Failure to Protect
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child welfare system faq
Answers to questions about the child welfare system in general and foster care in particular. For basic statistics about the children in foster care -- how long they stay in care, where they go after they leave, and the racial distribution -- see this overview.

» Do child welfare agencies investigate all allegations of abuse and neglect?

In 2000, approximately 2.8 million reports of abuse or neglect were reported to child welfare agencies nationwide. Of those, about 60 percent, or 1.7 million cases, met the standards for further investigation or assessment. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, educational personnel referred the most cases, 16 percent, while the legal and criminal justice systems accounted for 15 percent of the referrals.

Note: For more information about each state's reporting laws, see this section on the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information.

» What constitutes "neglect"?

In 1974, the U.S. Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which set forth a minimum definition of abuse and neglect. It reads as follows:

"child abuse and neglect" means, at a minimum, any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

In addition, each state has set forth its own definitions of neglect and/or abuse. (To find how your state defines the terms, go to this page on the National Clearinghouse for Child Abuse and Neglect Information website.)

Cases of neglect constitute the vast majority of those reported to child welfare agencies, and some experts, including Richard Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Work, have questioned the prevailing definitions. "We were a little bit too aggressive in defining what is child abuse and neglect," says Gelles. "Some things we define as abuse and neglect, quite frankly, we don't have services for."

Others maintain that parents who are accused of neglecting their children are often too poor to provide better care. "Neglect is, in the United States, almost invariably associated with poverty," says Martin Guggenheim, a professor of law at New York University. "Cases that lead to children coming into care or to coming to the state's attention, even as potential cases for removal, commonly involve a poor, single parent with limited resources, who sometimes [is] living in inadequate conditions because that's what available."

Note: For more, see "What is Child Maltreatment?" from the website for the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information.

» Are there requirements for the maximum amount of time that can elapse between a report of child abuse and neglect and the follow-up investigation or assessment by the child welfare agency?

In Child Maltreatment 2000, HHS concludes that "the average response time from report to investigation was 54 hours." According to HHS, most states have established timeframes governing when investigations should be initiated. While some states have specific language in their laws -- Massachusetts, for instance, says that an investigation must commence "within two hours of initial contact and be completed within 24 hours" if there is reason to believe the child is in immediate danger -- laws in other states are not as detailed.

» If a decision is made to remove a child from his or her home, do caseworkers first try to place the child with a relative?

According to Dorothy Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2002), state child welfare agencies "increasingly turn to relatives to place neglected and abused children." Indeed, according to Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School and author of Nobody's Children: Abuse and Neglect, Foster Drift, and the Adoption Alternative (1999), roughly one-third of out-of-home placements involve what's known as "kinship care," or the placement of a child with a relative.

Note: For more information on each state's kinship care initiatives, see these fact sheets, which were compiled by a consortium of child welfare organizations.

» How often is substance abuse an issue?

In a 1999 report to Congress on the impact of substance abuse on child protection systems, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that most studies concluded that parental substance abuse was a contributing factor in between one-third and two-thirds of children with substantiated reports of abuse or neglect. However, since children who are placed in foster care constitute only 16 percent of the entire "child welfare" population, those estimates do not necessarily reflect what's happening with foster children. Estimates indicate, however, that substance abuse is a factor in two-thirds of the cases of children in foster care.

In October 2002, HHS created the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare to further study parents' substance abuse problems and their effects on the child welfare system.

» Are details of child welfare cases kept confidential?

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act dictates that, except in certain limited circumstances, states must protect the privacy rights of children and their families and preserve the confidentiality of all reports on child abuse and neglect. In explaining the provisions of the confidentiality requirements, HHS says that

[a]uthorized recipients of confidential child abuse and neglect information are bound by the same confidentiality restrictions as the child protective services agency. Thus, recipients of such information must use the information only for activities related to the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect.

» What kind of training do child protective caseworkers have? Is there a high turnover?

According to national data from the Child Welfare League of America, investigative caseworkers' qualifications fall into the following categories:

  • No degree: 5 percent

  • Bachelor's degree, any field: 26 percent

  • Bachelor's degree, related field: 45 percent

  • Bachelor of Social Work: 14 percent

  • Master of Social Work: 2 percent

  • Other: 7 percent

In some states, caseworkers are required to have additional training, anywhere from one day's to several days' worth. Minimum salaries for investigative caseworkers range from an estimated $15,000 in North Carolina to $44,900 in Connecticut, with an average of $27,000.

» When can child protective agencies move to terminate parental rights?

With the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) in 1997, federal law now dictates the timeline governing the termination of parental rights. The provisions related to the termination of parental rights are some of the law's most hotly contested. In summary, ASFA says that a state must file to terminate parental rights if:

  • a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months; or

  • a court determines that an infant has been abandoned; or

  • the parent(s) have been convicted of certain felonies spelled out in the legislation, such as voluntary manslaughter or felony assault.

Additionally, an agency has the discretion to terminate parental rights if it determines that it is in the best interests of the child. However, the law also allows certain cases to be exempted from this provision, such as when a child is being cared for by a relative, or where there is a compelling reason that parental rights shouldn't be terminated, and when the agency did not make "reasonable efforts" for reunification.

Note: For more information about what is known about how ASFA has affected the outcomes of children in foster care, read the U.S. General Accounting Office's report, "Foster Care: Recent Legislation Helps States Focus on Finding Permanent Homes for Children, but Long-Standing Barriers Remain" (PDF).

» What is the hearing process once a child is removed? Are parents entitled to a judicial hearing before the state removes their child?

In 1994, the Fourth Circuit Court determined that states are not required to undertake a hearing process before taking a child into custody. "It is well settled that the requirements of due process may be delayed where emergency action is necessary to avert imminent harm to a child," the court wrote.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 mandates that within 60 days of a child's removal, it must present evidence that it made "reasonable efforts" to keep the family intact. Further, a "permanency hearing" must be held within 12 months of the child's entry into foster care, and additional hearings held every 12 months thereafter.

» What role does the legal system -- family courts and judges, for instance -- play in child-welfare decisions?

While juvenile and family courts do have jurisdiction over child welfare cases, their role varies widely from state to state. Under ASFA, however, each jurisdiction must file a petition with the appropriate court when the decision is made to remove a child from his or her home, and the court must find that it is "contrary to the welfare" of the child to remain in the home. ASFA further stipulates that states must secure judicial rulings regarding the "reasonable efforts" it undertook to prevent a child's removal from his or her home, and the appropriateness of the child welfare agency's permanency plan.

Some, however, question whether this model gives caseworkers and child welfare agencies too much influence. "This is not a system of law that operates like most others, in which there is an understanding that an independent fact finder, the judge, is to play the prominent role in what happens," asserts Guggenheim of NYU. "Instead, child welfare is seen mostly as case management, and the expert is not the judge but the case supervisor. So judges tend to give great deference to what is recommended. And in most jurisdictions most of the time, what the agency seeks, it gets."

The American Bar Association in its publication Making It Permanent: Reasonable Efforts to Finalize Permanency Plans in Foster Children says that the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 attempted to carve out a definitive role for courts. "ASFA clearly intends to create a role for the courts in shaping children's permanency plans," ABA says in the report. It goes on to say, however, that ASFA is less clear on how far exactly the court's authority extends: "The statute, regulations, and preamble leave some doubt concerning what should occur if the agency and the court do not agree on the appropriate plan for the child."

»How much money is spent on child welfare services in the U.S.?

According to a 2002 report from the Urban Institute, states spent at least $20 billion on child welfare services for fiscal year 2000. Federal funds accounted for $9.9 billion, states contributed $7.9 billion, and local funds totaled $2.2 billion. Of the $20 billion, 45 percent -- $9.1 billion -- was spent on out-of-home placements, including room and board and support services such as mental health counseling. Funds for adoptions, meanwhile, accounted for 9.5 percent, or $1.9 billion.

» What sorts of resources are provided to families to prevent a child's removal from the home?

This varies from state to state, and indeed from county to county in areas where there is local control of child welfare systems. As Jacqelyn McCroskey, a professor of social work at the University of Southern California, explains in an article that appeared in Family Preservation Journal in 2001, "Each locality has a great deal of discretion about the types of family-centered services it offers, and because such services are still relatively new, unproven, and poorly funded, local services vary greatly."

There are a few different funding streams available for states' child welfare efforts. The federal government, not surprisingly, is the biggest source of such funding: Title IV-B and Title IV-E of the Social Security Act are the two largest funding streams dedicated to child welfare activities.

Title IV-B funds are widely regarded as the funds dedicated to "preventive" services, while Title IV-E funds the administration and maintenance of child welfare programs. Funds appropriated to states under the two IV-B programs are capped (at $292 million and $295 million for 2000), whereas Title IV-E funds are open-ended entitlements. Compared to the $480 given to the states under Title IV-B in 2000, $3.3 billion was allocated to them from Title IV-E funds.

States do have the discretion to use Title IV-B funds for childcare or housing assistance. According to The Urban Institute report, $55 million of the Title IV-B funds in 2000 were used for "other services," such as childcare assistance and housekeepers. "They have lots of discretion with IV-B, but it's not that much money," says Mark Courtney, director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children. "States spend more than their IV-B funds on investigations. They're glad to get Title IV-B, but it's a measly amount. Bottom line is there's just not enough money." Courtney says that the Social Services Block Grant, another major source of funding for child welfare efforts, has lost more than half of its value in real terms since 1980.

» Are foster homes and/or parents licensed?

In order for states to be reimbursed by the federal government for foster care expenses, the homes that provide care must be licensed. According to the Social Security Act, states are

responsible for establishing and maintaining standards for foster family homes ... which are reasonably in accord with recommended standards of national organizations concerned with standards for such institutions or homes, including standards related to admission policies, safety, sanitation, and protection of civil rights.

Under ASFA, people with certain criminal histories -- those convicted for child abuse or neglect, spousal abuse, a crime against a child, or a crime involving violence, for instance -- are ineligible to become foster parents.

Additionally, certain states require that foster parents receive either annual training or pre-service training before being licensed.

» What are foster parents paid?

States determine how much to pay foster families, and there is a wide range. The Child Welfare League of America reports that a foster parent in Nebraska is paid $222 per month for caring for a 2-year-old, while one in Connecticut is paid $670. The national average is $387 per month.

» What do we know about the well-being of children in foster care?

Even though children who were abused by foster parents accounted for less than 1 percent of all of the cases of abuse reported to child protective services in 1999, there are several studies indicating that children in foster care are much more likely to suffer from abuse than children in the general population. Some, however, say that the focus on foster children who are abused overshadows the needs of the other 550,000 children who in the system who don't suffer such abuse.

"The fact of the matter is that we don't measure any of the kinds of outcomes of how kids are doing in school, how kids are doing emotionally, how kids are functioning in all sorts of ways, who come into this system," says Michael Wald, a senior adviser on policy, evaluation, and children and youth at the Walter and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Two recent reports have attempted to measure the well-being of children in foster care. ChildTrends, an advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., indicates that while there is no "typical" foster child and foster care is not necessarily harmful to children, there is evidence that children in foster care experience more developmental problems and are more prone to engage in high-risk sexual behaviors. The Urban Institute, meanwhile, found that 28 percent of children living with foster parents and relatives had limiting physical, learning, or mental health conditions.

Note: See "The Well-Being of Children Involved with the Child Welfare System: A National Overview" (PDF) by the Urban Institute, and ChildTrends' Research Brief on youth who "age out" of foster care (PDF).

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