The blog of the Urban Institute
August 17, 2020

What Would It Take to Create the Child Welfare System Families Say They Need?

In a moment when people across the country are rallying not just for reform but for a complete redesign of society’s institutions, calls for reforming and even abolishing the child welfare system cannot be ignored. For years, families, researchers, advocates, and policymakers have demanded further dedication to preventing child maltreatment, and, by extension, child welfare system involvement. These advocates note the disproportionate involvement of children and families of color in child welfare and call for a system that invests in strengthening, rather than separating, families. Recent federal legislation aims to shift resources toward prevention services to address this need, but is it enough to build the system families want?

The Family First Prevention Services Act (Family First) of 2018 created incentives to encourage agencies to provide families with evidenced-based services—such as mental health services, substance-use treatment, and in-home parenting training—to prevent their children from entering foster care. Though Family First is a step in the right direction, its narrow focus on preventing foster care entry is akin to waiting until the bow of a boat is hanging over a waterfall before intervening to keep it from falling over. Families who have experience with the child welfare system want help steering their boat away from the rapids long before the waterfall is even in sight.

Illustration of a boat in rocky waters

Building evidence to create the child welfare system families are calling for will require collaboration between child welfare agencies and other sectors, including housing, education, employment, and health.

Preventing abuse and neglect is the highest child-welfare priority for families who have experience in the system

Recently, we surveyed three groups of child welfare stakeholders—including researchers, caseworkers and others who work in child welfare, and people with lived experience in child welfare, such as birth parents, foster parents, and young adults formerly in foster care—to explore how they think the field should spend its limited resources to build evidence. We asked them what they would prioritize from a list of 12 areas that included policies and practices, recruitment of kinship and foster parents, and cross-system collaboration. Three hundred of the approximately 1,000 people invited to take the survey completed it, so our findings are not representative of the field as a whole. But they do give us insights into some key patterns, perspectives, and priorities.

  • The three groups of respondents agreed that preventing foster care entry was a high priority for evidence-building efforts. Some noted that Family First greatly aids this effort but that attempts to improve the system cannot stop there.
  • Respondents with lived experience placed equal priority on building evidence around preventing child abuse and neglect, also known as primary prevention.
  • Researchers and respondents who work within child welfare agencies prioritized improving the child welfare workforce over preventing child maltreatment.
  • Respondents with lived experience consistently expressed a need for easier access to and greater availability of services and supports they view as fundamental to preventing child maltreatment—and by extension, foster care entry—such as affordable housing, quality education, well-paying jobs, and treatment for mental health and substance abuse issues. Researchers and child welfare agency professionals also noted these areas as risk factors for families’ involvement in child welfare.

Child welfare research spending priorities

Building evidence for primary prevention will require child welfare agencies to partner with other sectors

Family First encourages building evidence around interventions that could help families after they have reached the waterfall. The act’s lack of funding for primary prevention has been criticized by child welfare advocates and even acknowledged by the acting commissioner of the Administration for Children and Families.

Several studies demonstrate the ways cross-system research can pave paths to greater understanding about child welfare prevention. For example, a rigorous evaluation shows that supportive housing was associated with increased family housing stability and a reduction in child welfare involvement. Preliminary findings from another study suggest that connecting families to income supports may reduce child maltreatment. And yet another study found that some home visiting programs for families with infants (aimed primarily at improving healthy child development) have also been associated with reductions in child maltreatment.

The child welfare field cannot build the evidence on the relationship between systemic inequities in housing, employment, education, and community investment and child welfare on its own. Building evidence for primary prevention—the type of support our research shows families want—would require collaboration across multiple public systems, academic disciplines, and stakeholder groups:

  1. Child welfare agencies could become more open to sharing data, with personal privacy protections, with researchers and other government agencies to build evidence for primary prevention.
  2. Child welfare leaders could proactively strengthen relationships with housing, employment, education, health, and other systems to include child welfare outcomes in cross-sector research.
  3. Researchers could expand their networks to collaborate across disciplines, including public health, economics, law, social work, psychology, sociology, history, and political science to identify connections and structural barriers to child maltreatment prevention.

Now is the time for transformative change

Child welfare can consider Family First as simply a first step toward preventing child maltreatment. Collaborating with other sectors can address gaps present in the current system, but it could also reimagine a system beyond its current form, allowing families to obtain the assistance they need to steer their boats away from the rapids toward calm waters.

Illustration by Allison Feldman for the Urban Institute

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