practice and management ...

  14. Policy Issue: Child Welfare

    April 2016. Social workers play a critical role in child welfare systems nationwide by protecting the well-being of children, youths, and supporting families in need. In fiscal year 2014, an estimated 702,000 children were found to have experienced maltreatment, with children under the age of one being the most likely to have been maltreated.

  15. Social work and the management of complexity in Swedish child welfare

    Vignettes have been widely used in social work research (eg. Glad Citation 2006; Soydan Citation 1995; Križ and Skivenes Citation 2013). The vignette used in this study is considered especially suitable for research on complex situations such as child welfare research and research on social work with families (Nygren and Oltedal Citation 2015 ...

  16. Research to Consider While Effectively Re-Designing Child Welfare

    Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 7(5), 419-440. Crossref. Google Scholar. ... Research Update: Child welfare agencies that use more research evidence have higher rates of permanency for children in foster care. New York: Chapin Hall, Center for State Child Welfare Data, ...

  17. Current Projects

    The Social Work Research Center will conduct an outcome evaluation to compare FIT Court families and non-FIT Court families on time-in-care, permanency, child welfare re-involvement, and public health outcomes. SWRC will also design a cost-offset evaluation to compare FIT Court families and non-FIT Court families on actual service costs, case ...

  18. Child Welfare

    This volume is a practical tool, helping the reader to understand the factors related to child and family welfare, and addresses both the general public and professionals, such as social workers, psychologists, therapists, and researchers from the social sciences, involved in promoting children's rights and family welfare. ISBN: 9781443855785.

  19. The Future of Social Workers in Child Welfare

    To a crowd of over 50 child welfare professionals, Fordham GSS Professor and Mary Ann Quaranta Chair for Social Justice for Children Shirley Gatenio Gabel, Ph.D., outlined the three main areas of children and family services that led to the formation of the social work profession: Social caseworkers; Settlement house workers "Child saving" from orphanages, communities, and families


    the duty of social workers to ensure that the needs of the child. assume centrality in any development and welfare pl anning. and interventions, i.e. they have to facilitate the establishment. of ...

  21. Child Welfare Information Gateway

    Get the latest news, research, and best practices in child welfare. Explore the free subscriptions from Information Gateway and the Children's Bureau to stay current and connected to trusted resources. ... Social Work Academic Programs; Child Welfare Terms: English to Spanish; Helpful Links. Subscriptions; Major Federal Legislation Index ...

  22. MSW Program

    A world-class MSW education from the first school of Social Work in the United States. Columbia School of Social Work has been a leader in social work education, training, and research since 1898. It joins rigorous academic theory with real-world practice to enhance the welfare of citizens and communities in New York City, across the nation ...

  23. Minnesota's 'archaic' technology wastes critical social service

    Minnesota county workers and lawmakers have some choice words to describe the state's 25-year-old information system used to manage child protection cases and social service programs: Slow ...

  24. Theory, research and practice in child welfare: The current state of

    relationship-based working in early prevention and child welfare (McGregor & Devaney, 2019; Trevithick, 2014), it could be argued that the focus on child protection continues to overrate influence in policy and social work delivery, which in turn dictates the direction of travel in social work practice. Alongside this, many of the current

  25. Advocacy of Social Workers in Child Welfare (docx)

    2 The role of an advocate is an integral part of a social worker's professional life, especially in child welfare. Social professionals in this field must do several activities, including brokering, mediating, and counseling, but advocating is likely the most difficult. Advocacy necessitates the application of social workers' talents in motivation, strategy formulation, and persuasion to ...