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Welfare Reform's Effect on Child Welfare Caseloads

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Document date: February 01, 2001
Released online: February 01, 2001

Assessing the New Federalism Discussion Paper No. 01-04

Assessing the New Federalism is a multi-year Urban Institute project designed to analyze the devolution of responsibility for social programs from the federal government to the states. It focuses primarily on health care, income security, employment and training programs, and social services. Researchers monitor program changes and fiscal developments. Alan Weil is the project director. In collaboration with Child Trends, the project studies changes in family well-being. The project provides timely, nonpartisan information to inform public debate and to help state and local decisionmakers carry out their new responsibilities more effectively.

Key components of the project include a household survey, studies of policies in 13 states, and a database with information on all states and the District of Columbia. Publications and database are available free of charge on the Urban Institute's Web site: http://www.urban.org.

The project has received funding from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, The Commonwealth Fund, the Stuart Foundation, the Weingart Foundation, The Fund for New Jersey, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and The Rockefeller Foundation.

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.


Executive Summary

Welfare Reform's Effect on Child Welfare Caseloads
    Potential Effects of Welfare Reform on Child Welfare
    Assessing the Effects of Welfare Reform on Child Welfare Caseloads

Effects of Welfare Reform on Families Coming into the System
    Pre- and Post-Welfare Reform Child Welfare Caseload Data
    Respondents' Assessment of Welfare Reform Effects
    Why Are We Not Seeing Greater Effects?

Effects of Welfare Reform on Dual-System Families
    Pre- and Post Welfare Reform Trends
    Respondents' Assessment of Welfare Reform's Effects
    Why Are We Not Seeing Greater Effects


Appendix A: Findings from Other Welfare Reform Studies


About the Authors

Executive Summary

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), signed by President Clinton in August 1996, significantly altered this nation's safety net for low-income children and families. From the preliminary discussions about welfare reform through the debates on and passage of PRWORA, policymakers, advocates, and researchers expressed fears about what would happen to those families that did not fare well under the new welfare system. Many predicted that welfare changes would increase the number of children who are abused and neglected, referred to child protective services, and placed in foster care or other out-of-home settings. While data are limited, we do know that there is a strong link between welfare receipt and risk of child welfare involvement, and recent studies have also documented the link between welfare receipt and future child welfare involvement.

Almost universally, the respondents in our study expected to see significant negative effects of welfare reform on the child welfare caseload. These expectations were based on the assumption that welfare reform would increase the number of children in poverty and would create additional stress on welfare families. Because poverty is highly correlated with child maltreatment and involvement in the child welfare system, welfare effects on family income may affect the number of families reported to child welfare authorities. Many researchers have argued that changes in income notwithstanding, the stress and/or benefits that welfare recipients experience from meeting the new requirements may affect child maltreatment reporting. Families involved in both the welfare and child welfare systems, "dual-system" families, may feel most stressed by the demands placed on them.

To document how welfare reform and related changes may be affecting child welfare caseloads, in 1999 the Urban Institute conducted in-depth case studies in 12 states and multiple local sites. These case studies, a follow-up to case studies conducted in these same localities in 1997, included in-person, semistructured interviews with a broad range of welfare and child welfare stakeholders including administrators, researchers, supervisors, legislative representatives, and advocates. We also conducted focus groups with child welfare workers at each local site. Interview protocols for both the semistructured and focus group interviews focused on changes in the interaction and collaboration between the child welfare agency and the welfare office; recent changes in staffing and staff responsibilities; the resources available for the child welfare agency and how these have changed since welfare reform; recent changes in service delivery policies and practices; and changes in the number and types of families coming to the attention of child welfare. We specifically asked respondents to assess the effects, if any, that welfare reform had had on child welfare caseloads. The case studies were supplemented by telephone interviews with a stratified random sample of 125 county child welfare officials in our 12 case study states and Mississippi, a state that decided not to participate in the case studies.

Despite widespread fears, we found no evidence to suggest that welfare reform has significantly increased the number of families referred to child welfare agencies. Caseload data show that allegations and substantiated reports of abuse and neglect have been stable or declining since welfare reform was implemented, continuing the trend in caseloads prior to welfare reform. While case study respondents agreed that welfare reform has not significantly affected child welfare caseloads, they did identify a variety of smaller effects they have seen on families and offered explanations as to why greater effects have not yet been observed but may be seen in the near future.

If welfare reform has affected child welfare caseloads thus far, it appears that it has had a greater effect on dual-system families than on new families coming to the attention of child welfare authorities. This conclusion is based on the views of respondents who documented the struggles that some child welfare families have experienced in attempting to meet the demands placed on them by both child welfare and welfare agencies.

Respondents offered numerous explanations for why they were not seeing the significant negative effects of welfare reform on child abuse and neglect reporting that they had originally anticipated. The most common response to our questions about the effects of welfare reform on the child welfare system was "It's too early to tell," as respondents argued that welfare families have not felt the brunt of the reforms because none of them have yet been affected by lifetime limits on assistance. Many respondents suggested that families that have lost benefits following welfare reform changes have thus far found other supports that allow them to cope with the financial loss. Others suggested that we are not seeing significant effects because we are not looking. Despite numerous studies assessing the effects of welfare reform, we have very limited hard data on the extent to which welfare families are being reported to child welfare agencies for abuse or neglect. The large majority of respondents (administrators as well as front-line workers) believe that welfare reform is still likely to have a significant negative impact on child welfare caseloads.

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Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net

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