Imagining Child Welfare

(Originally published July 2012)

Planning exercises are endemic in child welfare agencies, including development of lengthy 'planning to plan' documents and five year strategic plans that have no chance of being implemented, but imagining possible futures is rarely done.  Nevertheless, imagination is connected to hopes and fears in a way that rational analysis is not, and therefore has the potential to generate excitement and commitment to goals that may seem fanciful or even fantastical, at least initially.


Imagining a state of affairs one has never experienced or observed is more difficult than it sounds. The present (and recent experience)  acts like gravity on the imagination, and when imagination is rarely exercised considerable effort may be required to imaginatively leap a small distance off the 'ground' of current conditions.  I have occasionally taken part in visioning exercises in which accomplished participants mostly imagined doing more in child welfare of what (in their experience) works and less of what they viewed as ineffective, for example, more community collaboration and less congregate care. In addition, as James Whittaker has commented, “…the United States remains largely insular in its thinking about child welfare policy and services.” The lack of information regarding policies and practices in other developed countries limits policymakers’ and practitioners’ ability to imagine different possibilities.  


It is far easier to imagine the extension of current trends, such as expansion of differential response systems and a large increase in kinship care, that seem irreversible than to imagine a very different future. Discussions of the future of child welfare that merge imagination and prediction are usually based on an extension of current trends and it is no small feat to imagine when extension of current trends will result in a fundamentally different state of affairs. For example, if the nation's rate of kinship care were to double (unlikely but not impossible) then non-kin foster care would be the exception rather than the rule, and the roles of non-kin foster parents would likely be dramatically altered. The difficulty in recruiting and retaining foster parents, especially foster parents who can provide skilled and nurturing care for emotionally troubled children, has already had a major effect on how most child welfare agencies utilize foster care. Child welfare agencies are far less likely to place children with serious behavior problems, absent child protection issues, out of the home than was the case a couple of decades ago because of lack of foster homes and because a large number of practitioners question the therapeutic benefits of foster care.   


It is more difficult (but also more interesting)  to imagine the effects of changes in law, policies or financial incentives, for example changes in the Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) that would provide the same (or greater) incentives for safe and lasting reunifications as currently offered by the federal government to states for completed adoptions. Reunification incentives would surely lead to a proliferation of innovative reunification programs, and the characteristics of many of these programs would probably be similar to family preservation programs (absent the time limits) developed in the 1990s; but the effect of these new programs on numbers of reunifications and adoptions and other agency policies and practices is harder to imagine or predict. The widespread understanding that fundamental changes in law and policy are likely to have unintended consequences is a conservative break on reform initiatives, with the result that major changes in law usually occur when policymakers and their constituencies are thoroughly fed up with current conditions.


One strategy for limiting imaginative uncertainty is to imagine concrete goals that have intuitive appeal without feeling required to describe how these goals can be achieved. For example, Casey Family Programs' goal of reducing the number of children in foster care by half by 2020 appeals to child welfare managers and practitioners who have had ample experience with the instability and erratic quality of foster care and congregate care, and who understand the possibilities for reinvestment of savings generated by foster care reductions in a variety of new programs, front end to back end. The achievement of 20/20 or other intuitively appealing goals requires planning (lots of it), but the motivation for planning is a product of an imaginative acceptance of a concrete goal.


Two child welfare goals appeal to me at an imaginative level:

1) Instead of large child protection programs with small family support components, agencies should seek to develop large family support programs with smaller child protection components. Only a small percentage of accepted CPS reports require CPS investigations, "findings" such as substantiated, coordination with law enforcement agencies, dependency actions/ court structure, forensic interviews and involuntary out- of home- placements. An entire child welfare system does not need to be organized around practices that make sense for (at most) 20-25% of families with open CPS cases. The development and expansion of differential response systems is based on this understanding. However, a differential response system in which the majority of families are served in a family assessment track rather than through a CPS investigation is not the same as a fully developed program of family supports. States must make available poverty related services and a range of other services to fulfill the promise of differential response.  In addition, child welfare workforces must be as committed to providing family support services as they are to legal action / out of home placement when these actions are necessary to protect children for differential response to result in significant changes to child protection systems.


 2) Voluntary services should replace use of court structure and other forms of coercion to the maximum extent possible. Currently, federal law and policy discourage use of voluntary placement agreements by requiring permanent planning hearings be held within 12 months of a child's out-of-home placement; and dependency hearings must usually precede permanent planning hearings by several months. As a result, state agencies tend to severely limit use of voluntary placements, preferring to utilize court structure when children are in out-of-home care. In Washington State, the virtual elimination or (more recently) the severe restrictions on voluntary placements has led to increased lengths of stay in foster care when voluntary placements could have been resolved within a few weeks or months. In some other states, caseworkers are permitted to make arrangements for children to stay with relatives for a few days or weeks without an official placement (counted in AFCARS) which requires legal action.

The rationale for these laws and policies that require court structure is to ensure that permanency planning timelines are met; and some managers appear to believe that unnecessary brief placements can be avoided by creating onerous legal requirements for placing children out-of-home for brief periods of time. This is misguided public policy and is a misuse of expensive court time, lawyers and other court personnel. This policy also involves families in court actions which families may view as threatening even when child welfare agencies and parents are in agreement about the need for temporary out-of-home placements.


In many countries in Western Europe, the policy preference is for working with parents through voluntary agreements even when children are placed out-of-the home for lengthy periods of time. Most developed countries have much lower child poverty rates than the U.S., and, as a result, infants and other pre-school children are placed in foster care at far lower rates; and adoption from out-of-home care is not nearly as common as in this country. Possibly because of the needs of babies and other young children, AFSA embodies the principle that termination of parental rights is a possibility in every case in which children/youth are not quickly reunified with birth parents. This kind of implicit threat is unnecessary in a significant percentage of cases in which children are likely to be returned to parents within a few weeks or months.


The widespread interest in family engagement practices and models such as Signs of Safety and the solution based practice model used in Kentucky, Utah and Washington will hopefully lead to an enhanced ability of child welfare agencies to work in partnership with families on behalf of child safety, absent court structure.  Anecdotal evidence from Minnesota counties that have implemented Signs of Safety for several years is that dependency actions have been reduced by a third to a half through the use of this model.


I can imagine a future in which child welfare involvement with families is largely voluntary (rather than involuntary) due to changes in law and policy, caseworkers’ enhanced engagement skills and belief in empowerment practice, and strong family support programs which offer services families want and need. Imagining a future, however, is not the same as predicting it will come to pass. A vision of the future must generate interest and excitement to motivate practical efforts to bring it about; most child welfare agencies in the U.S. interested in DR, family engagement, working in partnership with families and stronger family support programs have not begun to imagine a reduced role for courts in managing out-of-home care cases.


Visioning a better future is only one form of imagination. Imagination can be scary; for example, it is possible to imagine criminalizing neglect, or alternatively, under extreme fiscal pressures narrowing the grounds for CPS intervention in neglecting families to situations in which children have been harmed or are at imminent risk of harm. The acute and chronic shortage of foster homes could lead to renewed investments in orphanages or other institutional arrangements for raising children. These not likely developments, but they are not difficult to imagine were there to be continued extreme pressures on state budgets.


Imagination can have a sarcastic quality, for example imagining child welfare agencies becoming truly invested in accurate and multi-dimensional measures of child safety (such as serious injuries on open or recently open cases), instead of using a single flawed and inadequate Child and Family Service Review (CFSRS) measure of recurrence to allay public concerns about the effectiveness of CPS systems. It is a distressing reality that the federal CFSRs have been a disincentive to the development of better measures of child welfare agencies’ performance. The lack of credible child safety measures in agencies whose main function is child protection is an example of what Jonathan Shay has described as “looking good at the expense of being good.”


Imagining possible futures of child welfare requires more than predicting the extension of current trends. The imaginative challenge is to connect social developments likely to impact child welfare with the probable responses of policymakers, practitioners and communities. Given that child welfare agencies largely serve or intervene in (depending on one’s perspective) low income children and families, increases in child poverty and income inequality, changes in social attitudes toward the poor, the cultural ethos of low income neighborhoods/communities and the morale of poor families are likely to shape the future of child welfare.


There is a distinct possibility that the Great Recession (as Paul Krugman calls the economic downturn which began in 2008) will have delayed effects on the incidence of child abuse and neglect. It is worth remembering that the deep 1981-82 recession was followed five years later by a sudden rapid increase in entries- into- care (especially babies and other young children) associated with a substance abuse epidemic, only after major cuts to the social safety net. Arguably, it is not material hardship and the stresses of poverty in and of themselves that lead to child maltreatment; rather, the morale of low income families and their hopes – or lack of hope – of a better future is influenced by state and federal policies affecting resources available to help them survive, and by community attitudes that deliver emotionally impactful messages to destitute families.


States’ budget cuts of the past few years have impacted poor families far more than more affluent families; and the mean spirited winner-take-all political culture at the national level has eliminated all mention of the needs of poor families by both major political party. At the same time, middle class families are being squeezed by stagnant or falling wages and increased costs for health care, energy, food and higher education. This is a formula for development of a pariah class of low income families with annual incomes under $10,000 (including 20.5 million Americans) whose parenting practices diverge markedly from the mainstream. Charles Murray has described the widening cultural divide between highly educated affluent Whites living in protected neighborhoods and suburbs from lower middle class and poor Whites who have high rates of unemployment, single parent families (with absent fathers) and out of wedlock births, trends that have been evident in African American neighborhoods for many years.  In these circumstances, harsh, dismissive attitudes toward low income families have the potential to take root and flourish.


Fortunately, the civic cultures of most American communities remain far more generous and compassionate than the political cultures of the federal government and many state governments. Furthermore, Americans with a wide range of political beliefs continue to have decent instincts toward children, including poor children, regardless of their attitudes toward low income parents. In these conditions, very different child welfare futures are possible:  a future in which child welfare agencies continue to develop more humane approaches to the parenting problems of troubled low income families in cooperation with other community agencies and philanthropic entities. In this scenario, child welfare agencies will take on an advocacy role for low income families and will be concerned about the developmental needs of children growing up in poverty. OR, child welfare agencies can faithfully reflect political cultures in which even mention of poverty and the needs of poor families is met with barely disguised contempt. In this future, a growing population of pariah families will lead child welfare agencies to rescue children when warranted by imminent safety threats, or ignore poor children’s developmental needs and challenges when removal from the home is not possible.  




Edelman, Peter, “Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End It?” New York Times, July 29, 2012


Edsall, Thomas Byrne, The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity Will Remake American Politics , 2012.


Murray, Charles, Coming  Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 , 2012.


Shay, Jonathan, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming , 2003.


Whittaker, James, Review of Child Protection Systems: International Trends and Orientations  by Neil Gilbert, Nigel Parton and Marit Skivenes,  Social Service Review , Volume 86, No. 2, June 2012.


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