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Advancing  Social Justice in Child Welfare Reform    

(Originally published October 2020)

This commentary is the fifth in a series on social justice reform in child welfare. Previous commentaries have discussed the relationship between and among poverty, race, power, caste and child welfare policy and practice; considered revisions to the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA);  and took issue with some ideas and recommendations frequently found in social justice oriented reform agendas. This commentary outlines a comprehensive child welfare reform agenda from prevention to permanency based on social justice principles.  


What is social justice?


John Rawls (1921-2002) was an American philosopher whose political philosophy greatly influenced recent discussions of social justice. Rawls’ view of social justice has two main components: (1) justice as fairness, i.e., equal opportunity for all, and (2) justice as promoting equal opportunity for the least advantaged members of a society.  Applied to child welfare, these principles target the highly unequal economic and social conditions of low-income families, conditions (including structural racism) which make a mockery of ideals of equal opportunity and call attention to punitive policies and practices that protect children by disrupting families, often permanently.


Current child welfare policies and practices ignore the social conditions that lead to family breakdown and increase the risk of child maltreatment, while utilizing unnecessarily coercive practices that often do more harm than good. It is the combination of indifference to harsh social conditions associated with family breakdown and a reliance on coercive practices from CPS investigations through termination of parental rights that is intolerable to social justice advocates. Child welfare reform oriented around social justice principles must address both the social conditions that lead to elevated rates of child welfare involvement and, whenever possible, reduce the use of coercion  without endangering children.  However, social justice is not advanced by minimizing the harms of child maltreatment; or ignoring children’s need for permanency.  Furthermore,  commitment to social justice requires a concern with child well-being rather than a  narrow focus on child safety, defined as an absence of child maltreatment, and timely permanent planning for children in foster care.  Safety from parental maltreatment and permanency are dimensions of child well-being, not alternative goals that allow public agencies to ignore the conditions essential for positive child development.     


Changing social conditions


Currently, child welfare policy and practice ignores child poverty (including 15-20% rates of severe poverty for black and Native American families), family homelessness, the child care burden on low income single parents, food insecurity during the pandemic for at least one-fifth of children in the U.S.,  and lack of medical/dental coverage for millions of Americans. Prevention programs that depend on case findings and on brief (often one time only) economic assistance can never be an adequate response to these conditions.  


In his recent book, Invisible Americans: The Tragic Costs of Child Poverty,  Jeff Madrick argues that the quickest most efficient way to reduce child poverty is through cash allowances of $300-400 per month per child.  Currently, Madrick asserts that “nearly 6 million children live in families that earn half or less of the official poverty line,”, i.e., deep poverty, and 3 million children live on $2 day in cash and food stamps. It is grotesque public policy for a wealthy country to expend billions of dollars annually on child protection while allowing millions of children to go without adequate food and necessities.


Madrick asserts:  “A main reason other wealthy nations have sharply lowered child poverty rates is that almost all of them provide cash allowances, without conditions, to all children. Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania Slovakia, Sweden, and the U.K. all do so.” Madrick believes that cash allowances must be universal to sustain broad political support for this policy.  He estimates that the annual cost of cash allowances for all children in the U.S. would be $100-200 billion dollars per year. By lowering the child poverty rate by half, this one policy has the potential to transform child welfare by reducing both child poverty and severe poverty that leaves families on the verge of destitution, or homeless without adequate food and medical/dental care.      


Combining cash with no cost or low-cost childcare for all families with incomes below 250% of the federal poverty standard would have a dramatic impact on the childcare burden for low income families, especially poor single parent families. A 2008 study of racial disproportionality in Washington State found that 80% of children in foster care came from single parent families. Any effective plan to safely reduce the number of preschool children in foster care must reduce the childcare burden on single parent families.


There are many other policies which would improve the lives of low- income families, especially subsidized housing programs. However, Madrick makes a convincing argument that an all court press of multiple supports quickly becomes “politically unwieldy.” A small set of policies that increase the income of low income families with children, eliminate destitution and food insecurity, and reduce the economic and emotional burden of child care on families with limited resources would reduce stress on low income parents, and inhibit the process of family breakdown that often results from desperation and hopelessness.           


Prevention and early intervention


Both states and the federal government should adopt the policy guideline that CPS will never be the initial or only intervention for troubled families. Currently, many state child welfare systems (not Washington State) have broad screening guidelines that allow all manner of concerns about children to be accepted for CPS investigation.  In the absence of alternatives, states are overusing child protection systems to respond to a wide range of parenting problems in the same way that police departments have been used (ineffectively) to respond to crises resulting from chronic mental illness and homelessness. One of the most distressing child welfare research findings of recent years is that more than a third of American children, and 50-60% of black and Native American children, are the subject of a CPS report by age 18.  CPS surveillance of low-income parents and of black and Native American families of this magnitude is not an effective or socially just means of delivering a broad range of family support services.     


Child welfare reform should include building robust public health and mental health systems with the capacity to provide outreach to parents receiving publicly funded substance abuse or mental health services, and to families involved in recurrent domestic violence, with an offer of voluntary services before (if possible) a CPS report is received on the family, or immediately following the first accepted or screened out CPS report.  It is more important to increase the capacity of public health and mental health agencies than to bet the bank on taking one or more evidence-based programs (such as home visitation) to scale.


Implementing evidence-based programs is something public health and public mental health agencies can do once they have the capacity to provide a wide range of community supports.   


Public and private agencies should collaborate to develop family support centers that house multiple agencies in a structure that facilitates utilization of multidisciplinary interagency teams. The policy goal should be to encourage troubled parents to reach out for help rather than waiting for a CPS report. A key indicator of whether child welfare reform has created a less threatening environment for families is the extent to which parents seek out help rather than avoiding the scrutiny of community agencies due to their fear of CPS.  


Revising State Statutes


Currently, states’ legal definitions of neglect emphasize parental failure to provide for children’s basic needs, while (in many states) including a poverty exception when parents’ inadequate care of children is due to economic limitations. As currently written, states’ neglect statutes do not require public child welfare agencies to connect low income parents with community agencies that can assist them with food, housing, medical/dental care, etc., or provide funds for essential concrete services when they are unavailable in a community.  In my experience, caseworkers and supervisors vary greatly in their commitment to helping families in need. Some state child welfare systems have zero funding for poverty related services while others may be able to assist families with up to $1000 in one-time only assistance. This is a deficient policy framework for a country in which 70-80% of child victims of substantiated maltreatment are neglected.



A useful guideline for social justice child welfare reform is as follows:     


1) Recreate a child welfare system fully equipped and able to respond effectively to neglect, rather than depending on laws and policies developed to rescue severely physically abused and sexually abused children from their abusive parents.  


Child welfare policy and practice should be adapted to conditions on the ground rather than structuring child welfare around extreme cases of physical and sexual abuse. Child welfare restructuring should begin with revisions to neglect statutes which require much larger investments in poverty related services and community collaboration. Caseworkers should be trained (per recommendation of Anthony Loman) to regard reports of low-level neglect as “occasions of assistance,” to head off the development of chronic neglect, a much more difficult therapeutic challenge.


2) Parent Mentors/Advocates


Child welfare agencies should contract with private agencies to provide parent mentors/advocates for any family opened for post-investigation services. Investments in programs such as Washington State’s Parent Child Assistance Program (PCAP), a paraprofessional home visitation program for pregnant substance abusing women, or for mothers who have recently given birth, should be increased. Advisory groups of parents who have been successfully reunited with their child following foster placement should be developed and utilized to recommend ways of improving reunification practices.  


3) Therapeutic Childcare Programs


Every medium to large city should have a therapeutic childcare program, such as Seattle’s Childhaven, to provide trauma informed care to at-risk children. Chronically neglected children who remain in the  parents’ home (and most do) should be enrolled in an educationally oriented childcare program that understands the fundamentals of developmental repair. (see Reference section)  


4) Pregnant and Parenting Women Treatment (PPT) Programs


PPT residential programs for substance abusing women and their babies have been around for at least two decades.  However, most states have made limited investments in these programs, partly due to cost. Family First legislation that allows federal IV-E funds to be used to prevent placements of “candidates for foster care” has created the opportunity to greatly expand PPT capacity in order to safely reduce the number of infants placed in foster care.  Currently, approximately one-fifth of children who enter foster care are 0-1.


5) Research Regarding In-home Safety Plans


In-home safety planning is arguably the weakest part of U.S. child protection programs, in part because of a lack of research around safety planning practices during recent decades. During the 1990’s and early 2000’s, research of in-home safety planning became entangled in  scholarly debates regarding crisis-oriented family preservation programs, such as Homebuilders.  As family preservations programs fell into political disfavor, scholarly interest in safety planning declined. In recent years, child welfare agencies have relied almost totally on practice wisdom for guidance regarding in-home safety planning, an approach which has never provided adequate guidance to caseworkers and supervisors in this critical area of practice.  I have heard supervisors in some states scoff at in-home safety plans which “are not worth the paper they’re written on,” if indeed there is a written plan. In many states, caseworkers have been trained and directed to utilize safety plans only if a child is in “present danger”, a guideline that has no support in research and is imprudent in the extreme.  Safe reductions in foster care will require a large investment of time and energy in practice-based research of in-home safety plans for children whose parents have chronically relapsing conditions such as substance abuse and mood disorders, or DV.  


6) Foster Care


Social justice/racial justice child welfare reform initiatives, without exception, have sought to reduce the number of children in foster care.   Casey Family Programs adopted the goal of reducing foster care by half by 2020 more than a decade ago; a target that was undone by the opioid epidemic, but nevertheless continues to animate the foundation’s work with state child welfare systems. Annie E. Casey has persistently advocated for reductions in use of congregate care, and successfully lobbied for inclusion of onerous regulations in Family First that may undermine the capacity of public and private agencies to provide congregate care for behaviorally troubled youth within a decade. The upEND movement recommends the elimination of  congregate care without offering a specific alternative.


Neither of the Casey foundations, or upEND,  has offered alternatives to a failed volunteer foster care business model, or other cogent ideas for foster care reform other than better support for kinship care. I question whether these social justice advocates seek to improve state foster care systems, which are in disarray and crisis due to acute and chronic shortages of foster homes.  The idea has been to shrink foster care systems through placement prevention, not improve them; and, in Washington State, to drive residential care providers out of business through inadequate reimbursement.    


I have a different view. Foster care reform must be a part of any effective social justice reform initiative. There is currently no viable alternative to foster care for many thousands of American children. This situation is unlikely to change during the next decade. State child welfare systems should set the goal of developing foster care systems that are therapeutic for behaviorally troubled children by creating a cadre of professional foster parents, i.e., 15-20% of licensed foster parents who are either salaried or compensated for care at much higher rates than other foster parents. In addition, state child welfare systems should collaborate with stakeholders to develop standards for therapeutic foster care; and invest in the implementation of the few evidence-based models that already exist.    


In addition, child welfare systems should repurpose the use of foster care by (a) recruiting and compensating foster parents to mentor and  coach parents of children in foster care, and (b) utilizing foster care as a family support service by encouraging utilization of voluntary placement agreements for school age children, especially behaviorally troubled children who need temporary therapeutic out-of-home care.  


7) Reunification


ASFA should be revised to legislate a policy preference for reunification over adoption through utilization of incentives to states for safe and stable reunifications. Both the federal government and states should make large investments in Safe Baby courts and in Family Treatment Drug Courts for parents of legally dependent children in foster care. Parents of a legally dependent child in foster care should be provided financial support equal to adoption support payments for two years following reunification.  


8) ASFA Timelines and Termination of Parental Rights


ASFA timelines for reunification should be extended to 24 months for school age children and youth, in order to encourage use of voluntary placement agreements (rather than legal structure) for the first year of foster placement, absent good reason to proceed quickly to termination of parental rights.




These substantive recommendations cannot be effectively implemented without large investments in workforce development  (e.g. workload controls and certification programs) and in how public child welfare agencies are managed, i.e. through ever increasing policy frameworks and top-down bureaucratic structures that discourage initiative at the unit and office level.  Any social justice reform initiative that ignores how child welfare systems are currently managed - and mismanaged - will be undermined by inadequate implementation.    




Gearity, A., "Developmental Repair: A Paradigm Shift for Intervention with At-risk Children" (2012), available online.


Kim, H., Wildeman, C., Jonson-Reid, M. & Drake, B., “Lifetime Prevalence of Investigating Child Maltreatment Among US Children,” American Journal of Public Health, 107 (2), February 2017.


Loman, L.A. “Families Frequently Encountered by Child Protective Services,”  (2006) Institute for Applied Research,  Institute for Applied Research, St. Louis, Mo.


Madrick, J., "Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty" (2020), Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.


Rawls, J., "A Theory of Justice" (1971), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts


"The Impact of Coronavirus on Food Insecurity in 2020, Feeding America," October 2020, available at

Past Sounding Board commentaries can be accessed here

©Dee Wilson 


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