The Social Welfare Policy Landscape and Child Protective Services: Opportunities for and Barriers to Creating Systems Synergy

Published date01 November 2020
AuthorLindsey Rose Bullinger,Kerri M. Raissian,Megan Feely,William Schneider
Date01 November 2020
140 ANNALS, AAPSS, 692, November 2020
DOI: 10.1177/0002716220973566
The Social
Welfare Policy
Landscape and
Child Protective
for and Barriers
to Creating
973566ANN The Annals of the American AcademyThe Social Welfare Policy Landscape and Cps
Contemporary child welfare policies in the United
States are well-suited for prevention of child abuse but
fail to account for the relationship between family
financial hardship and neglect, that is, the lack of safe
and consistent care. We argue that rates of child
neglect have been stagnant because of two failures: (1)
lack of recognition of financial hardship as a causal
mechanism of neglect and (2) federal policy that pur-
posefully omits alleviation of financial hardship as a
solution to the occurrence of neglect. Because U.S.
antipoverty programs operate independently of one
another, our siloed policy structure misses opportuni-
ties for the alleviation of child maltreatment and,
worse, creates negative and unintended consequences
in child welfare. We present a model for change: sys-
tems synergy for the promotion of safe and consistent
care that makes reduction of child maltreatment the
responsibility of every social service program in the
United States.
Keywords: systems synergy; financial hardship;
neglect; outcomes; safe and consistent care
At a conference in 2019, the keynote speaker
shared a story from his early days as a Child
Protective Services (CPS) case worker. His
experiences are captured below and demon-
strate the need for a new model; what we call
systems synergy. This is what he shared:
In the mid-1990s, when I was a young case-
worker, I responded to the home of a young
family. There I saw dire neglect. A family of five
was living in dirty and unsafe conditions. As was
recommended by Child Protective Services
Megan Feely is an assistant professor at the University
of Connecticut School of Social Work. Her research
focuses on child welfare systems and primary and sec-
ondary prevention of child maltreatment.
Kerri M. Raissian is an associate professor of public
policy at the University of Connecticut. Her research
focuses on child and family policy with an emphasis on
understanding how policies affect fertility, family
formation, and family violence.
(CPS), I initiated the process to remove the children from the home. The children were
at school, and so I went to school and explained to one of the daughters, Brittany, that
she would need to come with me to stay in a new place that was clean and safe.
Brittany did not want to go. She wanted her mother. She was scared of the
unknown—even if it was clean and safe. I began to doubt myself: maybe I should have
brought her mother along to explain . . . maybe Brittany would be less scared? But par-
ent involvement was not part of CPS “best practice,” and so I did not think of this con-
cession until it was too late.
Then I learned the family’s home was rented. And a new doubt came to my mind:
should I have instead held the landlord responsible for the living conditions? Could I
have been an advocate instead of an enforcer?
Finally, I learned of the father’s substance abuse illness and his trouble keeping a
steady job. I initiated substance abuse treatment, but I was at a loss when it came to
employment options for the father. I had followed agency protocols. My work was done,
but yet, I’ve always felt like the system let Brittany and her family down.
The last 30 years have witnessed stark declines in child physical and sexual
abuse rates. In contrast, child neglect, which composes 75 percent of child mal-
treatment reports, has remained steady and high (Finkelhor, Saito, and Jones
2016; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2020). Scholars, practi-
tioners, and policy-makers face a conundrum: why are abuse rates declining
while neglect rates remain seemingly intractable and high? Although they some-
times overlap, child neglect and child abuse are distinct from one another. Child
neglect is an act of omission, or failure to act, that results in imminent harm. In
contrast, child abuse is an act of commission—something that is done—that
results in real or imminent harm to a child.
Making progress in the child welfare system first requires understanding the
origins of current policies and practices. Our current response, which is well-
suited for abuse prevention, fails to account for the relationship between finan-
cial hardship and neglect. This makes the system unresponsive to the underlying
needs of neglect. Since any discussion of child maltreatment in the United
States is inherently linked to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of
1974 (CAPTA), and because CAPTA serves a number of functions that are
important for how the problems of child abuse and neglect are addressed, we
review this legislation’s history and its role in prevention, and we present a
William Schneider is an assistant professor of social work at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on the role of social policy, inequality, poverty, and
family structure in the risk for child maltreatment and the promotion of child well-being.
Lindsey Rose Bullinger is an assistant professor of public policy at Georgia Tech. Her research
examines the role of public policies in child and family health and well-being.
NOTE: All authors contributed equally to this manuscript. The authors are grateful to the
organizers of this volume, especially Lonnie Berger and Kristi Shook Slack. We are also grate-
ful to the participants of the 2020 AAPSS ANNALS conference. A special thanks to Reggie
Bicha for sharing his professional knowledge and experience with us. We thank Will Butler and
Hannah Nguyen for careful research assistance. Finally, we thank the Doris Duke Fellowship
for the Promotion of Child Well-Being for connecting us to each other, this topic, and inspiring
us to form the KIDS research team. Most importantly, we thank the many professionals and
scholars dedicated to ending child abuse and neglect.

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