Child Protection and Welfare Reform

Audrey Burnam and Elan Melamid

Although much attention in ongoing debates over welfare reform has focused on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), these reforms will affect many other social service programs. This paper explores the implications of welfare reform for child protective services, with special consideration to the situation in California. We first describe key features of the current child protective system, then summarize the ways legislation currently being considered by Congress would change existing federal programs and consider the direct and indirect effects of welfare reform on the delivery of child protective services. Finally, we suggest likely short- and long-term effects of these reforms on California's child protective system, and discuss ways that the state and counties might prepare for these changes.

Child Protective System


The child protective "system" encompasses a vast and complex array of services, delivered by state or local authorities that are organizationally and programmatically diverse. In spite of much regional diversity, these agencies have similar broad mandates to accept and document reports of child abuse or neglect, to investigate these reports, and to protect and care for children who have been endangered. Most of the services delivered by these agencies fall into the following program areas:

  • Child Abuse/Neglect Reporting: Reports of child abuse or neglect are generally filed with hotlines operated at state or local levels. Whether filed by a professional who is mandated to do so when evidence is discovered (e.g., a physician, psychologist, teacher, or social worker) or by other individuals, reports are subject to a preliminary screening to determine appropriate responses (Zellman and Antler, 1990). Potential responses include undertaking no further inquiry, referral to another service agency, setting up in-person evaluations of the child and family, or sending immediate emergency response services if the child is deemed to be in imminent danger.
  • Child protective services: If a report requires further evaluation, a child protective service (CPS) caseworker is dispatched to visit and interview family members and others associated with the case. Workers have three charges: to evaluate whether the allegation of abuse or neglect is substantiated, to determine whether the child is at continued risk, and to decide what additional services are most appropriate given the presenting needs of the child and family.
  • Family maintenance and preplacement preventive services: Ongoing support services can be provided to children and their families if a CPS worker determines that such services will allow the child to remain safely at home. Typical services include counseling, in-home caretakers, parenting classes, and assistance in accessing other support programs (e.g., AFDC). These services are generally short term.
  • Out-of-home placement: When a CPS investigation determines that a child cannot safely remain at home, workers will place the children in the least-restrictive out-of-home setting available. Substitute care settings include placement with relatives, traditional foster homes, group homes, and institutions. Service providers are required to prepare detailed case plans for each child in care, and to offer necessary services and support to best ensure that children can be reunited with their parents as quickly as possible (Pecora et al., 1992).
  • Permanent placement: Inevitably, reunification with parents is not possible for many children. In these cases, child protective service agencies are charged to find a stable, nurturing home environment for children. Although adoption is generally the first preference in developing such permanency plans, other options include placing the child with a legal guardian or in a long-term foster home. Finally, for children who will "age out" of care, agencies offer independent living services that may provide counseling, life-skills training, transitional housing, and/or work experience.

Federal Role

Because new welfare legislation being contemplated shifts greater responsibility from federal to state government, it is important to have a contextual understanding of the federal role to date. Over the past three decades, Congress has taken an active role in establishing many of the specific policies that make up the core of child protective services today. Although the issue of child abuse and neglect gained national attention as early as the late 1890s, little federal action directly addressed child protective services until the early 1960s, when federal funding was made available for child protective services (Pelton, 1987). Federal leadership in this policy arena really emerged, however, with passage of two landmark pieces of legislation: the 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980. Combined with amendments to these and other existing social welfare laws, these initiatives provided significant federal financial support for a broad range of child protective services--including development of reporting systems, investigation of maltreatment reports, family preservation and reunification services, foster care, adoption assistance, and independent living programs for emancipated youth. The initiatives also stimulated basic improvements in case practice, including mandates that child care professionals register all allegations of child abuse/neglect with authorities, mandates to create information systems on children in foster care, and requirements that all foster children receive case planning services with appropriate oversight by judicial bodies. New standards for foster care children were developed, requiring that these children be placed in the least-restrictive available setting, that plans for permanent placement be developed, and that appropriate efforts be made to reunite children with their parents or other relatives (Pecora et al., 1992).

Many other changes in child protective services have been driven by court action at both federal and state levels, and by state legislative bodies. While these reforms generally only directly affect case practice and programs within individual jurisdictions, their cumulative effects are often much broader--advocates, legislators, social welfare professionals, and child protective service system administrators are well aware of developments in other localities, and will often act to change practice in their community in response to changes in other areas. While many positive programmatic benefits have derived from such judicial mandates and case law, court-driven program reforms by nature unfold as a disconnected series of decisions, which compound the complexity of administration, decisionmaking, and service delivery in these systems, and pose significant barriers to improving system efficiency.

Growth in Child Protective Service Caseloads

New welfare legislation regarding child protective services must be viewed in the context of an overall trend of increasing demand for these services. This upward trend in the number of children requiring child protective services over the past decade is dramatically clear. As can be seen in Table 1, the increase is evident in both reports of maltreatment and in placements in substitute care settings, and holds for California as well as the nation as a whole.

Table 1

Increases in Child Maltreatment and Children in Substitute Care

Table 1

The reasons for these increases are not fully understood. Some of the growth is undoubtedly due to improved reporting of child abuse and neglect, but increases in substance abuse and poverty are commonly implicated as factors fueling real increases in incidence of maltreatment. It is believed that up to two-thirds of children seen by child protective workers in recent years come from families in which alcohol or drug abuse is a serious problem (Curtis and McCullough, 1993). Nationally, more than one-third of substantiated cases of child abuse were directly linked to parental substance abuse (American Humane Association, 1995). In addition, children in the child protective system are overwhelmingly from families living in poverty or marginal economic circumstances. Among families with incomes below $7000 per year, the incidence of abuse and neglect is 10 times higher than in families with incomes of $25,000 or more (Pecora et al., 1992). Three-quarters of children receiving child protection services in Los Angeles County were determined to be AFDC-eligible in 1994-1995.[1]

While such characteristics as parental substance abuse, family poverty, or child health status have clear associations with risk for child abuse and neglect, the actual pathways through which any allegations are ultimately substantiated are quite complex and inherently subjective. For example, the percentage of cases in which allegations of child abuse and neglect are substantiated ranges from 11 to 83 percent across states (American Humane Association, 1995). Further, the types of maltreatment suffered by children can vary considerably across jurisdictions. As can be seen in Table 2, Los Angeles and the state of California attribute a relatively larger share of substantiated cases of maltreatment to abuse rather than neglect than is found in the nation as a whole. These patterns reflect important differences not only in the nature of risks facing children in different communities, but important differences in case practice and in definitions of behavior considered abusive or neglectful.

Table 2

Type of Maltreatment in Substantiated Child Abuse/Neglect Cases
(in percentages)

Table 2

Finally, the types of programs offered by child protective agencies may themselves have fueled increases in the population served. One striking example of this is the rapid growth in "kinship" foster care, a development that has contributed significantly to the growing number of children in child protective services over the past decade. Kinship care refers to the practice of preferentially placing foster children in the home of a relative. The number of such placements has skyrocketed in many states, following a series of court orders requiring that kinship caregivers receive financial support approximately equal to that given nonrelated foster parents.[2] With the rise in kinship placements, California (like other states) has experienced a large increase in foster care caseloads, in part because children placed with relatives tend to stay longer in foster care (see Table 3). Thus, although kinship care is valued for the stability, continuity, and family ties it provides for foster care children, it appears to have contributed to growth in demand for child protective services.

Table 3

Increase in Kinship Care

Table 3

Federal Legislation Regarding Child Protective Services

As part of the sweeping welfare reform effort of the 104th Congress, legislation has been proposed that, if signed by the President, would constitute significant changes in the ways that federal funds for child protective services would be provided to states. In this section, we summarize key features of the House and Senate Conference Committee agreement on H.R. 4, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, that concern child protection services, and how these differ from current legislation. As it currently stands, the agreement proposes three funding programs that are described in further detail below: open-ended entitlements for foster care and adoption assistance, a block grant for child protection services, and a block grant for child and family services.

Foster Care and Adoption Assistance Entitlements

Currently, federal payments for foster care and adoption maintenance are an uncapped entitlement provided to states under TitleIV-E of the Social Security Act. These cash payments go to foster (including kinship) and adoptive families to support children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect. Only those children who are eligible for the state's AFDC program are also eligible for the foster care entitlement; children who have defined "special needs" are eligible for adoption assistance payments. For the country as a whole, some 40 percent of children removed from their homes by the child protective system are eligible for Title IV-E foster care or adoption assistance payments. States are required to match the Title IV-E foster care payments they receive at their Medicaid matching rate (which averages 57 percent) and to match their Title IV-E adoption assistance payments at 50 percent.

Limited federal funds are also available for non-AFDC children. This funding stream is currently a discretionary appropriation under Title IV-B (subpart 1) of the Social Security Act. States must match their Title IV-B federal funds at 25 percent. States generally provide additional foster care and adoption assistance to non-AFDC children using state and local revenues and a portion of their flexible Title XX Social Services Block Grant funds. In 1993, federal spending under Title IV-E was about $1.4 billion for foster care maintenance payments and about $235 million for adoption assistance. It is estimated that this uncapped entitlement covers only about 18 percent of states' total spending on foster care maintenance and adoption assistance payments. State and local revenues have been used to support some 68 percent of these payments, Title XX Social Service Block Grant funds have been allocated to cover another 12 percent, and Title IV-B funds have supported less than 2 percent.[3]

The conference committee agreement retains payments for foster care maintenance and adoption assistance as open-ended entitlements. Like the current Title IV-E programs, payments would be limited to children who are AFDC-eligible (for foster care) and to certain categories of "special needs" children (for adoption assistance). The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of these programs at $2 billion in 1996, with costs increasing to $3.7 billion by 2002.

Child Protection Block Grant

The conference committee agreement creates a new Child Protection Block Grant. This block grant would combine several currently existing funding streams. One of these is an uncapped entitlement (part of Title IV-E), supporting child protection administrative and training costs. Essentially, this entitlement funds staff who investigate, arrange for placement, and protect abused and neglected children, and also provides funds to support the training of child protective workers and foster or adoptive parents. States are required to match federal funds for placement services and administration at 50 percent, and for training at 25 percent. In 1993, the federal government spent nearly $1.3 billion under this uncapped funding stream. The other funding stream that would be combined into this block grant is a capped entitlement, now administered under Title IV-B (subpart 2) and Title IV-E (Independent Living), that is intended to promote stable and permanent living arrangements for abused and neglected children. These services include preplacement, family preservation, and family reunification services that are intended to avoid unnecessary removal of and return of children to the family of origin; child welfare services for placing children as quickly as possible in permanent adoptive homes; and independent living services to assist teens in their transition from foster care or group homes to independent living. Total federal money available for Title IV-B Child Welfare services (including subparts 1 and 2) was $295 million in 1993. In addition, $70 million was available for Independent Living services under Title IV-E in 1993.

The new Child Protection Block Grant would include two streams of funding--one a capped entitlement that would be $1.936 billion in 1996 and rise to $2.593 billion in 2002, the other a discretionary appropriation of up to $32.5 million. To receive maximum allowable federal funds from this block grant, a state must have in place a number of child protection procedures and standards that represent a maintenance of current standards. In addition, states must maintain their own spending on this program at 100 percent of their 1995 level in 1996 and 1997 and maintain their spending at a 75 percent level in 1998 through 2002.

Child and Family Services Block Grant

This block grant would provide flexible funds to support a broad range of services to promote child protection and improve the child protection system, including improving risk assessment, training, developing family support programs, and facilitating the delivery of services to children. This block grant represents a reformed version of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) passed in 1974, which provided funds to states to develop programs to prevent, identify, and treat child abuse and neglect. This proposed block grant requires states to have in place the same procedures and standards as required for the Child Protection Block Grant.

The conference agreement reauthorizes the reformed CAPTA, with a discretionary funding stream of up $230 million set for 1996 and "such sums as needed" in 1997 through 2002. Of each year's total appropriation, 12 percent is to be set aside for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to use for research and demonstration projects.

Implications of Federal Reforms on Child Protective Services

Federal Role Little Changed; Some Funds More Constrained

In many respects, the proposed welfare reform legislation as reflected in the conference agreement leaves in place current federal support and requirements for states' child protection systems. Two aspects of a continuing policy commitment are especially noteworthy. First, the uncapped entitlement status of payments to foster families for AFDC-eligible children and to families who adopt children with special needs is retained. Second, requirements for states to have various child protection laws and procedural safeguards and to maintain certain standards of care for abused and neglected children have essentially been left intact from the landmark child protective laws of 1974 (the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act) and 1980 (the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act). These features of the reformed child protection legislation maintain the federal government's role in ensuring that basic safety needs of abused and neglected children be met, in providing cash support for children who must be taken into state custody, and in insisting that reasonable efforts be made to permanently place children who enter the child protective system.

In the past decade, as the demand for child protection services has increased, federal support for basic foster care maintenance and adoption assistance support has kept pace--both for payments to families and for increases in child protection staff and training to administer these services (Figure 1 shows growth in IV-E Foster Care Maintenance and Adoption Assistance). In the seven years between 1987 and 1993, federal payments to families for foster care and adoption assistance increased by nearly 200 percent, closely matching the 212 percent growth in the number of children served by these programs over the same period. The new conference agreement legislation would allow payments to foster and adoptive families to continue to expand or decline with need.

Figure 1

Figure 1--Federal Spending on Child Protective Services, 1983-1995

A significant departure from the past, however, is that under new legislation, federal support for child protective services such as abuse/neglect investigation, preventive services, professional development, foster parent training, and recruitment and administration would be capped and allowed to increase by only 34 percent over seven years. In contrast, between 1987 and 1993 federal support for child protection staff and their training grew by 289 percent (see Figure 1). If the incidence of reported child maltreatment and resulting demand for child protective services continue the recent upward trend, states will face shrinking federal support for many core child protection services. A leveling-off of growth in caseloads, on the other hand, will give states a stable federal contribution to the child protective system. Because both federal mandates to meet high standards of child protection and local judicial mandates for child protective services will continue to exist, it will fall to the states to fill the gap created by potential future increased demand for services, or to challenge their child protection systems to do more with existing resources. The investigative capacity of many child protective systems is already tightly stretched or inadequate (Zellman and Antler, 1990). While increased demand without increased resources may result in increased system efficiency, it is more likely to result in a poorer-functioning child protective system (e.g., higher rates of inadequate investigation and more misjudgments regarding risks to children).

As in the past, the conference agreement budget continues to provide discretionary and capped funds for other child welfare services. Historically, discretionary funds for these services (including services to rehabilitate families with the goals of preventing out-of-home placement and returning children to the family, and to promote the permanent placement of children and assist teens' transition to independent living) have not kept pace with the increase in the number of children requiring assistance from child protective systems. As shown in Figure 1, federal funds available under Title IV-B Child Welfare Services increased only 32 percent in seven years between 1987 and 1993 (from $223 million to $295 million), and Title IV-E Independent Living Services, originally funded in 1987, increased 55 percent (from $45 million to $70 million). As a result, over the past decade states have had declining federal support to provide these types of services to a growing caseload. Unless the incidence of child maltreatment flattens, this trend is likely to continue.

It could be argued that one advantage of the new legislation funding these supportive child welfare services is that it combines a number of existing programs into a single funding stream, providing states with broad flexibility in how to spend these funds. Relative to current legislation, however, little additional flexibility will be gained, for two reasons. First, state flexibility will continue to be limited, both in program design and disposition of individual cases, by legal precedent and local court orders that have had an important role in shaping the delivery of supportive services independently of congressional legislation. Second, states have had considerable flexibility within current federal programs to design specific services to be provided; welfare reforms do relatively little to expand this flexibility.

Indirect Impact of Welfare Reform on Incidence of Child Maltreatment

In addition to the direct impact of new legislation on child protection services, it is likely that other aspects of welfare reform will have an indirect effect on child protective services, particularly the extent to which reductions in cash welfare assistance to families through the AFDC program may increase the incidence of child abuse and neglect.

How would features of the congressional conference agreement increase child abuse and neglect? Many low-income families and children will have fewer resources to lift them out of poverty. Limits on the number of years that families can receive AFDC and restrictions pertaining to teen mothers, families who have additional children, and legal immigrants are intended shrink the size of the AFDC population from what it is under existing eligibility criteria. In addition, new pressures for welfare mothers to work are likely to increase the stress experienced by these families, particularly when child care resources and options are limited. Such financial stresses are likely to exacerbate the pressures already facing these families, increasing the likelihood that abusive or neglectful behavior might take place, while simultaneously making it more difficult for children already served by the child protection system to be reunified with their parents.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has estimated that full implementation of Senate welfare reform provisions affecting benefit levels and taxes would result in an addition 1.2 million children falling into poverty.[4] Using 1994 population data, this represents an increase from 10 to 11.2 million children in poverty, raising the poverty rate among children from 14.4 percent to 16.2 percent. Beyond its impact on families near the threshold of the poverty line, the broader impact of the congressional budget plan on low-income families was also estimated. For families with incomes less than $30,000 a year, reductions in benefits (including cash, in-kind, and health coverage) would average $252 per family, while tax burdens would increase by an average of $53 per family. Although the assumptions underlying these projections are open to argument,[5] the estimates are not overly dour predictions of the likely impact of welfare reform on increases in poverty, at least in the short term; in some cases they may be quite optimistic. For example, the projections assume that 40 percent of parents reaching the AFDC benefit time limit will find employment. In addition, they do not appear to take into account new restrictions on assistance to legal and illegal immigrants, which may have a particularly dramatic effect on reducing eligibility for welfare benefits among poor families in California--in 1994, approximately 15 percent of California families receiving AFDC were noncitizens (California Department of Social Services, 1995). Finally, they assume that states will maintain their current level of effort in funding welfare programs.

Although in the immediate future welfare reform is likely to lead to a substantial deepening of poverty for families, longer-term effects are more difficult to predict. These will be influenced by broader trends in economic growth, supply of jobs in low- skilled occupations, and out-of-wedlock birthrates among poor women. Over time, some features of welfare reform may contribute to reductions in poverty by providing stronger work incentives and services to assist the transition to work, and by discouraging births among teens and poor families. However, existing literature on the ability of government programs to change the earning capacity of poor families and decrease single motherhood suggests that these goals will not easily be attained (Edin and Jencks, 1992).

Given the long-recognized association between poverty and child maltreatment, welfare reform will almost certainly place upward pressure on the incidence of child abuse and neglect in California and the nation. Unfortunately, there has been insufficient research to predict the magnitude of this effect. Whatever its size, however, this effect will be overlaid upon a long-term upward trend in demand for child protection services. In the best of all worlds, positive trends such as economic recovery in California could cancel out or minimize the impact of welfare cutbacks on the incidence of child maltreatment. More realistically, the effects of welfare cutbacks will heighten recent trends of steady annual increases in child protective cases.

Federal Funding Streams Favor Substitute Care

Should the demand for child protective services grow, there appear to be incentives in the conference proposal that could lead states to increase their substitute care populations while reducing efforts to prevent out-of-home placement and return children to their families. Federal funds for foster care and adoption assistance will remain an uncapped entitlement, while federal funds for all other child protective services (including child protective staff and family support services) will be limited and capped. In addition, with fewer families eligible for AFDC cash assistance, it will become more difficult to provide natural families with the assistance they need to properly care for their children. Thus, out-of-home placement may occur more often when maltreatment cases are investigated, and longer stays in foster care may be required, especially given the likely continuing growth in kinship placements.

Kinship placements may also be stimulated as AFDC eligibility limits tighten and benefits are reduced. Some families currently caring for children of relatives in informal arrangements may seek to become approved relative caregivers as a means of gaining access to a restricted welfare benefit. Other families may respond to reduced AFDC access by attempting to have their children removed from their care and placed with relatives who then receive foster care benefits.

Shifting child protection resources from family support services to maintaining children in substitute care is a false economy when viewed from a total cost perspective. It costs considerably more in cash payments to support a child in substitute care (in California, $1100/month) than to support a child who remains with an AFDC-eligible family ($250/month). Furthermore, costs for foster care are the same for each additional child added to the foster home, while AFDC payments decrease with additional children. The added costs of increasing the size of the population that is maintained in foster care will be borne not only by the federal government as part of the continuing uncapped entitlement for these services, but also by states, which must match these expenditures to qualify for the entitlement. The high costs of substitute care, then, may justify a sizable investment in time-limited supportive services (such as mental health counseling and drug treatment) that could prevent out-of-home placement or hasten children's return to their natural parents, even when such investments are not federally supported.

Preparing for Welfare Reform Effects on Child Protective Services

What Effects Can Be Anticipated?

Short-term (1-2 years). New restrictions on eligibility for AFDC would begin to take effect immediately.[6] These restrictions include time limits (after two years, recipients must participate in some work activity, after five years, assistance is discontinued), requirements for teen mothers to live with family or in a supervised setting and to attend school to receive benefits, family caps (denial of benefits for additional children born to mothers receiving assistance), and prohibitions for legal immigrants (who are barred from receiving benefits for their first five years in the United States). These restrictions would immediately tighten eligibility for cash welfare assistance for California families. As noted previously, this is likely to result in a noticeable increase in the incidence of child maltreatment (particularly neglect) cases, and to lead to a significant upturn in the demand for child protective services within the first year.

The direct fiscal impact of welfare reform on the capabilities of the child protective system to deliver services is unlikely to be great in the first year or two, since block grant funding levels will be based on the level of recent federal expenditures. Only over a longer period will federal contributions to child protective services under block grants be expected to fall considerably short of the federal share under current legislation. In the first year or two, therefore, the state should anticipate some increased demand for services and stabilized levels of federal support to provide these services.

Intermediate (2-5 years). The congressional legislation on child protection would keep growth in block grant caps low for the next five years. Growth of block grant funds is not likely to keep pace with growth in demand for child protective services if the trends of the last decade continue in subsequent years. The absence of federal dollars will be most acutely felt in the resources available for child protective service staff. States and counties may step in to fill the gaps[7]--indeed, the state will have flexibility to transfer up to 30 percent of their block grant for cash welfare assistance to child protection. However, cash welfare and other social service programs may also be strained and may compete heavily for discretionary state and federal dollars.

Unless child protective services compete effectively for funds commensurate with growing caseloads, the ability of the child protective system to prevent out-of-home placement, triage children into least-restrictive settings, and arrange for permanent placements will decline. Although the child protective system will in principle have flexibility to spend resources on family support services, in reality little flexibility will exist when resources are severely constrained. Priorities will be driven by court mandates to protect the safety of children and by specific court rulings determining the disposition of individual cases.

Severely constrained resources will undoubtedly affect the quality of services provided to maltreated children--the time that staff spend investigating reports of abuse and neglect and managing the cases that are founded will be spread across a larger number of cases. Although court mandates and local oversight of child protective services may pressure the system to operate at maximal level, requirements for the state to be accountable to a federal authority will be reduced. This reduced accountability may additionally contribute to a decline in the quality of child protective services, increasing the risk of harm for some children. Such decline may also lead caseworkers to favor removal of children from their homes as a quick way to ensure the safety of a child when risk is uncertain. Finally, decline in quality is likely to lengthen periods of out-of-home placement, given reduced resources for reunification efforts and permanency planning.

Longer-term. The long-term outlook for child protective services under welfare reform will depend on the success of the reform in changing work and fertility behavior among poor families and on broader economic and social trends unrelated to welfare per se. The new welfare legislation endeavors to create greater incentives for families to work, and to encourage families either to assume the financial burden of raising their children or to defer child-bearing. The long-term effectiveness of these legislative incentives, and the effectiveness of specific programs that the state will undertake to achieve such goals, are major unknowns. Past evaluations suggest that it is no easy matter, even when AFDC recipients work, to raise their wages sufficiently to lift a family out of poverty, and costs of living in major urban areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco are an added challenge to transitioning welfare families to jobs that can provide them with living wages (Edin and Jencks, 1992). Only time will tell, then, whether dramatic changes in welfare program incentives and innovations in work and child care programs will have their intended effects.

The effects of any new welfare incentives and work programs will be laid upon broader economic and social trends. These broader trends may be much more important than welfare incentives for promoting work and decreasing single-parent families. Factors that will be important include the availability of jobs and wages for unskilled workers, overall levels of poverty, educational attainment, fertility and marriage patterns in young cohorts, the size and characteristics of the immigrant population, and patterns of drug abuse. While it is unlikely that welfare reform will have considerable influence on these broader trends, its success will undoubtedly depend upon them.

Whether or not the child protection system fares well under welfare reform will depend on long-term trends in the incidence of child maltreatment. Maltreatment incidence will be fueled by deepening poverty and unemployment, greater homelessness, escalating drug abuse, and higher rates of unwanted births. Thus, the same economic and social factors that could make welfare reform successful will also ameliorate demand on child protective systems.

What Steps Should Be Taken to Prepare for These Changes?

Monitor changes in demand for and quality of child protective services. As the foregoing suggests, much depends on how welfare reform and broader economic and social conditions will converge to influence the incidence of child maltreatment. Under federal welfare reform, the child protective system will be less able to respond to growth in incidence of maltreatment without additional state and local resources. The state and counties would benefit from closely monitoring trends in incidence of child maltreatment reports, founded cases, the size of the substitute-care population, and child protective worker caseloads, so that they can respond appropriately to problems of inadequate child protective services before these reach crisis proportions.

The reforms also raise important questions regarding the quality of care offered to maltreated children and their families, and the systems of accountability currently in place to ensure that adequate services are provided. The federal government currently provides oversight of child protective agencies through performance audits and other monitoring systems.[8] As this oversight diminishes with the transfer of greater authority for child protective services to the states, the states should consider whether current oversight mechanisms are sufficient. Particularly when agencies are required to serve more children with fewer resources, early warning of unacceptable compromises in the quality of care provided to children and families is needed.

Evaluate the mix of services needed to protect children and promote their well-being. Child protective systems walk a delicate balance between protecting children from risks imposed by their natural families and ensuring that children will be transitioned to a safe, nurturing, and permanent family situation (either the original or an adoptive family) as soon as possible. Decisions to leave children in their homes or take them into custody, where to temporarily place them, and what type of permanent family arrangements should be sought for them are seldom straightforward. Over time, agencies have developed and increased their range of services, to better balance their mandate to protect children with a preventive mission that supports families in adequately caring for their children. These supportive services include family preservation and reunification programs that target the natural family, kinship programs that provide extended family options, training and services for foster and adoptive families to improve their effectiveness as parents, and independent living programs to assist teens' transition from substitute care to independence. Collectively, these services provide child protective systems with options to deal with the various shades of gray that exist between the extremes of ignoring a report of child maltreatment and stranding a child for years in temporary substitute care arrangements.

When child protective agencies have severely constrained resources, family support services will suffer as resources become increasingly devoted to core protective services. As we argued earlier, this imbalance may actually cost more in total since it is more expensive to support children in foster care and group homes than to support them with their natural families. In addition, the overall welfare of children may suffer with too great a shift in favor of protective over supportive services.

It will be important, then, for California and its counties to consider what the ideal mix of core child protective and family support services should be, both to keep substitute care costs from becoming excessive and to optimize the quality of care provided to maltreated children. Maintaining an ideal balance of protective and family support services may require an increased investment of state and local discretionary funding to expand family support services. Greater reliance on family support services can in some cases avoid the higher cost of cash payments to families for foster care and adoption assistance.

Consider the implications of the state welfare program on child maltreatment. As the state takes the reins of the welfare program for families and designs specific eligibility criteria, cash assistance levels, in-kind contributions, work programs, and child care programs for needy families, it should consider the consequences of alternative designs on the incidence of child abuse and neglect. More generous benefit design in some aspects of the child welfare program (for example, child care for working parents) may translate into savings in child protection costs if it results in less child neglect. Research to investigate the impact on children of welfare changes (such as time limitations, denial of benefits to later-born children, and child care programs), and specifically to what extent these changes increase the risk of child maltreatment, would greatly inform the design of the state's welfare program and suggest ways that the welfare and child protective systems could be more effectively integrated. Integration could be facilitated by linking information systems on services provided to families by a diverse range of health and human service providers.[9]


American Humane Association, Child Abuse and Neglect Data--AHA Fact Sheet #1, Washington, DC, 1995.

California Department of Social Services, Aid to Families with Dependent Children Characteristics Survey, Study Month of October 1994, Information Services Bureau, Health and Welfare Agency, 1995.

Curtis, P.A., and C. McCullough, "The Impact of Alcohol and Other Drugs on the Child Welfare System," Child Welfare, 72, November-December 1993, pp. 533-542.

Edin, K., and C. Jencks, "Reforming Welfare," in C. Jencks (ed.), Rethinking Social Policy, University Press, Cambridge, 1992,pp. 204-235.

Halfon, N. et al., "National Health Care Reform, Medicaid and Children in Foster Care," Child Welfare, 73, March-April 1994,pp. 99-115.

Pear, R. "Many States Fail to Meet Mandates on Child Welfare," New York Times, March 17, 1996, p. A1.

Pecora, P. J., J. K. Wittaker, A. N. Maluccio, R. P. Barth, and R. D. Plotnick, The Child Welfare Challenge: Policy, Practice and Research, Aldine De Gruyter, Hawthorne, NY, 1992.

Pelton, L., "Not For Poverty Alone: Foster Care Population Trends in the 20th Century," Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, Vol. 14(2), June 1987, pp. 37-62.

U.S. House of Representatives, Ways and Means Committee, 1993 Green Book.

Wulczyn, Fred H., "Home Rebuilders: A Family Reunification Demonstration Proposal," Family Preservation Conference, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington DC, March 10-11, 1992.

Zellman, G., and S. Antler, "Mandated Reporters and CPS: A Study in Frustration," Public Welfare, Winter 1990, pp. 30-41.


[1] Another risk factor that should be considered is the personal health of at-risk children--60 percent of maltreated children in the United States suffer from mental health disorders, while 40 percent have health problems (Halfon, 1994).

[2] These cases include the 1979 Supreme Court case Miller v. Youakim based in Illinois, and the Eugene F. Consent Decree in New York.

[3] U.S. House of Representatives, Ways and Means Committee, 1993 Green Book. These data are based on reports from 31 states in 1991.

[4] The same report estimated that the House welfare reform proposal would increase child poverty by 2.1 million. The report was issued before the compromise proposal emerged from the conference committee, so similar projections for this proposal are not available.

[5] OMB projections are sensitive to assumptions made for expected program growth rates in the absence of welfare reform and for the expected number of AFDC recipients who, upon reaching the proposed time limits for benefits, will find employment. In addition, they do not take into account changes in overall economic growth or levels of unemployment, changes in out-of-wedlock birth rates, or changes in state funding for welfare programs.

[6] If recipients are given some "grace period" for time limits to take effect (for example, the time-limit clock starts after the legislation is passed), then some of the impact will be delayed.

[7] In California, the governor's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year allocates an additional $31.5 million to partially backfill for a reduction in federal aid. The total impact on the state was estimated by the governor's office to be $45 million; county and local governments would have to assume responsibility for any gap between reduced federal aid and the increase in state backfill funds.

[8] A recent audit revealed substantial problems in the quality of child protective services offered in many states (Pear, 1996).

[9] See Wulczyn, 1992. This program has recently been substantially expanded in New York.