Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Encyclopedia of Social Work. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 08 February 2023

Child Welfare: History and Policyfree

Child Welfare: History and Policyfree

  • Christina Paddock, Christina PaddockUniversity of Southern California
  • Debra Waters-RomanDebra Waters-RomanUniversity of Southern California
  •  and Jessica BorjaJessica BorjaUniversity of Southern California


Child welfare services in the United States evolved from voluntary “child saving” efforts in the 19th century into a system of largely government-funded interventions aimed at identifying and protecting children from maltreatment, preserving the integrity of families that come to the attention of child welfare authorities, and finding permanent homes for children who cannot safely remain with their families. Since the 1970s, the federal government has played an increasing role in funding and creating the policy framework for child welfare practice. Today, communities of color receive a disproportionate amount of attention from child welfare services, yet often have access to fewer resources.


  • Children and Adolescents
  • Macro Practice
  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Populations and Practice Settings

Updated in this version

Content and references updated for the Encyclopedia of Macro Social Work.

Social work practice in the field of child welfare involves the provision of child welfare services. Child welfare services in the United States are a response to society’s commitment to protecting children from maltreatment by their primary caregivers. This commitment and early social work responses emerged in the context of what has been referred to as the “child saving movement.” Prior to that time, children were considered the property of their parents; parents were generally allowed to treat their children as they wished.


In the mid-19th century, societal attitudes regarding parental authority and the needs of children had changed to the extent that religious and civic leaders began to seriously question the wisdom of allowing children to remain in what came to be considered “unfit” homes. Criminal cases involving child abuse in the United States date to the 17th century, and by the 19th century, many localities had laws that codified Poor Law traditions allowing children to be indentured to protect them from neglect or remove them from the streets (Bremner, 1970). In addition, by the 19th century, some voluntary “child rescue” societies had begun to investigate complaints of child neglect, exploitation, and cruelty. Nevertheless, historical accounts generally trace the origin of widespread media attention and public concern over the plight of maltreated children to the case of Mary Ellen Wilson, a young girl living in New York City. Mary Ellen was removed from the home of her abusive caregivers in 1874 due to the intervention of the leader of the New York chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NYSPCA), Henry Bergh (Costin, 1991). After intervening for Mary Ellen, Bergh and others established the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC). Within a few years, many large cities had similar organizations, to whom courts gave quasi-judicial power to remove children from homes that were deemed unfit and place them in foster homes or children’s institutions. Most of the early societies for the prevention of cruelty to children made little or no effort to rehabilitate the parents of these children, believing them to be characterologically deficient and therefore beyond help.

Decades earlier, Charles Loring Brace, motivated by a deep commitment to Protestant religious charity and influenced by the terrible living conditions he witnessed in his charitable work in the Five Points neighborhood of New York City, founded the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) (O’Connor, 2001). Brace had seen that many children of the European immigrants who lived in the neighborhoods where he worked ended up largely fending for themselves on the street or living in very tenuous conditions with their families. He came to believe that these children could find a better life living away from the evils of the city with good Protestant families. Reflecting this belief, beginning in 1854, the CAS took in orphans, “half-orphans” (children with only one parent), and children whose parents were convinced to relinquish them to the CAS, and put them on “orphan trains.” The trains transported the children primarily to small towns and rural areas where families would come forward to take the children in and raise them in what Brace and his supporters believed were more suitable surroundings than New York City for the rearing of children (O’Connor, 2001).

As the first large-scale effort at foster family care, the orphan trains represent a milestone in the development of child welfare services, but they are also important for another reason. Unlike the later child-saving efforts of the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Brace and the CAS did not remove children from their homes with the rationale that they were trying to save children from parental maltreatment (i.e., from “deviant” parents); rather, they were interested in moving them from the dangerous conditions that were typical of the immigrant communities and families in which the children lived into “better” homes and communities. In this way, the programs of the CAS represent an early example of the use of child welfare services to “save” children by removing them from ethnic or racial minority families and communities and assimilating them into majority families and communities. A later example of this use of child welfare services can be found in the removal of indigenous children from their homes during the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, and their placement in boarding schools where they were prohibited from engaging in the cultural practices of their home communities (Holt, 2001).

Progressive Era reformers with a broader set of interests in children also influenced early child protection efforts. For example, laws restricting child labor both reflected and contributed to changing expectations regarding society’s responsibility for the well-being of children (Costin, 1991). Moreover, many advocates for legislation affecting children, particularly early feminists, were also involved in child protection efforts.

Although protecting children from harm by their caregivers, or removing them from “undesirable” communities, were the foci of the late 19th-century child savers, this did not mean that the sanctity of the family as a social institution had been entirely lost. For example, early in its work, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, while taking on the child placement function of other SPCCs, focused on trying to help families that came to its attention to be able to care for their children (Costin, 1992). The Progressive Era championing of the family reached a high point in 1909 during the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, which had been called largely in response to concern about institutional placement of children. The conferees concluded that “home life is the highest and finest product of civilization” and recommended that measures be taken to prevent the removal of children from their homes and to place them with families instead of in institutions (U.S. Children’s Bureau, 1967, p. 4). The U.S. Children’s Bureau, the first department of the federal government devoted to the welfare of children, was created in 1912 in response to the recommendations of the 1909 White House Conference; to this day the Children’s Bureau remains the agency primarily responsible for implementing federal child welfare initiatives.

Child Welfare Policy in the United States

Today, child welfare services are provided by state and local public child welfare agencies. Services are also provided by private agencies, such as nonprofits, through contracts (McBeath et al., 2012). The U.S. government influences child welfare services primarily through provision of funding to states, which is contingent upon states using these funds in ways that are consistent with federal law. In 2016, the United States spent $29.9 billion on services to serve and protect children who are at risk or victims of abuse and neglect (Child Trends, 2018). Close to 2 million children received services to prevent child abuse or neglect, while 1.3 million children received services after maltreatment occurred (Children’s Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2019).

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA)

Enacted in 1974 and amended several times since then, CAPTA represents the federal government’s commitment to protecting children from maltreatment. It provides funding to states for child abuse and neglect prevention, identification, prosecution, and treatment activities. It also provides grants to public agencies and nonprofit organizations for demonstration projects. CAPTA defines the federal role in supporting research, evaluation, technical assistance, and data collection activities pertaining to child maltreatment. To receive CAPTA funds, states must meet a number of requirements, including enacting statutes that define and prohibit child maltreatment, establishing a child maltreatment reporting system, designating an agency responsible for investigating child maltreatment, providing immunity from prosecution for individuals making good faith reports of suspected or known instances of child maltreatment, and protecting the confidentiality of data generated by the maltreatment reporting system. In 2010, CAPTA was reauthorized to renew programs covered by the act and to improve services to families exposed to domestic violence, to increase services for abandoned babies, and to strengthen adoption assistance (Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, 2010).

The Social Security Act

The Social Security Act includes the most significant federal laws that provide the legal framework and funding for child welfare services. The federal government started providing grants to states for preventive and protective services and foster care payments in 1935 with the Child Welfare Services Program (Title V), which in 1967 became Title IV-B. Beginning in 1961, legislation provided for foster care maintenance payments under the Aid to Dependent Children Program, Title IV-A of the Social Security Act. Title IV-A was amended in 1980 to create the Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance program. The Title XX Social Services Block Grant was created in 1975 to provide states with funding for a wide range of social services, including those targeted at preventing or remedying child maltreatment, preserving, rehabilitating or reuniting families, and preventing or reducing inappropriate institutional care. Since its creation in 1997, the Title IV-A Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (TANF) has also become a significant source of funding for child welfare services. States may use TANF funds for family reunification, parenting education, in-home and crisis intervention services, and to support children whom child welfare agencies have removed from their parents’ homes and placed with relatives or kinship caregivers. Lastly, state child welfare agencies use Medicaid (Title IXX) funds to pay for transportation, targeted case management, and therapeutic and psychiatric services provided in children’s institutions. Federal, state, and local government funding for child welfare services totaled $29.9 billion in state fiscal year 2016, 45 percent ($13.5 billion) of which was from federal funding. Funds from Titles IV-B and IV-E of the Social Security Act, TANF, the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), and Medicaid accounted for the majority of these expenditures (Rosinsky & Williams, 2018).

Title IV-B and Title IV-E

Titles IV-B and IV-E account for over half of federal child welfare expenditures and provide the legal framework for child welfare services in the United States. Title IV-B now has two parts. The Subpart 1 Child Welfare Services program provides states with federal funding directed toward protecting and promoting the welfare of all children; preventing and responding to problems that may result in child maltreatment, exploitation, or delinquency; preventing the unnecessary separation of children from their families; reunifying children in out-of-home care with their families; placing children in adoptive homes; and assuring adequate care of children in out-of-home care. Subpart 1 requires states to create a state plan for the delivery of these child welfare services, approved by the federal government, that specifies how such services will be coordinated with services funded under Title XX, TANF, and the Title IV-E foster care program. The budget authorization for Subpart 1 is $325 million per year. Subpart 2, Promoting Safe and Stable Families, allocates funds to states for a more targeted set of services: coordinated programs of community-based family support services; family preservation services; time-limited family reunification services; and adoption promotion and support services. The budget authorization for Subpart 2 is $345 million per year. Historically, Congress has generally not appropriated the full amount possible under Title IV-B. In fiscal year 2016, federal Title IV-B funds accounted for 4% of child welfare expenditures, a figure that has remained steady for over a decade (Rosinsky & Williams, 2018).

The Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption Assistance program provides funds to states for the board and care and administrative costs of out-of-home care of children removed from families deemed unwilling or unable to care for them and subsidy payments to the parents of children adopted from state-supervised out-of-home care. Eligible children are those 18 years old and younger, who have been removed from their parents’ custody and whose families would have been income-eligible under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, the predecessor of TANF. The latter eligibility requirement reflects the fact that the federal foster care program emerged from federal anti-poverty efforts and has always provided reimbursement primarily for the care of poor children. Federal law uses the term “foster care” to apply to all forms of out-of-home care, including family foster care, kinship foster care, and group care. Unlike Title IV-B child welfare services funding, foster care and adoption assistance are means-tested entitlements under Title IV-E, meaning that there is no cap on federal expenditures and states can claim reimbursement for expenses incurred on behalf of all eligible children in the state. Amendments to Title IV-E, beginning in the late 1980s, have added funding for independent living services intended to help foster youth make a successful transition to adulthood, and for education and training vouchers that can be used to support postsecondary education and training. Congressional appropriations for independent living services and education and training vouchers are currently limited by law to $140 million and $60 million per year, respectively. States used approximately $7.5 billion in federal Title IV-E funds in fiscal year 2016 (Rosinsky & Williams, 2018).

Title IV-E embodies the “permanency planning” philosophy that has guided child welfare practice since the enactment of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 and was reinforced by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). In general, states receive IV-E funding only for children in out-of-home care who are placed there by order of the juvenile or family court of the relevant jurisdiction to protect them from abuse or neglect; voluntary child placement agreements between child welfare agencies and parents are eligible only for time-limited federal reimbursement. Title IV-E requires child welfare agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to prevent placement of children in out-of-home care, usually in the form of social services for their families. If the child welfare agency and court deem these efforts unsuccessful and the child enters out-of-home care, the court must approve a “permanency plan” for the child according to timelines provided in Title IV-E. Most commonly, the court requires the child welfare agency to make reasonable efforts to preserve the child’s family of origin, in this case by providing services intended to help reunite the child with the family. In many cases, however, children cannot return to the care of their families. When this happens, the child welfare agency and the court attempt to find another permanent home for the child through adoption or legal guardianship.

Although this basic approach to child welfare practice has been supported by federal law since 1980, ASFA shifted the balance between family preservation and child safety and permanency in a child-focused direction in several ways. ASFA identified circumstances under which courts can waive reasonable effort requirements (e.g., in cases of “chronic abuse”), shortened by six months the time that courts are allowed after a child’s placement to hold a hearing to determine whether to send a child home, and required states, with certain exceptions, to file a petition to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 or more of the most recent 24 months. ASFA also required the federal government to work with states to establish a set of measures of child safety, permanency, and well-being to be used to assess state performance in delivering child welfare services and a mechanism for tying part of state reimbursement under Titles IV-B and IV-E to these outcome measures. This led to the creation of an ongoing process of Child and Family Service Reviews through which the Children’s Bureau compares state performance to a set of national standards and monitors state progress in improving performance.

The Family First Prevention Services Act

The Family First Prevention Services Act was passed into law on February 9, 2018 (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b). This act was designed to establish partnerships between child welfare agencies and community partners to improve outcomes for children and families who come to the attention of public child welfare agencies (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b). Prior to 2012, the number of children residing in out-of-home care had been declining (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020a). However, since 2012, the number of children in out-of-home care has been consistently increasing (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020a). This act is constructed upon three major principles. First is the belief that families who are at risk of having their children removed should be provided with support and services to prevent such removals (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b). Secondly, there is an emphasis placed on maintaining children in the homes of family members, if possible, when removal is necessary (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b). Lastly, the act recognizes the importance of ensuring children and youth who need access to residential treatment services are able to receive said services (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b). The act further establishes provisions to ensure that other populations receive accessible, quality services in a timely fashion. Some of the populations targeted to receive additional services include families impacted by substance abuse, older youth who are making the transition to adulthood, adolescents who are pregnant and/or parenting, and relatives who assume responsibility for caring for their family members when their parents are unable to do so (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b). This legislation expands the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program to provide services for former foster youth up to age 23 (Brown, 2020). The act also institutes new requirements to ensure that effective tools are utilized to deliver quality services. Some of these tools include evidence-based intervention programs, and new mandates for residential treatment programs to improve the quality of the supports and services they provide (Brown, 2020).

This law launches certain provisions to guarantee that the major goals of the legislation are realized. To reduce the risk of children entering the foster care system, Title IV-E funds can now be utilized to provide services to children and families to prevent removal (Brown, 2020). Some of these services include parent skills training, mental health services, and substance abuse prevention and treatment programs. Service providers must also meet new mandates to demonstrate quality assurance. For example, service providers must conduct regular research to prove treatment effectiveness and also demonstrate that clients continue to benefit from treatment services following the conclusion of services (Brown, 2020).

To secure more relative placements, the act establishes that placement with families be prioritized, and that children and youth be placed only in residential treatment settings when in their best interest (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b). Furthermore, additional supports for family members caring for relative children and youth must be established in order to increase placement success. For instance, federal funding is to be used to link relative caregivers with services and resources. Residential settings are now required to meet additional standards to receive funding. Some of these new mandates include integrating family members into the treatment process when possible, and providing follow-up services for a minimum of 6 months after a child or youth leaves a residential treatment setting (Brown, 2020).

To ensure the mandates of this act are successfully implemented, fundamental changes within the public child welfare system are needed. Some of the steps required to complete implementation include having public child welfare agencies establish strong partnerships with community providers and other stakeholders. Further, policies and procedures implemented must consider their impact on families and children first (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b). Another critical purpose of this act is to serve as a starting point for ongoing reform within the public child welfare system (Children’s Defense Fund, 2020b).

Structured Decision-Making

In an attempt to increase the likelihood that children within the public child welfare system are safe, the majority of U.S. states have adopted the use of risk assessment tools to evaluate child safety (Coohey et al., 2012). These empirically based instruments are designed to standardize assessment practices in public child welfare (Wells & Correia, 2012). Assessment tools are utilized to identify and rate a variety of child, family, and environmental factors (Wells & Correia, 2012). Prior to the development of such tools, public child welfare workers frequently depended upon their previous training and experience to evaluate child and family risk factors.

Structured Decision Making (SDM) tools are both empirically based and consensus-based instruments (Wells & Correia, 2012). They are utilized to determine if a child is in imminent danger of being harmed. They provide valuable information to public child welfare workers who need to make immediate decisions regarding what actions to take. Some of the categories that the SDM tool evaluates include:

Whether a child abuse referral should be investigated in person and how quickly the response should occur.

Safety assessments to determine if it is safe for a child to remain in their home and actions needed to ensure the child’s safety.

Family strengths and needs assessments to determine the underlying needs of the child and family and what services would be of benefit.

Reunification assessments to determine if a child who has been removed from their family’s home can be safely returned home at some point in time.

The SDM tool assigns risk scores in a variety of areas. These scores yield an overall assessment rating that can range from low to high risk. Low risk typically means that an official case with the Child Protection Services Agency is not opened, although the family may be provided with services, including referrals to community-based service agencies. High risk indicates that a Child Protective Services case would be opened, and it is likely that a child would be removed from their home to ensure their safety. Cases are deemed as high risk when, for example, a child has been sexually abused and the offender has ongoing access to the child. A case scored as low risk might involve a parent who is feeling overwhelmed, and as a result her children have been arriving late to school, but there are no allegations of child abuse. Areas that are evaluated and scored include:

Safety Threat: An evaluation is taken of the seriousness of any physical injury and if additional abuse such as sexual abuse is suspected.

The Protective Capacities of the Parent/Caregiver: For example, what are the problem-solving abilities of the parent/caregiver, and do they have a history of substance abuse?

Once the SDM tool is completed, the social worker consults with their supervisor and other team members to consider all the information they have gathered to make the best decisions for the child and family. Again, the SDM tool is designed to be used as an instrument to assist child protection workers with the process of making comprehensive and fair evaluations of risk factors present in a child’s/family’s life.

Challenges: The Continuing Influence of Race, Ethnicity, and Cultural Heritage on Child Welfare Policy

The debates between child advocates during the 19th century over whether it was appropriate to try to “save” poor immigrant children from their communities were certainly not the last time that issues of race, ethnicity, and culture came to the fore in discussions of child welfare policy. In recent decades, observers have noted that families and children from immigrant and minority communities often receive treatment that is distinct from that provided to children and families from majority communities and have often been represented in child welfare services populations at rates in excess of their representation in the overall population (Billingsley & Giovannoni, 1972; Courtney et al., 1996; Holt, 2001; Roberts, 2002). This has raised concern on the part of the leaders of these communities and other child welfare advocates. The debate over the proper influence of race, ethnicity, and culture in child welfare practice has contributed over the years to significant changes in child welfare policy.

Even before the passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, the cornerstone of U.S. child welfare policy, Congress saw fit to enact the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978. At that time, advocates had called attention to the fact that courts were removing a high proportion of indigenous children from their families and tribes (25% and higher in some states) and placing them overwhelmingly in non-indigenous settings (Cross et al., 2000; Holt, 2001). There was growing concern that these children were losing their indigenous culture and heritage and that court systems did not take into consideration either the tribal relations of indigenous people or the child-rearing standards of indigenous communities. ICWA established federal standards for the removal of indigenous children from their families and termination of parental rights for children in state care, required state and federal courts to give full faith and credit to tribal court decrees, granted preference to indigenous family environments and settings that reflect indigenous culture in adoptive or foster care placement, and gave tribes exclusive jurisdiction over all indigenous child custody proceedings when requested by the tribe or parent. The law also provides funding and technical assistance to tribes in the operation of child and family service programs. ICWA privileges the importance of heritage and culture in the provision of child welfare services, though critics have questioned whether the law has ever been adequately implemented or funded (Cross et al., 2000).

In contrast, the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA) and the Interethnic Adoption Provisions of the Small Business Job Protection Act of 1996 (IEPA) amended Title IV-E and Title IV-B to severely restrict the ability of child welfare agencies and courts to take into account race, color, or national origin in making foster care or adoption placement decisions. The push for MEPA and IEPA came from advocates concerned about the disproportionate representation of children of color, particularly African American children, in the child welfare system (Brooks et al., 1999). Advocating for a “color-blind” approach to child welfare practice, they argued that the longer length of stay in out-of-home care for minority children was due to delays caused by race-matching policies that existed in some jurisdictions at the time and child welfare practice that favored the placement of children with families that reflected the race and culture of the child. They also argued that available evidence suggested that transracial adoption appeared to convey no lasting harm to children. Opponents of the legislation argued that the disproportionate representation of minority children in out-of-home care had little to do with race-matching policies and that children from minority communities would be harmed if placement practices did not take into account their race, ethnicity, and culture.

Taken together, MEPA and IEPA prohibit states and other entities that receive federal funding and are involved in foster care or adoption placement from delaying, denying, or otherwise discriminating when making a foster care or adoption placement decision on the basis of the parent or child’s race, color, or national origin. They similarly prohibit these entities from categorically denying any person the opportunity to become a foster or adoptive parent solely on the basis of race, color, or national origin of the parent or the child. MEPA allowed an agency to consider the cultural, ethnic, or racial background of a child and the capacity of an adoptive or foster parent to meet the needs of a child with that background as one factor when making a placement, but IEPA repealed that part of the law. MEPA and IEPA also require states to develop plans for recruitment of foster and adoptive families that reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of the children of the state.

Disproportionality Within the Public Child Welfare System

Public child welfare data clearly demonstrates the disproportionate rate at which children of color come into contact with the public child welfare system. For example, 33% of children who reside in the foster care system are African American, while African American children account for only 15% of the total child population (Brown, 2020). Indigenous children and those children of Alaskan Native heritage are also overrepresented. Indigenous/Alaskan Native children make up 2.67% of children residing in the foster care system while representing only 1.0% of the total child population (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2021). Children of color are more likely to be involved in child abuse investigations, to have allegations of child abuse substantiated, and to be placed in foster care when compared to their White counterparts (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2021).

While there has been an acknowledgement of the existence of disproportionality for several years, today many public child welfare professionals, including social workers, and children’s advocacy groups are focused on not only recognizing the issue, but doing something to address it. Public child welfare agencies across the nation are being asked to take action to develop policy and practice behaviors that are designed to reduce the negative effects of disproportionality on children of color, their families, and their communities.

Several theories attempt to explain why disproportionality exists within the public child welfare system. One theory asserts that because families of color are more likely to be living in poverty, and individuals of color are also overrepresented in correctional facilities, children from these families are more likely to come to the attention of public child welfare officials (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011). There is also the premise that preventative services are not as readily available to children and families of color, and even when these services are available, the service providers who deliver them frequently lack cultural humility.

There are two common approaches being utilized to reduce disproportionality. First is providing enhanced training to public child welfare staff, such as training designed to make workers aware of dynamics like implicit bias. There is also an emphasis on using standardized assessment tools to help reduce potential worker bias when assessing a child/family (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011). The utilization of training and assessment tools is crucial, as there are often cultural differences between the worker completing the assessment and the child/family being evaluated (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011).

There has also been an emphasis placed on the types of services that families of color receive. For example, in 1993 Congress approved the Family Preservation and Support Services program to help maintain children in their own homes (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011). The differential response program offers workers the option to provide services to families without having to formally open a public child welfare case. Other programs such as Kinship Care and Team Decision Making can either prevent children of color from entering the foster care system in the first place, or reduce the amount of time a child spends in out-of-home care. Effective policy development, worker training, and more culturally competent practice coupled with the expansion of service programs are all proactive steps that can be taken in an attempt to reduce the occurrence of disproportionality within the public child welfare system.

There are also those individuals and organizations who are advancing a movement to reform and/or eliminate the public child welfare system as it currently exists. Organizations such as the upEND Movement refer to what they call the practice of policing families. They propose improving community conditions and family supports to end the public child welfare policies and practices that they believe harm both families and communities (

Intersecting Issues

McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act

The number of children and youth experiencing homelessness has steadily increased over the last decade. According to national data, there were 1,263,323 homeless children and youth in public schools in the United States during 2014–2015, up from 1,219,818 during the 2012–2013 school year (National Center for Homeless Education, 2017). Historically, the unique educational needs of homeless children and youth have been overlooked. Students who are homeless face challenges to school attendance due to lack of stable housing and face obstacles to graduating or engaging in the academic environment (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017). Homeless families face significant stressors due to limited financial resources, unemployment, or loss of a home from a natural or man-made disaster. Children may run away from home because of abuse and neglect becoming homeless themselves (National Center for Homeless Education, 2017).

The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (1987) was the first piece of federal legislation passed to directly address the well-being of homeless individuals including significant support for homeless children (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017, p. 806). Since then, the act has been reauthorized several times and was renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1999. With each reauthorization, more detailed requirements to help homeless students were added. In 2015, the McKinney-Vento Assistance Act was reauthorized to include the protections and services that homeless children enjoy today (Pavlakis & Duffield, 2017).

Homeless children and youth are defined in the act as lacking a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” (McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 2015). These children may share housing with other families due to economic difficulties or live in motels or shelters (McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 2015). They may live in cars or other places not typically used for housing. Unaccompanied minors who are migrating from their home countries due to poverty and other hardships are also included in the act (McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 2015).

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act aims to ensure that homeless students can access a free, public education like all children. Objectives include providing transportation or enrolling children in school immediately even if they are lacking documentation. Homeless students can attend their original school or a school within their local education area (National Center for Homeless Education, 2017).

This act is significant for families involved in public child welfare. Homeless families living in shelters, including domestic violence shelters, are able to send their children to a school nearby. In the past, children could be removed from their family if they were unable to attend school due to a lack of stability in housing, among other factors. This act provides the flexibility that homeless families need to remain together while ensuring that children receive educational services for their growth and development.

Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act

The SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act (2018) was passed as a direct response to the opioid crisis in the United States and focuses on prevention, recovery, and treatment services for opioid and substance use disorders. The SUPPORT Act has had a significant impact on child welfare. In addition to the provision of housing, telehealth, and food assistance to all Medicaid recipients with opioid use disorder, the act aims to improve care for infants, children, and parents. For example, a provision in the act requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide information on best practices related to infants with neonatal abstinence syndrome. States are also required to provide prenatal services and residential pediatric recovery centers.

The SUPPORT Act also promotes the use of family-focused residential treatment, where children are allowed to reside with the parent receiving treatment for opioid-use disorder. The act requires the HHS to develop and issue guidance to states in their efforts to support and build capacity for family-focused residential substance abuse treatment programs. The HSS is also mandated to guide states on the use of funding to provide and coordinate a range of services, including medication-assisted treatment, case management, family, group, and individual counseling, parenting education and skills development, transitional support, and the provision, assessment, and coordination of care and services for children.

The act also considers the needs of children, adolescents, and young adults. A provision in the act mandates the HHS to support the prevention, treatment, and recovery of children, adolescents, and young adults with substance use disorders. This includes youth who are in foster care, homeless, or out of school, and those at risk of or that have experienced trafficking. The act also supports incarcerated youth. Previously, incarcerated youth were not eligible for Medicaid following their release. The SUPPORT Act suspends—rather than eliminates—their eligibility during incarceration and provides the possibility of reinstating it after their release. The act also allows former foster youth to keep their Medicaid coverage until the age of 26.

Including Parents/Caregivers in the Child Welfare Reform Process

When child tragedies occur, such as the murders of Eliza Izquierdo in 1995 in New York City and Gabriel Fernandez in 2014 in Palmdale, California, many public child welfare agencies adopt the practice that if there are any concerns regarding a child’s safety, it is best to err on the side of caution and remove the child from the parent’s home. In response to this practice, parent organization/advocacy groups have formed across the nation. One such organization began in New York City. The Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP), developed with the goal of ensuring that parents have a greater voice when it comes to the decisions being made by social workers regarding the safety and well-being of their children (Arsham, 2021). Parents from this organization demonstrated when they felt excluded from the decision-making process, educated themselves regarding the child welfare system, and engaged in advocacy efforts. Other programs have been also developed, such as the Parents in Partnership Program within the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. In this program, parents who have firsthand experience with the public child welfare system are partnered with parents just entering the system who are likely feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Parent partners are trained to teach parents about a variety of topics, such as their rights, and also familiarize them with the public child welfare system (Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, 2021).

Social Work Roles and Future Opportunities

Child welfare is one of the largest employers of social workers. The need for qualified social workers working with children and families continues to rise (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). Research has shown that holding a degree in social work equates with better job performance and less turnover among child welfare staff (General Accounting Office, 2003). However, not all child welfare workers who call themselves “social workers” have a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate in social work, and states have moved to “professionalize” the field by passing social worker title protection legislation (Yamada, 2013). However, the field of child welfare continues to struggle to attract workers, having problems with salaries, retention, and high turnover (Madden et al., 2014). Some innovative programs focusing on providing loan forgiveness, sign-on bonuses, and quality supervision have been developed to address this issue; however, work needs to continue (Capacity Building Center for States, n.d.)

Social workers participate in micro practice, such as psychotherapy and case management, and macro practice, such as policy, advocacy, and leadership (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). Macro practice social workers understand the importance of “community structure and dynamics and the intra- and inter-organizational processes that affect the design and delivery of services” and intervene at the organization and community levels (Reisch, 2016, p. 259). Macro practice social workers empower clients to collectively make changes, manage programs, and develop and administer policies (Reisch, 2016). Some social workers are in public office, impacting local, state, and federal changes (National Association of Social Workers, 2021). In addition, policy and advocacy organizations such as Casey Family Programs consult with the child welfare system and lawmakers to improve access to resources for families and address diversity, equity, and inclusion within child welfare.


In summary, child welfare services in the United States have emerged since the mid-19th century out of public concern about protection of children, tempered by a strong preference for allowing parents to raise their own children and a growing inclination to place children in need of out-of-home care in families rather than institutions. Since the 1970s, the federal government has become increasingly involved in funding child welfare services, particularly out-of-home care, and in tying such funding to state compliance with evolving U.S. child welfare policy. Issues related to the disproportionality of families of color involved in public child welfare, the unique needs of families who are homeless, and the rising use of opioids and the impact on families are emerging areas being addressed through new policy and legislation.

Further Reading