Introduction to the Child Welfare System

When parents are unable, unwilling, or unfit to care for their children, the state can step in to help. Every state has a child welfare system that provides services to children and families—sometimes in their own homes, and sometimes services are provided to the parents or children where the child has been removed and placed in foster care or other residential placement outside their home. At its core, the child welfare system strives to preserve family unity whenever possible and pursues separation of children and parents only when clearly necessary. The child welfare system is primarily concerned with children who have been abused or neglected; some states also include truant, runaway or otherwise ungovernable children within the jurisdiction of their child welfare system. Funding to pay for services to children and families comes from a combination of local, state and federal sources.

The child welfare system is regulated by federal and state law. Foster care—placement out of the home—is intended to be temporary. Federal and state law require that non-emergency removal of a child from the home be reviewed by a court. Due process is required for the parent and child. While there is no constitutional right to counsel in child welfare matters, the majority of states provide counsel to parents and children in these matters under state law. If a child is removed, courts must also regularly review the cases of every child who is in out-of-home care. The laws require child welfare agencies to make reasonable efforts to prevent placement, and if the child is placed, to make reasonable efforts to reunite the family and help ensure child safety in the home. Placement with (and the involvement of) relatives and kin is favored under the law.   

All of these decisions are subject to the review of a juvenile or family court. In many cases, the court will determine that a child may be reunited with his or her family if the parents have met court-imposed requirements, such as parenting classes, mental health care, or drug and alcohol treatment. They may also be required to provide adequate housing or otherwise demonstrate their ability to care for their children upon the child’s return.

For cases in which returning home safely isn’t viable, there are an array of options, referred to as permanency plans. The goal is to provide the child family. If adoption is pursued, the child welfare agency will move to have parental rights terminated and seek adoptive resources. Some states have forms of open adoption, which allow the child to have a relationship with his or her biological family. Kinship guardianship and placement with relatives are additional permanency options as well. The least favored permanency plan, is Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA).  This plan is prohibited for youth under age 16 and should only be selected when significant efforts to achieve the other goals have been attempted. 

Legally, the child welfare system acts as a substitute parent for children in foster care or other out of home placements and must provide sufficient protection and support. The child welfare system should provide for a child’s basic needs, but should also put them in the position to thrive. Large numbers of children and youth in the child welfare system have experienced trauma and need a system that is trauma informed as well as services that will help them heal. 

Unfortunately, the system doesn’t always fulfill its obligations. Many foster children bounce from one placement to the next (and from one school to the next), and fail to receive adequate services. Often, a child welfare agency will fail to locate a permanent home and children will remain in foster care until they “age out” at 18 or older (depending on the laws of the respective state). Individuals who age out of the system face bad adult outcomes. Research shows that they’re more likely to face homelessness or incarceration and less likely to obtain a high school diploma or GED, attend college, or secure employment.  These poor outcomes can be reversed by ensuring that youth are placed with family and by offering youth the opportunity of extended foster care to provide more time for a youth to find family and be prepared for adulthood. 

Since 1975, Juvenile Law Center has identified and promoted policies and practices that ensure that the child welfare system preserve families, protect children, and respond timely and appropriately to the spectrum of children’s needs. While Juvenile Law Center once advanced policy and practice reforms for children aged 0 to 21, in recent years we have focused on improving the life chances of older youth.