Protect Children at Home If Possible, in Foster Care If Necessary

In his introduction to two commentaries on block granting child welfare, Daniel Heimpel, publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change, lays out what he considers to be the philosophical debate in child welfare. In a subsequent column, Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, strongly disputes Heimpel’s formula.

I agree with Wexler that Heimpel’s formulation is inaccurate. But I disagree with Wexler’s version as well.

The debate, according to Heimpel, is between those who believe that the mandate of child welfare agencies “should go beyond child protection, and focus on keeping families together” and those who believe that “the child welfare system is really about child protection, and that keeping families together is the provenance of other agencies.”

Heimpel seems to assume that child protection necessarily involves removing the child from the home. But some children can be protected while remaining at home by helping the family eliminate the maltreatment. Removing a child from home is traumatic in itself, and we don’t have enough foster parents who provide adequate nurturing, so an unnecessary removal is the opposite of protective.

Heimpel argues that keeping families together is not the job of the child welfare system but of other agencies. I cannot imagine how that would work in practice. When an agency finds maltreatment, it does not always remove the child. It may refer the family to services to address the causes of the maltreatment.

It is often another agency that provides the actual services, such as mental health services or drug treatment. But the child welfare agency should still provide the case management, including monitoring the parent’s participation in the services and the child’s safety. Family preservation services when the child is at home look a lot like family reunification services when the child is in foster care.

If Heimpel proposes a false choice, what is the real controversy? Wexler proposes that the real debate is: Which works better to keep children safe, foster care or family preservation?

But Wexler’s formulation is also faulty.

Wexler is clearly less concerned about safety and more concerned about family preservation as a goal. His statement that abused and neglected children are safer at home than in foster care is simply wrong. State data compiled by the federal government show that the proportion of children in foster care who were the subject of substantiated maltreatment in foster care ranged from 0 to 1.34 percent.

The proportion of children who were victims of substantiated maltreatment at home in the first half of 2013, and then had a recurrence of substantiated maltreatment in the second half of the year, ranged from 0.8 to 12.9 percent. And that is only within six months.

The real question that divides the child welfare field is whether safety should take precedence over family preservation. Heimpel believes that safety should take precedence and Wexler believes it shouldn’t.

But if the role of safety versus family preservation defines the two camps in child welfare, how does that predict their stance on Title IV-E? Heimpel states that the way Title IV-E works is a problem only for those who “believe the mandate of child welfare agencies should go beyond child protection.” But I don’t agree.

Like Heimpel, I prioritize safety, but I still don’t believe that having an entitlement for foster care and not for family preservation makes sense. As I stated above, I believe that many kids can be kept safe by in-home services and monitoring. We don’t want a financial structure that provides an incentive to remove children from home when they could be kept safe there.

But that does not mean I support a block grant, as Wexler does. A block grant would be dangerous, for all the reasons enumerated by Sean Hughes in his recent column. Eliminating the entitlement status of child welfare would deprive vulnerable children of the protection provided by the federal match.

If foster care caseloads continue to rise, this would open the way for a nightmare scenario of children remaining in unsafe homes, with no services available for their parents. That’s why I think we need an entitlement for both foster care and family preservation, as provided in the Family First Act.

So it’s all very complicated. The child welfare field can, theoretically, be divided into two camps: those who prioritize safety and those who prioritize family preservation. But there are three possible positions on funding:

  • Keeping the open-ended entitlement for foster care but not family preservation
  • Expanding the entitlement to include family preservation
  • Block granting child welfare services

Advocates who prioritize safety but still see foster care as a last resort should support an entitlement for both family preservation and foster care.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.


  1. A few years ago, Angel Eyes over Texas started collecting abuse/neglect fatality rates from the DFPS data-books. The charts compares the general population to foster care. Texas reports separate fatality numbers for each.

    While the trend lines show fatalities are trending downward. But as you can see the ratio of deaths in due to abuse/neglect in Foster Care remains more than 4.6x that of the General Population.

    Now take the finding so the Federal lawsuit over Texas’ failure to protect children in foster care and it raises many questions about the state’s ability to protect those children.

  2. Ms. Cohen, you’re the one who is “simply wrong” about the rate of abuse in foster care. The figures you cite come from child welfare agencies’ own investigations of abuse in foster care. For reasons that should be obvious, in such cases agencies have a strong incentive to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and write no evil in the case file.

    You write that these official figures claim “the proportion of children in foster care who were the subject of substantiated maltreatment in foster care ranged from 0 to 1.34 percent.” So there are states claiming that there was absolutely no abuse at all in foster care. Seriously?

    Or, using the high end figure: How many of the youth services professionals who read the Chronicle think that if you gathered 300 former foster children in a room and asked them “How many of you were abused in foster care in a single year?” only four (roughly 1.34 percent) would raise their hands?

    In contrast, one independent study after another has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes, and the rate in group homes and institutions is even worse. And for reasons explained here, those figures almost certainly are underestimates.

    –Richard Wexler

    • Mr. Wexler, the problem with the studies you cite is that they do not compare the amount of abuse in foster care to what would happen if these children remained at home. Remember that these children have all come from abusive or neglectful homes, so the chance of them suffering maltreatment at home is much greater than that in the general population–to which foster homes were compared in the Baltimore and Indiana studies you cite. And the other studies don’t even compare the abuse in foster care to that in any other population. It is unfortunate that there should be any abuse in foster care. That’s why I think that foster parents should be paid as professionals and screened a lot more carefully and that residential options should also be more carefully screened and in some cases reimbursed better. That’s also why I think foster care should be a last resort and everything should be done to protect children at home.

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