Approximately 3.6 million children were reported to child protection authorities as possible victims of abuse and neglect in 2005. Unfortunately, few data exist about services provided to these children, but it is estimated only 2.5 percent of these children receive any kind of preventive services. We do know that, of the 899,000 confirmed cases of maltreatment, our child welfare system provides services or supports to approximately 60 percent of the children. Approximately 359,000 children with confirmed cases of abuse or neglect receive no services or supports.
Foster care provides a much-needed safety net for children and youth when they have experienced abuse or neglect and cannot remain safely at home. However, a growing body of evidence and real-life experiences in Nashville, Milwaukee and Allegheny County Pennsylvania, among others, suggest that providing families with a broader array of services and supports can effectively prevent child abuse and neglect from occurring in the first place.1 When abuse or neglect occurs, providing vulnerable families with a full continuum of services can help more children safely stay with or return to their families from foster care.2 However, to provide alternative services to foster care—including family counseling, emergency housing support, referrals for drug treatment programs, and parenting classes, among others—states and localities need federal support to help ensure children live safely with permanent families.
Unfortunately, the majority of dedicated federal funding for child welfare is currently reserved for foster care services and cannot be used for prevention or reunification services or supports. States may access dollars under Title IV-E, the principal source of federal child welfare funding, only after children have been removed from their home and enter foster care. Of the $7.2 billion in federal funds dedicated for child welfare in 2007, approximately 90 percent supported children in foster care placements ($4.5 billion) and children adopted from foster care ($2.0 billion). States can use about 10 percent of federal dedicated child welfare funds flexibly for family services and supports, including prevention or reunification services, in accordance with local and regional decisions about what is most needed.3
Failure to invest in the broad range of services needed by vulnerable children and families, and in particular, prevention and reunification services, is costly to society. A recent analysis estimated that in 2007, the total annual cost of child abuse in the United States was nearly $104 billion.4 This total represents more than $33 billion in direct costs of child maltreatment, including judicial, foster care, law enforcement and health system responses, and $70 billion in indirect costs, including long-term economic effects. The cost of providing foster care alone, including local, state and federal dollars, was $23 billion in 2004.5
Although foster care is an important and necessary safety net, equally important services for vulnerable children and families are not adequately supported by current federal financing policies. Family support, family strengthening, and family reunification services have shown great promise in ensuring the safety and well-being of children.6 In 2005, approximately 124,000 (or 54 percent) of the children leaving foster care were returned to their families, after having stayed in foster care for an average of six months.7 Diversifying the kinds of effective services that can be supported with federal child welfare funding can produce better results for children and families. A stronger array of front-end services could:
The federal child welfare financing system should better support the full range of services needed to keep children safe and strengthen families. States could significantly improve the lives of children and families through changes at the federal level that make existing federal child welfare dollars more flexible while maintaining protections for children in need and by making targeted new federal investments in front-end services to prevent child abuse and neglect and reduce the need for foster care. These reforms would also allow states to provide services and supports for children and families so that children in foster care could leave for safe, permanent families more quickly through reunification or, when reunification is not possible, through adoption or subsidized guardianship.
The following policy options for federal child welfare financing could help keep children safe and strengthen families: