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Estimating the Costs of a Reimagined Child Welfare System 

(Originally published May 2022)

It may be useful to begin a discussion of the costs, both financial and political, of fundamental child welfare reform with a few multiple-choice questions: 


1.  What is the total expenditure of US local and state governments and the federal government on public child welfare:

(a) 17 billion dollars (b) 33 billion dollars (c) 66 billion dollars (d) 132 billion dollars?


2.  What percentage of total governmental expenditures on child welfare is funded by the federal government: 

(e) 60% (f) 52% (g) 44% (h) 36%?


3.  What amount is the total federal budget for the current fiscal year:

(i) $1.65 trillion dollars (j) $3.3 trillion dollars(k) $5.5 trillion dollars (l) $6.8 trillion dollars? 


4.  What percentage of the federal government’s budget is devoted to discretionary spending:

(m) 20% (n) 30%(o) 40% (p) 50%? 


The correct answers are:1- b; 2 - g; 3-l; 4 - m.  A 2021 Child Trends report asserts that during FY 2018, all U.S. governmental entities expended $33 billion dollars on public child welfare; 56% of this amount came from state and local governments, 44% from the federal government. In other words, in FY 2018 the federal government spent less than 15 billion dollars on child welfare. 


The most recent federal budget is $6.8 trillion dollars, one-fifth of which is usually regarded as discretionary spending. However, what budget writers view as discretionary is a public policy decision. Child welfare expenditures are a small fraction of one percent of the total federal budget and a little more than one percent of discretionary expenditures. It is not the fiscal costs that stand in the way of sweeping child welfare reform; rather, it is the political resistance to any large increase in funding of child welfare systems under attack from multiple directions, and widely viewed as failed systems in the same category of dysfunction as Mexico’s law enforcement agencies. Here is a ‘tried and true’ formula for undermining confidence in any type of human services in the US:

systematically underfund public agencies until even persons who strongly believe in their mission are fed up with mediocre performance, then refuse to make major investments in system improvements until public agencies demonstrate improved outcomes.


Why invest in a remodel of the Titanic when the ship is already sinking? 


Given this passive aggressive way of limiting the fiscal requirements of public service agencies, policymakers are likely to consider the possibility of large new investments in human services only when advocates, scholars and practitioners are genuinely excited about and in agreement regarding a dramatic proposed change in public child welfare. Years of behind-the-scenes discussion among staff of influential organizations and foundations were required to pass Family First legislation, believed (wrongly) by some advocates to be transformational. Family First was acceptable to policymakers at the federal level because the estimated costs were modest, a few billion dollars at the outside, hardly a concern to budget writers pulling together trillion-dollar budgets. The political costs of Family First were as much of a concern to policymakers as the potential fiscal costs. 


Currently, child and parent advocates are divided between those who want to abolish the current system and start over in law and policy and those who want to reform existing policies and practices while maintaining key elements of child protection and child welfare such as mandatory reporting, CPS investigations, foster placements with legal structure and ASFA timelines. It is likely that both sides of this debate can stop reforms they don’t like, but that neither side can muster the political influence toenact their reform agenda into law. Child welfare may become another area of U.S. social policy that devolves into a rancorous political impasse. 


Reimagining child welfare     


In last month’s commentary, I proposed transforming child welfare systems from public agencies that employ a large degree of coercion in their child protection programs, while providing a thin array of family support services (especially poverty related services), to large scale family support agencies that utilize coercion as a last resort. The easiest way to achieve this changeis to revise states’ neglect statutes to make providing for the basic needs of children a joint parental/public responsibility. State law should require public child welfare agencies to assist low-income parents in accessing essential resources in the community, or in the absence of assistance from other public and private agencies, to fund these resources as needed. Child welfare agencies would be funded to provide a wide array of concrete services, e.g., food, clothing, housing, transportation, medical and dental care, childcare to parents reported for child neglect. What might be the fiscal cost of a change in law of this magnitude? 


The best way to determine likely costs would be to pilot this proposed change in law in several states around the country. In the meantime, policymakers could model likely costs by assuming the following: 


  • U.S. child welfare agencies provide services other than investigation / assessment to no more than one-third of screened in families. Some of these families, possibly as much as 25%, would not need poverty related services but could benefit from other family support services such as an evidence-based parenting program. In Washington State, possibly 10,000-12,000 families per year would likely need one or more poverty related services. Some of these families would be eligible for public benefits they are not receiving. Child welfare agencies could hire a cadre of financial specialists to assist parents with applications for various types of public benefits, e.g., TANF, Medicaid, food stamps, childcare. 

  • States could begin by budgeting an average of $3000 per year for 25% of screened in families; a $3000 average, not a lid. Some families would receive a few hundred dollars at most while others, e.g., homeless families, would receive much more than $3000 annually. The DCYF budget would provide $35-40 million dollars per year to fund poverty related services for families with screened in CPS reports and funding for at least 12 financial specialists. 

  • Washington State’s child population of 1.75 million is about 2.5% of the US child population. 100% divided by 2.5% is 40. When a Washington State expenditure of $40 million dollars annually is multiplied by 40, the annual cost nationally for poverty related services would be $1.6 billion dollars. However, Washington’s rate of CPS response per1000 is much lower than some states, for example, Florida’s CPS response rate per 1000 children is almost 3 times greater than Washington’s. Therefore, it would be prudent to increase the estimate of total costs nationally by 50% to $2.4 billion dollars. If the federal government reimburses sixty percent of the costs of poverty related services, the cost would be close to $1.4 billion dollars annually, with $1 billion dollars funded by states or counties. 


However, adding $2-3 billion dollars of poverty related services is only the first step in a series of reforms required to create competent, professional, and humane child welfare systems dedicated both to family support and child protection. More than three decades of failed child welfare reform initiatives should have taught policymakers and advocates one key lesson: no programmatic initiative, however praiseworthy, leads to positive change without large investments in workforce and workforce development. Agencies must be adequately staffed, and caseworkers and supervisors paid professional salaries for any program or policy to be effectively implemented. The unwillingness, or refusal, to apply this principle to reform initiatives in most states has repeatedly led to the failure of all manner of 

child welfare reforms which might well have had a powerful positive effect on child welfare practice if they had been adequately staffed and implemented by a professional well supported workforce.        


Concretely, this means that caseworker salaries must begin (not top out) at $50-60,000, and top pay for experienced caseworkers and supervisors a decade later must be close to six figures, not $70,000. It also means adopting workload standards derived from workload studies and applying these standards rigorously, not by averaging caseloads in various offices, but through lids that cannot be exceeded for longer than 2-3 months. It means paying caseworkers in dangerous jobs hazard pay and giving them periodic extended breaks from case assignment. A workforce that is mismanaged through compliance-oriented rules and by suppressing initiative and exploited through excessive workloads and denial of overtime pay will never transform child welfare, even with vastly improved services. 


In addition, foster care systems have been underfunded for decades and, recently, undermined by child welfare leaders who equate reductions in foster care with exemplary management, an idea which in Washington and several other states has led to systemic abuse of foster youth in hotel and office placements, 24- hour placements and out-of-state placements of foster youth residential care programs.

For almost two decades, the main reform strategy among top child welfare managers has been to reduce the number of children in foster care and costly residential care facilities and use the resulting savings to fund expanded family support programs. Family First reflects this approach to reform, which is misguided because foster care systems require large investments to provide therapeutic care for behaviorally troubled youth. In retrospect, Family First would be better public policy if the law required that “all savings which states achieve by reducing the number of children in congregate care must be reinvested in professional foster care until the state’s child welfare agency has the capacity to place behaviorally troubled and disabled children and youth in humane settings.” Child welfare leaders should cease and desist promising policymakers that innovative family support programs can be financed with foster care savings until their agency has developed adequate therapeutic resources for youth already in foster care. 


Effective and enlightened child welfare reform cannot be limited to increased funding for child welfare systems. When a report to CPS is the only available means for mandated reporters and other concerned persons to initiate outreach to troubled and needy families, child protection programs are overused to respond to a wide range of children’s needs that fit poorly into the U.S. child protection framework, i.e., CPS reports, investigations/assessments of allegations of maltreatment of a child. This is often a poor approach for outreach to families with a disabled or behaviorally troubled child, or in families with DV, parent-child conflict, post-partem depression or prenatal substance abuse. A main goal of child welfare reform should be to strengthen the capacity of public health departments, public mental health systems and DV crisis intervention services. CPS should never be the first and/or only response to parents of young children who need assistance with parenting. Several decades of ‘head in the sand’ neglect of human service systems by state governments and the federal government has dug a deep hole of need from which there is no easy exit. This challenge requires a strategic plan with four main goals: 


A.  Transform child welfare systems into family support programs with a wide arrayof poverty related servicesand the mandate to assist low-income parents as needed to meet the basic needs of children. There should be a policy preference for voluntary partnerships of public agencies and parents, while retaining the authority to take legal action when necessary.  


B.   Develop a professional well supported workforce by raising salaries, applying reasonable workload standards, encouraging,and rewarding initiative rather than suppressing it and by decreasing – rather than steadily adding to – prescriptive policies and procedures. 


C. Create a therapeutic foster care system by investing in limited residential care improvements and by developing a cadre of professional foster parents, either by employing them in child welfare agencies or by paying rates for care of behaviorally troubled youth that allows a foster parent to devote herself/himself to foster parenting full time. Start with the goal of licensing 5-10% of foster homes as “professional foster parents.” 


D. Strengthen the capacity of public health departments and public mental health systems to provide outreach to families before or immediately after a CPS report is received. The classification of “child in need” should be added to child protection statutes, and the definition of child protection should be expanded – not narrowed – to include challenges/needs other than parental or caregiver abuse and neglect.


The cost of these reforms over a decade would far exceed $2-3 billion dollars per year. Policymakers and child welfare leaders must recognize that human service systems underfunded for decades will require large new investments to transform and be reinvigorated. The guiding principle I propose is that policymakers set a goal of increasing child welfare spending by 50% over a decade, i.e., to about $50 billion dollars annually, not counting inflation. Improvements must be made steadily and incrementally over at least a decade, not in 2-3 years and not without clear goals in mind. 


Some readers may view these proposals as completely unrealistic, but if this is so, it’s not due to the fiscal costs of child welfare transformation. Rather, it will be because policymakers and advocates do not agree with the values implicit in this reform agenda, especially the idea that providing for the basic needs of children should become a joint parent/public responsibility, or that child welfare caseworkers should be treated and paid as professionals, or that the country needs a therapeutic foster care system, or that public health and public mental health

agencies should be given a larger role in an expanded and less coercive approach to child protection.  When or if there is a critical mass of advocates and child welfare leaders who embrace these goals, governments will find the necessary funding and brag about doing so. 


The main political hazard of changing current child protection programs into family support programs funded and mandated to assist poor families with poverty related services is creating a red/blue divide in child welfare reform. Until recently, both red and blue states have been united in their commitment to intervene in family life on behalf of abused and neglected children. The modern child welfare system was created in law 50-60 years ago through widespread denial of the association between poverty and child maltreatment. That denial has had many unintended deleterious consequences, including a dearth of poverty related services and a willingness in policy and practice to hold low-income parents accountable for poverty related neglect and the preference for legal structure rather than voluntary partnerships with parents. It is no longer possible to generate unified political support for a child welfare system that operates in this misguided way. Anger and disgust with the effect of coercive child welfare policies on low-income families, and especially on oppressed minorities, has led some social justice advocates to minimize the harm to children resulting from child maltreatment.       


It is past time to imagine a better approach to child protection, not however by denying or minimizing the devastating impact of chronic neglect and other types of severe and chronic maltreatment on children of all ages and not by throwing caution to the winds.    ©





Rosinsky, K., Williams, S., Fischer, M. & Haas, M., “Child Welfare Financing 2018: A survey of federal, state and local expenditures,” Child Trends, March 2021.  


See past Sounding Board commentaries     

©Dee Wilson 


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