The Contemporary U.S. Child Welfare System(s): Overview and Key Challenges

Date01 November 2020
Published date01 November 2020
/tmp/tmp-17GSRc56dC3djS/input 969362ANN
The Annals of the American AcademyThe Contemporary U.S. Child Welfare System(s)
This volume of The ANNALS aims to increase aware-
ness among scholars, policy-makers, and practitioners
of the size, scope, and functions of child welfare ser-
vices in the United States. We aim to promote a wider
understanding of the broad impacts of child welfare
policies and point to ways in which child welfare ser-
vices can be better incorporated into cross-cutting
social policy debates. The articles in this volume offer
concrete recommendations for policies and practices
that can reduce child maltreatment, and for systemic
approaches—both within the purview of child welfare
Contemporary services and across the broader community and social
policy landscape—that can better identify and respond
to the needs of children and families in which maltreat-
U.S. Child
ment has already occurred or where there is a risk of
abuse and neglect. This introduction sets a foundation
for understanding the contents of the volume: we pro-
vide an overview of child welfare services in the United
States and highlight current challenges that the U.S.
child welfare systems face.
Overview and Keywords: child abuse and neglect; child maltreat-
ment; child protective services; child
Key Challenges
welfare; child welfare system
Child welfare services in the United States
are guided by a three-part federal mandate
to promote safety, permanency (enduring resi-
dence in a stable and legally recognized family),
and well-being for children experiencing or at
LAWreNCe M. Berger
risk of child maltreatment. Complying with this
mandate requires that state and local govern-
ments first respond to alleged reports of sus-
pected child abuse and neglect; investigate
those reports when warranted; (often) make a
Lawrence M. Berger is Associate Vice Chancellor for
Research in the Social Sciences, Vilas Distinguished
Achievement Professor of Social Work, and former
director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the
University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research focuses
on the ways in which economic resources, sociodemo-
graphic characteristics, and public policies affect
parental behaviors and child and family well-being.
DOI: 10.1177/0002716220969362
ANNALS, AAPSS, 692, November 2020 7

determination as to whether maltreatment has occurred; and, when appropriate,
provide services to protect children from ongoing maltreatment. Second, it
requires ensuring safe, stable, and permanent living arrangements for children
either with their family of origin or by providing out-of-home care, either tempo-
rarily or permanently, for children who cannot safely live with their family of
origin. Third, it requires intervening to promote the health; mental health; and
educational, material, and social well-being of system-involved children and
youth, particularly those who have been removed from their home. While these
services fall under the purview of what is commonly referred to as “the” U.S.
child welfare or child protective services “system,” they are, in actuality, provided
by a multitude of state-, county-, and territorial-administered systems that are
characterized by considerable variation in policies and practices.
Child welfare services in the United States are far-reaching and expensive. A
large proportion of American children and families—and particularly low-income
children and families and children and families of color—are investigated for
alleged maltreatment and, in many cases, subject to further intervention, includ-
ing child removal (Kim et al. 2017; Wildeman and emanuel 2014; Wildeman
et al. 2014), at a cost of roughly $30 billion per year to federal, state, and local
governments (rosinsky and Williams 2018). Moreover, despite that the vast
majority of child welfare–involved families are low-income and also involved in
other social welfare programs, most commonly the Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly Food Stamps) and Medicaid/State
Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) (Cancian, Noyes, and Kim 2017;
Feely et al., this volume; Slack and Berger, this volume), child welfare services
typically receive limited attention in major social policy debates—a crucial omis-
sion given the substantial costs of child maltreatment to individuals, families, and
society, as well as a growing body of evidence suggesting a causal link between
income and child maltreatment, including that more generous social welfare
transfers may result in lower rates of child abuse and neglect (Berger et al. 2017;
D. Brown and De Cao 2020; e. Brown et al. 2019; Cancian, Yang, and Slack
2013; Pac 2019; raissian and Bullinger 2017; Schneider, Waldfogel, and Brooks-
gunn 2017; Wildeman and Fallesen 2017).
This volume of The ANNALS brings together leading child maltreatment1 and
child welfare policy scholars to assess options and opportunities for better pre-
venting, identifying, and addressing child abuse and neglect—through both child
welfare services and through the wide range of other policies and programs with
which populations at risk of child maltreatment and child welfare involvement
regularly interact—bringing to bear the most rigorous existing research on child
Kristen S. Slack is professor and PhD program chair at the University of Wisconsin–Madison
Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work. Her research focuses on understanding the role of
poverty and economic hardship in the etiology of child maltreatment, caseload dynamics of
child welfare systems in relation to other public benefit systems, and community-based pro-
grams designed to prevent child maltreatment.
NOTe: We are grateful to The ANNALS, Annie e. Casey Foundation, and Institute for
research on Poverty for generously supporting the authors’ conference for this special issue.

maltreatment prevention and response. The volume is particularly timely for at
least three reasons. First, after declining for more than a decade, foster care
caseloads have risen substantially in recent years, which has largely been attrib-
uted to the opioid epidemic and its effects on families (Sepulveda and Williams
2019; Williams and Sepulveda 2019). Second, the school closures, lockdowns,
and losses of employment and income that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused
have created a context in which actual child abuse and neglect rates are likely
rising, even as reports of child maltreatment are likely falling (Welch and Haskins
2020). This has raised concerns about both child safety and long-term system
capacity. Third, recent federal legislation, the Family First Prevention and
Services Act of 2018, has radically transformed child welfare financing by, for the
first time, allowing federal Title IV-e funds—which have historically been avail-
able only for partial federal reimbursement of foster care, adoption assistance,
and kinship guardian assistance—to be spent on evidence-based prevention
efforts rather than solely on out-of-home care services. This has created an
opportunity to substantially reform child welfare financing, policy, and practice
(see articles by Haskins, this volume; Testa and Kelly, this volume).
This volume is intended to increase awareness among public policy scholars,
policy-makers, and practitioners of the size, scope, and functions of child welfare
services in the United States, with the aim of promoting a wider understanding
of the potential implications of social policies and reforms thereof for child wel-
fare services, as well as better incorporating child welfare services into cross-
cutting social policy debates. To this end, the articles offer concrete
recommendations for improving child maltreatment prevention as well as sys-
temic approaches—both within the purview of child welfare services and across
the broader community and social policy landscape—to identifying and respond-
ing to children and families at risk of abuse and neglect and those for which
maltreatment has already occurred. In this article, we provide an overview of
child welfare services in the United States, and highlight current challenges fac-
ing U.S. child welfare systems. Throughout, we point to the contributions to
these areas that the articles included in the volume provide.
Why Do We Need a Child Welfare System?
A substantial number of American children experience abuse or neglect, which,
in turn, is associated with adverse cognitive, emotional/behavioral, social, and
economic outcomes throughout the life course. This incurs a high cost to both
individuals and society. The extensive list of adverse outcomes associated with
being maltreated in childhood spans mental health (depression, suicidality, anxi-
ety, conduct disorder, aggression, post-traumatic stress disorder); drug and alco-
hol abuse; physical health (obesity, sexually transmitted diseases, diabetes, liver
and kidney disfunction, vision problems); risky health behaviors; cognitive devel-
opment (school performance, learning problems); difficulty relating to peers;
educational achievement and attainment; delinquency, violence, and criminal

behavior; and employment, employment stability, earnings, occupational status,

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