When Child Welfare Works: A Proposal to Finance Best Practices

by Patrick McCarthy and Gary Stangler

Over the past two decades, we’ve learned a lot about how best to help families and children when they come into contact with the child welfare system — and we’ve learned what doesn’t work.

The bottom line from years of research and practice: Nothing is more important than ensuring that every child grows up in a loving family. And that means that children should never grow up in group care.  Residential treatment should be exactly that: a short-term therapeutic intervention that helps children return to a family setting.

Many state and local governments have demonstrated how to maintain family connections for children, by finding relatives to take care of grandchildren, nieces and nephews who are removed from their homes; reducing reliance on group care; and helping struggling families to keep their children safely at home.

But these best practices are not yet common practice. And that is partly because our 30-year-old federal financing system does not prioritize them, even though it pays nearly half of what we spend on child welfare.

Children in foster care today have spent an average of two years without a permanent family, a family they can rely on for life. One in seven lives in group homes or other non-family settings, and one in 10 will have five or more placements in foster care, despite overwhelming evidence that such instability is harmful. Too many foster parents quit early on, frustrated by lack of agency support.

Some $13.6 billion in federal funding goes to state and local child welfare systems every year. But restrictions and archaic rules fail to provide incentives to use the best practices we now know will improve children’s lives.

Decisions on where to send a child often exclude relatives and friends on technical grounds unrelated to their capacity to step in. Foster families aren’t provided support for staying involved when a child requires residential treatment.

The child loses family support and on discharge, often must go to yet another home of strangers. And existing rules do not permit reimbursement for training frontline workers in investigating and responding to reports of child abuse and neglect, perhaps the most important part of the entire system.

It’s time to bring this system up to date, and make it consistent with innovations in child welfare practice:

Federal reimbursement should be eliminated for shelters and group care for children under 13, and funding for group care should reimburse only short periods of residential treatment for older children. Federal reimbursement should encourage timely progress toward either reuniting children with their families or finding another family willing to make a lifelong commitment; therefore time restrictions should be set on federal reimbursement for foster care.

Therapeutic and supportive services should be strengthened. Whenever possible, the system should engage extended family members in caring for a child who cannot live with her parents. Foster parents should receive more training, agency support and tax incentives.

With the money saved by limiting time in foster care and eliminating reimbursement for poor practices, we can invest more in the people who really make a difference in best practice: the foster families who can keep kids safe and meet their needs; the caseworkers we rely on to make critical decisions; and the young people making their way to adulthood.

Taken together, these financing reforms can make a real difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable children in this country. For their sake, we can’t afford to wait any longer.

Patrick McCarthy is president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Gary Stangler is executive director of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.

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  1. We cannot assume the extended family is a safe or appropriate placement for children in custody as they have many of the same challenges, concerns and problems as the parents, and they often lack the resources required to assume additional responsibilities for children. I definitely agree with the statement that foster parents need more training and agency support!

    • But you can’t assume that foster care isn’t any safer. Mark Courtney and Rick Barth, among others, have demonstrated that foster care doesn’t result necessarily in either higher levels of safety or better scores on indicators of children’s mental health. And going into foster care and then back into reunification might actually result in worse outcomes than ever being removed in the first place.

  2. An exhaustive search at the BEGINNING of foster care or intervention from the state into a family to identify all family,kin, fictive kin would be invaluable to preserve some portion of family for a child. Failing reunification or uniting with extended family or fictive kin, the full out work to identify waiting families for this child. If rights of bio family are to be terminated – terminate ALL bio parents, including possible parent early on – not at the END of placing a child,.

  3. It isn’t just about getting the Federal Government to change funding streams and priorities. If you look at the Child and Family Service Review documents from the Administration of Children and Families, despite legislation and policies that favors reunification, preservation, and kinship, there are no measurable outcomes in the state CFSRs (based off the Adoption and Safe Families Act criteria) relevant to parents and families of origin. It is as if safety, permanency, and child well-being are outcomes that take place in a vacuum. Until policies that dictate resource distribution prioritize parents and kinship models, there will be no change.

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