Working to transform the child welfare system.


Systems Spotlight: Child Welfare System History and Trends

Over the years, there have been many different approaches to child welfare service management and delivery – all have aimed to improve outcomes for children and families. Recently, POC worked with a graduate student, Eugenia Ho, from the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington to take a deeper look at some of these approaches. Over the next few months, we will be sharing a blog series – “Systems Spotlight” – that will highlight some of the interesting findings from her study, “Structural Approach Analysis for Service Management and Delivery for Vulnerable Children and Families in Washington State.”  These findings touch on the historical background and trends of the child welfare system in the United States, as well as successful experiences of other states and countries.

Today, let’s start with the historical background and trends of the U.S. child welfare system.

The U.S. child welfare system has a long history of emphasis on child protection – ensuring the safety of children by protecting them from abuse and neglect. This child protection and safety orientation can be seen through the goals of major federal laws developed over time: 

  • The Social Security Act [1] of 1935 marked the beginning of the federal involvement in child welfare. It remains to be the primary means for the largest federally funded programs that support state efforts for child welfare, foster care, and adoption activities under titles IV-B and IV-E [2].
  • In 1974, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act [3] was an important policy that set the stage for the scope and nature of child welfare system on both the national and state levels. This act provided federal funding to help support the development of child abuse reporting systems and required states to follow standardized procedures for identifying and managing incoming child maltreatment reports [4]. 
  • The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act [5] in 1980 reaffirmed federal activities in child abuse policy by specifying the procedures for determining when and if children could be involuntarily separated from parents and the obligations of the state to support parents in their efforts to care for their children safely at home or to regain custody of their children from the state following family separation [6]. 
  • In 1993, the Family Preservation and Support provisions of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act [7] offered a funding mechanism for services supporting birth families. 
  • The Adoption and Safe Families Act [8] of 1997 further defined the overarching goals of the child welfare system in the U.S. in child protection and safety.  With its fundamental goals of ensuring child safety, supporting permanency for children and securing children’s well-being, this federal law eased the adoption expedition process when reunification was not feasible; at the same time, it promoted the theme of timely permanence for foster children through the reduction of birth parent reunification timeframes [9] – meaning caseworkers could pursue other permanency options (e.g. adoption) after a shorter timeframe than before.
  • The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoption Act [10] of 2008 emphasizes the federal government’s support for adoption as a permanency option for children who cannot reunify with their birth parents by providing states with financial incentives for each child adopted over and above that state’s base number of adoptions from the year 2002 [11]. 

Despite U.S. efforts to ensure the safety of American children, the safety outcomes for our children still lag behind those of other developed nations. According to an analysis of child welfare systems in ten countries conducted by Neil Gilbert [12], a professor in Social Welfare and Social Services at the University of California, Berkeley, the U.S. ranked the lowest in theUNICEF index of health and safety of children. The U.S. also had the highest number of child maltreatment deaths.

These results are not surprising to see when we compare the total social expenditure spent by these ten countries on family benefits in cash, services and tax measures compared to the overall gross domestic product (GDP). Gilbert examined the correlation between family benefit expenditures and child well-being outcomes in the ten countries compared in the study. Figure 1 shows that countries’ spending on family benefits is somewhat related (R sq.=0.33; p

Figure 1.  Spending as % of gross domestic product (GDP) with child well-being ranking (health and safety) [14]


When Gilbert looked at the relationship between social expenditure on family benefits and the most extreme form of child maltreatment – deaths, he found a similar inverse relationship. Figure 2 demonstrates that the more a country spends on family benefits, the less likely it is to have a high number of child maltreatment deaths. However, in both figures, the U.S. is obviously the outlier with the lowest social expenditure on family benefits along with the lowest child well-being ranking and the highest number of child maltreatment deaths.

Figure 2.  Spending as % of gross domestic product (GDP) with child maltreatment deaths per 100,000 children [15]


The U.S. government’s role in supporting vulnerable families is even more evident when its family policy expenditures are compared with those of other 33 advanced and emerging OECD countries. The total U.S. spending on family welfare was 1.22% of its GDP as of 2009 [16]. Figure 3 illustrates that among these 33 countries, the U.S. ranked 31 in social expenditure on family benefits in cash, services and tax measures in percent of GDP [17]. 

Figure 3.  Public spending on family benefits in cash, services and tax measures, in percent of GDP, 2009


Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Social Expenditure Database, December 2013. [18]

These three figures highlight an important implication – the degree of a country’s involvement and spending on family welfare is related to the well-being of children. So what do you think of these figures?

Next, we’ll explore a few other child welfare systems across the globe and within the United States!