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Abolish Child Welfare: What Then?

(Originally published April 2022)

Nationally, child welfare is undergoing a sea change in values, far more profound and consequential than the pendulum swings between an emphasis on child protection or family preservation that regularly occurred in past decades. Many influential advocates, scholars and child welfare leaders have concluded that child welfare interventions – beginning with CPS investigations – have overall destructive effects on low-income families, especially Black and American Indian families, and that child welfare, front to back, is a virtual embodiment of structural racism.


One such group is upEND, a movement of child and parent advocates, scholars, activists and child welfare leaders, some of whose developers are at The Center for Social Policy at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. upEND has published and  otherwise disseminated several articles in recent years calling for the abolition of the US child welfare system, which upEND views as a racist system of family policing."       


Here, upEND provides an articulate statement of this racism-in-child-welfare perspective:


“The child welfare system is predicated on the subjugation, surveillance, control, and punishment of mostly Black and Native communities experiencing significant poverty. … we more accurately refer to this as the family policing system. The system and its supporters portray family policing as a legitimate, supportive helping system … But the history and reality of the system’s impact on the lives of children, families and communities underscores the ways in which the system functions to maintain anti-Blackness, White supremacy, racial capitalism, and colonialism.” (June 18, 2021) 


This quote reflects the strongly ideological tone and substance of upEND and many of its supporters. It is more than an attack on child welfare policies and practices; it is an indictment of the values and goals that underlie U.S. child welfare systems which upEND views as fundamentally destructive of Black and American Indian families. This view suggests that defenders of current child welfare practices are not just in error but morally suspect, given that they defend a racist system. It also explains why upEND  advocates for the abolition of the U.S. child welfare system while acknowledging that “This document is not a prescription with detailed policy and practice recommendation" and why “…the vision for the future of the family policing system must be a vision of abolition.” According to upEND, “The family policing system was built to separate children from their families, and as such, reforms cannot fix a system that is functioning as intended.” If a system has destructive effects on low-income minority families, and no benefits to children, why maintain it? Better to abolish the system and start over by allowing communities rather than experts to design a new system, in the view of upEND proponents.


The angry indictment of child welfare in upEND and in Dorothy Roberts’ new book, Torn Apart, makes it difficult to have a rational, civil debate regarding upEND’s arguments; hard to debate advocates and scholars  who view their critics as racist by intent or as defenders of structural racism, too stubborn to acknowledge the harmful effects of child welfare practices on oppressed minorities. Child welfare debates have become so polarized and heated that anyone who criticizes upEND’s agenda can count on personal attacks and ad hominem arguments which have come to be tolerated, even endorsed, in some academic settings.


Some prestigious child welfare scholars with tenure have published critiques of upEND, with negligible effect to date because social justice-oriented critiques of child welfare are not based on child welfare research (which few people read) but on strongly felt social values that have fundamentally altered in recent years. A concern with child maltreatment and its effects on children has come to be associated with the oppression of Black and American Indian families, and with the coercive treatment of low-income families by child welfare systems, while minimizing the impact of child maltreatment on children’s safety and well-being signals commitment to social justice. This is a formula for unproductive, increasingly ugly conflict among scholars, child advocates and parent advocates which serves no one’s interests.


upEND: the good, the bad and the deplorable


A social justice movement that has gathered widespread support among advocates and child welfare leaders, despite the opposition of prestigious child welfare scholars who have refuted most of upEND’s scholarly claims point by point, must have a powerful experiential basis. The strength of upEND is its indictment of U.S. child protection systems as wide net surveillance systems targeted mostly at low-income families due to the association of child maltreatment, especially neglect, with poverty.  Even some upEND critics agree with this description of U.S. child protection systems. In “Cumulative Rates of Child Protection Involvement and Terminations of Parental Rights in a California Birth Cohort, 1999-2017, Putnam- Hornstein, et al, (2021) assert:


  “ … our findings also highlight known socioeconomic disparities that emerge not only in the cumulative risk of investigations during childhood across all levels of CPS involvement through TPRs. These disparities undoubtedly reflect root causes associated with higher levels of childhood adversities. However, an exclusive focus on poverty and associated risk factors ignores the extent to which official child protection records reflect a system designed – through regulations, statutes and policies -- to do exactly what the numbers reflect; surveil and investigate large numbers of children and families though only a small number will ultimately receive services.”


This sentence could have been taken from an upEND discussion of child welfare.


In some states, 5-10% of all children (0-17) are the subject of a CPS investigation annually. Most of these families are poor and are reported for child neglect, yet CPS investigators usually have few, if any, poverty related services to offer them. This is not a system designed to support families; rather, it is an approach to child protection which is looking widely for maltreated children at risk of imminent harm who may need involuntary foster care placement.


Recent studies have found that more than one-third of all children and more than half of Black and American Indian children are the subject of a CPS investigation by age 18.  Why do most U.S. child protection systems cast a wide net in their screening and investigation of CPS reports but offer little help to needy families? Because these systems were designed in the 1960s and 70s to respond to reports of severely abused young children, and then adapted in subsequent years to investigate reports of neglect and sexual abuse. U.S. child welfare systems were not designed for what they do in most cases, i.e., respond to allegations of child neglect, so it is no surprise that public agencies lack adequate poverty related services to help families reported for child neglect. CPS programs long on coercion but short on family support services are not just inadequate in responding to alleged child neglect, they are oppressive. The upEND indictment of child welfare policies and practices states this perspective strongly; upEND and other social justice-oriented child welfare critics are right that U.S. child protection systems are fundamentally flawed.


Where upEND and most other social justice-oriented critiques of child welfare go off track is in their misrepresentation of child maltreatment,   especially neglect, and in minimizing the effects of severe and chronic abuse and neglect on child safety, well-being, and development and on  maltreated children’s health and mental health across the life span. Specifically:


Child neglect is not “just poverty” even in its situational and intermittent forms and never when neglect is chronic, i.e., both                            frequent and pervasive across childcare domains, and when neglect is combined with physical and/or sexual abuse and                        emotional maltreatment as well. Chronic neglect and chronic maltreatment, i.e., the combination of chronic neglect with abuse and with emotional maltreatment, are almost always connected to chronically relapsing conditions such as substance abuse, mood disorders, and domestic violence.
In chronic neglect and chronic maltreatment, children are living in a condition of pervasive multifaceted maltreatment that includes

deprivation of nurturance.


Chronically neglecting families are poor (often severely poor), but their challenges go far beyond poverty and require much more          than poverty related services.


It is false that large numbers of neglected children are placed in foster care primarily because their parents could not afford to meet       their basic needs. Anyone who has worked in or around child welfare for even a few months should recognize that this is BS. upEND and other child welfare critics who have made this claim should be asked to point to studies with large samples, not anecdotes, to support their argument.


It is not true that most children in foster care have been “neglected only.” Severe and chronic neglect always has elements of emotional maltreatment, e.g., deprivation of nurturance in early childhood; and many chronically neglected children in foster care have been physically and/or sexually abused as well. 


It is not true that foster care typically does more emotional and developmental harm to than growing up with severe or chronic

maltreatment. Loss of a parent is one of the childhood adversities in Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies that can have

lifelong effects on health and mental health, but the same is true of other adversities such as growing up with parental substance abuse,

the chronic mental illness of a parent and DV, along with physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional maltreatment, and neglect. Children in foster care usually have highly elevated ACE scores , i.e., they have been maltreated in multiple ways and their parents have one or more chronically     relapsing conditions such as substance abuse and depression. A recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics “found that 439,072 US deaths are annually attributable to CA (childhood adversities) through associations with the leading causes of death. …Moreover, CA accounted for up to 38% of all suicides.” (Grummitt, et al, 2021).  Chronic maltreatment and the factors with which it is associated increase rates of all-cause mortality across the life span.


Most of what upEND and like-minded critics have to say about foster care outcomes is not balanced or credible with one important exception: US foster care systems are not therapeutic, and sometimes not safe, for behaviorally troubled school age children and youth who experience multiple placements, are placed at young ages on psychotropic medications and bullied by stronger youth in residential care facilities. Some of these youth, disproportionately Black and American Indian, are emotionally harmed and sometimes abused or neglected in foster care or congregate care. The public policy question is what to do about this:  first undermine and then destroy congregate care, and follow by doing the same to foster care, or do whatever is necessary to make foster care a safe and therapeutic experience for behaviorally troubled youth?


upEND and its supporters want to eliminate congregate care without developing – or even proposing – a realistic alternative.  They also would eliminate involuntary foster care. What would then happen to 40-50,000 infants and other preschool children who enter foster care in the U.S. annually when parents who have severely or chronically abused or neglected their children refuse services, or any offer of help? upEND(to date)does not have a satisfactory answer to this question.


A movement which believes the public policy concern with child maltreatment is exaggerated and little more than an excuse for disrupting Black and American Indian families has come to have an outsized voice in discussions of child welfare transformation. The result has been to align social justice-oriented critiques of child welfare with a discounting, a virtual denial, of the impact of child maltreatment (including chronic neglect) on child safety and development and on maltreated children’s health and mental health across the life span.


What Can Be Done?


There is one change in states’ statutory definitions of neglect that has the potential to transform child welfare systems by changing their mission and values. Currently, legal definitions of neglect typically refer to the “failure”, “fault” or “refusal” of parents to meet their children’s basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, medical/dental care and supervision. Some (but not all) states provide a poverty exception in that a parent’s inability to provide for a child’s basic needs due to poverty is not grounds for a finding of neglect. There is not a single statute that follows its definitions of neglect with the requirement that “when parents are unable to meet their child’s basic needs (as set forth in statute) due to poverty, the public agency must assist parents to access needed resources in the community, and if such resources are not available the public agency must provide funding for essential resources.” Policymakers have been careful to say nothing in law regarding a public responsibility to assist low-income parents reported to CPS to meet the basic needs of children. Every state’s neglect statute should be amended to make provision for children’s basic needs a parental/public responsibility.


This one change, along with the resources needed to implement it and a strong commitment among child welfare staff to follow both the spirit and intent of law, would fundamentally alter child protection programs which primarily investigate families but provide little (if any) family support services. Child protection programs would (by law)take on a new mission of helping low-income families to adequately feed, clothe, house, and find childcare for children, as needed.  Definitions of neglect would be based on an understanding of children’s needs, not on parental failure or fault to meet those needs due to lack of economic resources. CPS reports could notbe substantiated for neglect due to poverty, nor would parents’ inability to feed, clothe or house children be grounds for involuntary foster placement. I will discuss the funding issues raised by this proposal in next month’s Sounding Board.


It is also important to reduce the CPS use of coercion when child maltreatment is not severe or chronic, and to enable public health   

departments and mental health agencies to reach out to substance abusing or mentally ill parents with an offer of services before a CPS report is received on the family, or as soon after a CPS report is opened

for investigation as possible. CPS should never be the first or only contact by a public agency with a troubled family.


In past years, some child welfare critics (e.g.,  Leroy Pelton)advocated that law enforcement agencies be given total responsibility for CPS investigations, and that child welfare agencies be transformed into family support programs without responsibility for involuntary child removal. Other critics recommended that preventive programs be administered by a family support agency parallel to – but different from – the existing child welfare system. I am opposed to both proposals. Law enforcement agencies have zero interest in chronic neglect, an extremely harmful type of child maltreatment that sometimes requires use of legal structure and involuntary foster placement. Child welfare agencies must be empowered and better resourced to respond vigorously to chronic neglect and chronic maltreatment, the most difficult therapeutic challenge facing public child welfare systems in the U.S.


Child welfare agencies have been slow to develop effective responses to chronic neglect. A single overwhelmed CPS caseworker with inadequate emotional support or access to necessary services cannot possibly make a dent on chronic neglect and chronic maltreatment. A CPS caseworker needs to work in a case management team with a substance abuse treatment specialist, a mental health therapist, public health nurse and parent advocate who share responsibility for 20-25 families, and who ideally are housed together in a family support center. These teams should use family empowerment practice models such as “Safe Baby” courts and Family Treatment Drug Courts when legal structure is required for child safety.


It should be possible to use foster care as a voluntary family support service for at least 6 months with preschool children and 1 year with school age youth when legal structure is not necessary for child safety.  Foster parents should be paid to coach and support a child’s parent during the reunification process. A parent reunified with a legally dependent child should receive the same support payments that adoptive parents receive for at least 2 years following return of a child to the parent’s custody.


Is it possible for child welfare agencies with coercion in their organizational DNA to become large scale family support agencies that make greater use of voluntary partnerships with parents? upEND believes that ‘supportive child welfare’ in the U.S. is an oxymoron, but this is the change that needs to occur without eliminating the legal protections for severely maltreated children.  If child welfare systems prove unable to change their operating paradigm from large elements of coercion and small elements of family support to the opposite, then they deserve to be abolished–but not until they are put to this test. 




Grummitt, L, Kreski, N., Kim, S., Platt, J., Keyes, K., McLaughlin, K., “Association of Childhood Adversity with Morbidity and Mortality in US Adults,” (2021), JAMAPediatrics, 2320, published online, October 4, 2021.


“How We endUP: A future Without Family Policing, June 18, 2021.


Putnam-Hornstein, E., Ahn, E., Prindle,J., Magruder,J., Webster, D. Wildeman, C., “Cumulative Rates of Child Protection Involvement and Terminations of Parental Rights,” (2021), American Journal of Public Health, 111, pp. 1157-63.

See past Sounding Board commentaries     

©Dee Wilson 


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