Trends in Child Protection

(Originally published July 2010)

Child welfare agencies in the United States are gradually evolving from large child protective service systems with small elements of family support to much larger family support systems with smaller elements of child protection as usually defined over the past 40-45 years. Child Protective Services in this country continues to be associated with investigations of allegations of child abuse and neglect, findings regarding the outcomes of these investigations, out - of - home placements and dependency actions in the 5-10% of investigated cases involving severe harm and/ or imminent risk of harm and permanent planning frameworks in law and policy for children in out- of- home care. To a remarkable extent, CPS decision making in this country has revolved around decisions to place – or not place – children out of the home, with the result that child protection has come to be identified (as Gary Melton has commented) “with a single dramatic coercive act.”


Nevertheless, there continue to be widespread efforts around the country to alter the standard approach to child protection; these initiatives usually include several of the following elements:

  • Adoption in counties or states of differential response (DR) systems in which 50 -70% of cases accepted for investigation receive an assessment instead of an investigation. The number of children who received an alternative CPS response other than investigation increased from slightly less than 186,000 in 2004 to almost 278,000 in 2008, almost a 50% increase in 4 years. In the vast majority of these cases, there was no CPS finding of “substantiated”, “indicated” or “unfounded”. 

  • Implementation of solution based practice models (for example in Kentucky, Utah and Washington and a number of counties in Minnesota). These models emphasize skill building in parental engagement, and usually lead to an increased preference for working with families on a voluntary basis rather depending on legal structure to enforce compliance with case plans. In addition, interest in parent engagement strategies such as motivational interviewing has greatly increased in child welfare agencies around the country. 

  • A large increase in availability and use of a wide range of in – home support services. Some states, counties or large cities ( e.g., New York City, New Jersey) now have far larger in- home services caseloads than foster care caseloads. DR systems in Minnesota and Ohio have emphasized increased provision of poverty related services, especially in families reported for neglect.

  • Utilization of family team meeting formats, such as Anna E. Casey’s Family Team Decision Meetings (FTDMs), Oregon’s Family Unity meetings or Family Group Conferences (FGCs) on the New Zealand model to reduce brief placements and/ or long term foster care placements, in part by involving extended family members in decision making around child safety and permanency.  

  • Some states have dramatically reduced their entry- into- care rates through use of safety assessment protocols or by other means; for example, Illinois which in the mid - 1990s had one of the highest placement rates in the country currently has an entry- into- care rate that is 30% of the national average.

  • Investments in family finding and /or in the licensing of kinship caregivers has resulted in rates of kinship care at least double the national average in some jurisdictions ( e.g., Allegheny County, Pa.)

  • Legal authorization through flexible funding IV -E waivers (Alameda County and Los Angeles County, California; Florida, Indiana, Ohio and Oregon) or state law to reinvest foster care savings in a range of child welfare services, including early intervention in- home services.


The gradual transformation of child protection from a system largely driven by investigations and out- of- home placement decisions to a continuum of family support services depending on assessments of family functioning and needs and involving extended family members to a far greater extent in safety plans and substitute caregiving has proceeded at highly varying rates among states and within states for several reasons:


1) Child welfare agencies continue to periodically experience high profile child abuse and neglect related deaths or other perceived failures of child protection that lead to renewed focus on identification of at- risk children who must be removed from their parents' homes; and sometimes result in serious internal reflection regarding the direction of child welfare reform. Typically, child welfare agencies spend weeks, months or even years tightening up CPS practice in cases involving risk of imminent harm before renewing their commitment to developing more family friendly CPS programs.


The progress of child welfare reform initiatives in New York City since the mid- 1990s is a dramatic illustration of the dynamic interaction between high profile child deaths and ongoing initiatives around improving family support services. The lesson from New York City's experience is that an intense focus on child safety can be -- and must be for successful reform -- combined with a steady expansion of family support services and reduction of entries into care. Overwhelmed foster care systems that function with acute and chronic shortages do a poor job of protecting and nurturing children; and, in most states, a smaller foster care system is far more able to provide high quality care to vulnerable children than a larger inadequately funded and overstretched system.


2) State child welfare systems have made highly varying investments in the programs and activities listed above that reflect an ethos of family support and that enhance the capacity of local agencies to protect children in their parents' homes. CPS programs that lack DR and so continue to investigate most or all of accepted CPS cases are rowing upstream in their attempts to develop a strong family support ethos; it can be done but with great difficulty. Even agencies that operate DR systems may lack the resources needed to give much assistance to troubled impoverished families. Child welfare systems in which the number of children in out- of- home care is increasing must invest additional resources in recruiting, training and supporting kin and non- kin foster parents and in legal case management required to complete permanent plans; few resources are likely to be available to improve family support services.


3) State child welfare systems that have the legal authority through IV -E waivers or state law to reinvest foster care savings, and which are able to reduce their foster care populations, have the financial resources to enhance and improve in - home services, and even in some instances to fund prevention and early intervention services for families prior to or in the absence of CPS reports.  New and expanded family support services must usually be funded with foster care savings. There are unlikely to be foster care savings in states struggling to cope with increased numbers of children in foster care / residential care.


The number of children in foster care has declined from over 565,000 in 1999 to less than 430,000 children in the latest statistics released by the federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF); but this reduction has been largely driven by declines in foster care populations over the past decade in about 15 states. It is primarily in some of these these states, for example Florida and New Jersey, (or counties such as Alameda County, California, Los Angeles and Allegheny County, Pa.) and in New York City that family support programs have been greatly expanded.


CPS programs that reduce their dependence on out- of- home care to protect children from maltreatment must necessarily give greater importance to in - home safety plans and to services that can quickly and effectively alter parental behavior that endangers children. Unfortunately, there is very little research to inform CPS safety planning, and practice wisdom that offers substantive guidance on this subject is rudimentary at best. Given the large amount of research on family preservation programs in the 1990s, it is surprising that the knowledge base regarding effective and ineffective practices is so weak. Researchers were far more interested in whether or not family preservation programs prevented foster placements than in how FPS staff went about protecting children.


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