Federal Policy Should Improve the Child Welfare System
Over the last decade, nearly 1 million children in the U.S. have been substantiated as abused or neglected each year, and research suggests this number is a significant underestimate of actual maltreatment.
Children who experience abuse or neglect are at greater risk of alcohol and drug abuse, depression, suicide attempts, unintended pregnancy, intimate partner violence, sexually transmitted diseases, fetal deaths, smoking, ischemic heart disease, liver disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Children who have been in foster care, including those who "age out" of foster care upon turning 18, typically attain fewer years of education and have less steady employment. Not surprisingly, they are more likely to experience homelessness and poverty and to be involved with the criminal justice system. These outcomes are problematic not just for the individuals who experience them, but for the nation as a whole. The United States spends more than $100 billion annually on the direct and indirect costs of child maltreatment - the costs of long-term health problems, incarceration and lost productivity. We can and must do better.
Ensuring that all children are safe and well cared for will require federal investment and leadership. As part of its 2010 Federal Policy Recommendations, CLASP recommends that the the Obama Administration and Congress do the following:
Reform child welfare financing to adequately invest in preventing abuse and neglect. Rather than waiting to treat abuse and neglect after children have suffered, the nation must invest in services and supports that strengthen families and allow them to meet the needs of their children and help the children grow into their full potential. Some families neglect their children because they lack adequate resources or mistreat their children due to the stress they experience when they lose a job or a home. These families can be helped with many of the job creation and economic support initiatives discussed in other sections of this paper. Still, other families neglect or abuse their children because they face personal struggles that interfere both with their parenting and with their ability to succeed in the workplace. Home visiting programs, family-based substance abuse treatment, effective mental health treatment and domestic violence services can all intervene early to help such families before they fall into a crisis that leads to maltreatment and the need to separate children from their families. The vast majority of federal child welfare expenditures provide out-of-home care rather than prevention and early intervention services. Congress and the Administration should enact and implement legislation that realigns our investments to keep children safely in their own homes whenever possible.
Promote policies that facilitate communities where families can successfully raise their children. Parents do not raise their children in a vacuum. They are influenced by the communities around them. If they live in neighborhoods with child care providers and schools that promote healthy development and provide quality education, with multiple pathways to family-sustaining jobs, with enriching community spaces and places (parks, libraries, grocery stores etc.) the job of parenting is much easier. The Obama Administration's Promise Neighborhood initiative is an exciting step toward understanding what it takes to facilitate such communities. The initiative should be fully funded and carefully monitored so that we can understand what it takes to support and strengthen struggling communities.
Strengthen supports children and their families receive when maltreatment occurs to better mitigate the harm that occurs.
The investment in prevention and early intervention cannot come at the expense of caring for children who are maltreated because the nation is currently not adequately intervening once abuse or neglect occur. Forty percent of children whom we know have been maltreated (whose abuse is reported and substantiated) get no services-not foster care, not counseling, not family supports. Of the children who are placed in foster care, only about half receive federal foster care payments. Only a quarter of them receive mental health services, despite the fact that at least half have clinically significant emotional or behavioral problems. The typical child welfare worker has less than two years experience and often carries twice the recommended caseload, preventing even the most dedicated worker from spending sufficient time with children and families to identify and address the challenges they face. To ensure children get the services they need to heal, Congress and the Administration should:
- Increase access to specialized treatment services
- Enact and implement legislation that enhances the quality of the workforce providing services to children and families.
- Effectively implement and monitor the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (FCSIAA).
- Integrate and align policies across programs and departments to provide holistic services for families, particularly those facing the most complex challenges.
Enhance services and supports to children and families after a crisis has stabilized. Besides preventing maltreatment whenever possible and effectively addressing the harm when it does occur, the nation must do more to support families once the crisis is resolved so that abuse and neglect do not reoccur. The FCSIAA took several steps toward increasing support for some children who move from foster care to kinship and adoptive families. Congress and the Administration should enact and implement child welfare financing legislation that assists all children and families (kinship, adoptive and birth families) who need help after a crisis. In addition, the recommended investments in prevention both through specific programs and through strengthening communities will help to support families after a crisis has stabilized.
Improve accountability both for dollars spent and outcomes achieved by increasing the transparency of federal spending and ensuring that expenditures support programs, approaches and initiatives that are grounded in research.
There are many steps Congress and the Obama Administration should take to improve the lives of children who are at risk of or have experienced abuse and neglect. In calling for greater investments and new policy approaches, CLASP believes that we must all be accountable for the outcomes of these investments and policies. We agree that it makes little sense to spend precious resources and energy on things that do not work. At the same time, families in which maltreatment occurs often face longstanding, complex challenges, and it will take time for the recommended investments and policy approaches to produce desired effects. The child welfare community must be willing to monitor progress, tweak and adapt approaches as necessary and be prepared to abandon approaches when they have been sufficiently funded, tested and modified over time and still do not produce expected results. Congress and the Obama Administration have a critical leadership role in finding the delicate balance of testing promising ideas and encouraging innovation while ensuring that our expenditures are wisely made.