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date: 24 October 2021

Child Welfare: History and Policy Frameworkfree

Child Welfare: History and Policy Frameworkfree

  • Mark E. CourtneyMark E. CourtneyUniversity of Chicago


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. That child welfare services are disproportionately directed toward members of ethnic and racial minorities has been an enduring concern.


  • Children and Adolescents
  • Policy and Advocacy

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 in order 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, who 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, Henry Bergh (NYSPCA) (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 SPCCs 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 (that is, 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 Native American children from their homes from the late 19th to mid-20th century, and placing them 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 placing 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). 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 U.S.

Today, child welfare services are provided by state and local public child welfare agencies and by voluntary agencies, the latter receiving most or all of their funding from government sources. 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. Some key U.S. laws influencing the provision of child welfare services are described below.

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.

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 over $23 billion in fiscal year 2004, with at least $11.7 billion in federal funds from Titles IV-A, IV-B, IV-E, IXX, and XX of the Social Security Act accounting for approximately 96% of those expenditures (Scarcella, Bess, Zielweski, & Geen, 2006). Private sources also provide an unknown, but relatively small, amount of funding for child welfare services in the United States.

Title IV-B and Title IV-E

Titles IV-B and IV-E account for over half of federal 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.

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 program (AFDC), 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 education and training vouchers that can be used to support post-secondary 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 $5.8 billion in total Title IV-E funds in fiscal year 2004 (Scarcella et al., 2006).

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 only receive IV-E funding for children in out-of-home care who are placed there by order of the juvenile or family court of the relevant jurisdiction in order to protect them from abuse or neglect; voluntary child placement agreements between child welfare agencies and parents are only eligible 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, consistent with the goals of Title IV-E, 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 a number of ways. ASFA identified circumstances under which courts can waive reasonable effort requirements (for example, 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.

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 Indian children from their families and tribes (25% and higher in some states) and placing them overwhelmingly in non-Indian settings (Cross, Earle, & Simmons, 2000; Holt, 2001). There was growing concern that these children were losing their Indian culture and heritage and that court systems did not take into consideration either the tribal relations of Indian people or the child-rearing standards of Indian communities. ICWA established federal standards for the removal of Indian 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 Indian family environments and settings that reflect Indian culture in adoptive or foster care placement, and gave tribes exclusive jurisdiction over all Indian 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, Barth, Bussiere, & Patterson, 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.


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.


  • Billingsley, A., & Giovannoni, J. M. (1972). Children of the storm: Black children and American child welfare. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
  • Bremner, R. (Ed.). (1970). Children and youth in America: A documentary history (Vol. 1, pp. 1600–1865). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Brooks, D., Barth, R. P., Bussiere, A., & Patterson, G. (1999). Adoption and race: Implementing the multiethnic placement act and the interethnic adoption provisions. Social Work, 44(2), 167–78.
  • Costin, L. B. (1991). Unraveling the Mary Ellen legend: Origins of the “cruelty” movement. Social Service Review, 65(2), 203–23.
  • Costin, L. B. (1992). Cruelty to children: A dormant issue and its rediscovery, 1920–1960. Social Service Review, 66(2), 177–98.
  • Courtney, M. E., Barth, R. P., Berrick, J. D., Brooks, D., Needell, B., & Park, L. (1996). Race and child welfare services: Past research and future directions. Child Welfare, 75(2), 99–137.
  • Cross, T. A., Earle, K. A., & Simmons, D. (2000). Child abuse and neglect in Indian country: Policy issues. Families in Society, 81(1), 49–58.
  • Holt, M. I. (2001). Indian orphanages. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
  • O'Connor, S. (2001). Orphan trains: The story of Charles Loring Brace and the children he saved and failed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Roberts, D. (2002). Shattered bonds: The color of child welfare. New York: Basic Books.
  • Scarcella, C. A., Bess, R., Zielweski, E. H., & Geen, R. (2006). The cost of protecting vulnerable children V: Understanding state variation in child welfare financing. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
  • U.S. Children's Bureau. (1967). The story of the White House conferences on children and youth. Washington, DC: Author.

Further Reading

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families. (2006). The AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2005 estimates as of September 2006. Retrieved November 6, 2007, from
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children's Bureau (2006). Child Welfare Information Gateway.