Racial, gender, and economic injustices play out every day in child welfare. Although intended to protect kids, the child welfare system itself can cause harm and trauma.
A family’s contact with child protection usually begins with a call to a child abuse hotline from a professional – like a teacher or doctor – who is legally required to report any concerns. Before they are grown, a third of children will be subjected to a child protection investigation. In most hotline reports, no physical or sexual abuse is alleged. Rather, these are instances of perceived neglect – such as a child needing supervision or a home where food is scarce. We know neglect findings are intricately linked to poverty.
Further, in a world of structural inequities and racial biases, half of Black children will be subjected to investigation, and Black and Native American children are 2 to 3 times as likely as white children to be separated from their parents.
Across racial groups, foster care placement is distressingly common – 1 in 17 children experiences this trauma. Foster care contributes to subsequent challenges, including educational disparities, sexual exploitation, juvenile justice involvement, and homelessness. Put more starkly: Former foster youth experience higher rates of post-traumatic stress than combat veterans.
Amid these challenges, Foster America recognizes a once-in-a-generation opportunity for systemic change in child welfare.
The newly adopted Families First Prevention Services Act provides open-ended federal funding for prevention services. Previously, only foster care and institutional group placement costs received federal dollars, but now supports that keep families together are also allowable.
Recent movements for racial and economic justice have amplified the call to eliminate unnecessary and biased interventions in families’ lives by the child welfare system and to disentangle poverty from neglect.
Mounting evidence demonstrates that economic supports such as child tax credits, housing assistance, child care subsidies, food programs and cash assistance decrease child abuse, neglect and encounters with the child welfare system.
National initiatives like “Thriving Families, Safer Children,” a partnership of the field’s biggest influencers (Annie E. Casey Foundation, Casey Family Programs, Prevent Child Abuse America, and the federal government) are inspiring field-wide change.
Labor shortages – including in the child welfare workforce and among foster and group home caregivers – make it clear that more investigation and out-of-home placement are not only inappropriate but also unsustainable.