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Child Welfare Policy in the US Critique


Child welfare has generated a lot of interest in the recent years; a phenomenon that might have began with backing from some research findings that scrutinized the existing child welfare practices. The principle goal of the child welfare is to provide each and every child with a safe and positive home environment; after parents’ failure to give adequate support due to myriad of reasons. The existing perspectives such are the justice perspective and the care perspective seem to dominate the child welfare theories and practices. All these are in an effort to better the services we offer to the children. With several studies revealing that separation of the perspectives are the beginning of the problems, many observers and scholars alike have proposed various steps to be taken in order to better the child welfare services. One of the proposal is to integrate the two perspectives rather than argue over which one is more important. This paper will outline the child welfare practices in the United States and critically analyze the two theoretical perspectives; justice perspective and care perspective and concludes with the proposals that are backed by the analysis.

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Child welfare issues have generated a lot of interests from scholars, child welfare activists, government agencies and the society as a whole in the recent years. This could be attributed to the evidences from research studies indicating that children in care have significant developmental, behavioral and emotional problems and that proper care and services for these children are very essential for the general welfare of the society (Scott, 1994).

According to the United States Census Bureau (2006), approximately 13 million children in the United States live in poverty, representing 18.8% of the total poverty prevalence among the children. In addition National Incidence Study (2006) revealed that child abuse and neglect is rampant, with worrying statistics showing that in the year 2005, about 872,000 children were victims of child abuse and neglect (NIS, 2006). According to this data, child neglect case accounted for 64.5%, followed by psychological and other maltreatment cases at 21.5%, physical abuse at 17.5%, and sexual abuse at 9.7%, while the rate of victimization was 12.1 per 1000 children in 2006 (NIS, 2006). In 2006 over 900,000 referrals were substantiated and over 1500 children died as a result of abuse or neglect (Hill, 2006).The effect of this problem is wide, overwhelming and has spread all over the society structure and well being, welfare workers are understaffed, and the little resources available are stretched to the limit.

Several studies have also revealed linkage between domestic violence and child abuse, with some cases highlighting over-discipline for slightest provocations in homes, and that sometimes such cases of unjust punishments come as a result of substance abuse (Kufeldt & McKenzie, 2003). Gauthier, et al. (1996) states that children who suffer from abuse, neglect and maltreatment have lower self-esteem, fewer friends, less ambitious, cautious and inhibited in their interpersonal relationships and had more behavioral and emotional problems than their counterparts. More astonishing is that abused and neglected children often have low verbal language development and read below chronological age (Gauthier et al., 1996).

Despite enormous expenditure on child care, United States has been noted to have one of the world’s worst rates of infant mortality, teenage pregnancy and child poverty (Hill, 2006). In contrast to less spending nations alike Switzerland, Japan, and Netherlands, US spend an average of $140,000 per child, well over the United Nations estimated average of $125,000 (Hunter et al., 2007). However, the spending is observed to be skewing towards older children of ages between 12 and 17. Furthermore, the society as a whole has never been at its best in providing the total care to the children, at least in the overall responsibility.

Historical background

The idea of child welfare emerged when state sanctioned child welfare system was adopted after the City-State governance theory by Plato (Gauthier et al., 1996). Gauthier et al. (1996) observes that in theory, Plato saw that interest of children could be served by withdrawing children from the care of their parents, and putting them into state-run custody, purposefully to prevent an uprising from the dispossessed parents. In this concept, the responsibilities of care are stated within an act of provincial or state legislature, which subsequently empowers the government department or agency to provide services in the area as well as intervene in the families or societies where child abuse or other child related problems have been suspected (Gauthier et al., 1996). The agencies that were tasked with the management of these services used such names as child and family services, children’s aid, etc depending on each province or state (Gauthier et al., 1996). Kufeldt & McKenzie (2003) note that there is some sort of consistency in the nature of laws, even though the application may vary from state to state or country to country.

Scrutinizing Effectiveness

In the past two decades, child welfare activities in the United States such as child protection services have come under intense scrutiny, both by the public and private agencies as they are seen as an institution than can and have caused great harm in the name of protection (NIS, 2006). This is despite the benefits of the services of these child welfare agencies, generally viewed positively. However, there are increased incidences where critics believe Child Protection Services (CPS) have reacted unjustifiably.

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One notable case stood out in the recent past within the family of Gary and Melissa Gates in Texas. In this incident, the school called the local CPS and requested them to forcibly remove all the Gates Children (who were thirteen in number) and take them to the foster homes under court order, despite the clear evidence that the children faced danger in terms of physical health and safety (Prinz, 2008). Such cases have been termed by many as a sign of “I don’t care attitude” within the society that leads to child abuse. Brenda Scott, in her study of CPS concluded, “Child Protective Services is out of control. The system, as it operates today, should be scrapped. If children are to be protected in their homes and in the system, radical new guidelines must be adopted. At the core of the problem is the antifamily mindset of CPS. Removal is the first resort, not the last. With insufficient checks and balances, the system that was designed to protect children has become the greatest perpetrator of harm” (Scott, 1994).

Disproportional Child Welfare System

A recent data in the United States suggests that a number of minority children, particularly African American and Native Americans enter the foster care system disproportionately (Hill, 2004). The data gives evidence that disproportional nature may be varied throughout the period when a child is involved with the child welfare system, but the differences in disproportionate care are seen at key decision points such as the reporting of abuse, substantiation of abuse, and placement into foster care (Hill, 2006). Studies have also shown that once these children enter foster care, they are likely to remain in care longer than anticipated (Wulczyn, Lery &Haight, 2006). Empirical researches further indicate that there is absolutely no difference in the rate of abuse and neglect among minority populations when compared to Caucasian children that would account for the disparity (NIS, 1996). Even the Juvenile Justice system has not bee left out of criticism for disproportionate negative contact of minority children (Pope & Feyerherm, 1995).

It is prudent to conclude that the overlap in child welfare systems of the United States is the reason why the country has been rated badly in Child Welfare services, where a report indicated that United States’ Child welfare services were the fourth worst in the world after Mexico, Turkey and Slovakia (Prinz, 2008; Robyn et al. 2006).

Social welfare theoretical perspectives

According to the social welfare theoretical perspective, child welfare services have two purposes:

  1. the social control task of policing parenting; and
  2. the provision of surrogate parenting to those children whose natal parents fail to meet the prescribed standards (Kufeldt & McKenzie, 2003).

However, Hill (2006) notes that the orderly rigidity of law and regulation is useful in managing social control function, but it is poorly suited to the task of surrogate parenting. “We describe award of state as a child in ‘care’ but we know that there is no guarantee that the child will find authentic human connection-the other meaning of care-while in child welfare care” (Hill, 2006). It is logical to note that authentic human connection is very essential to the overall wellbeing of a child. However, among other failures, the language to discuss the child welfare perspective has been lacking for the better part of last decades, jeopardizing the entire child welfare work (Hill, 2004). The actual goal of child welfare is to provide each and every child with a safe and positive home environment. Child Welfare theories entail the idea of providing social services to children, especially those whose parents are not able to adequately accomplish their child-rearing responsibilities due to a myriad of reasons such as poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, and lack of proper parenting skills/knowledge.

There has been a movement in the recent years, in keeping with intent underlying the development and ratification of the UN Convention of the rights of the Child, to articulate the rights of children and youths in care (Hunter et al., 2007). Even though respecting the rights of children is an essential condition under which authentic human connection may take place, it cannot guarantee that a caring connection will happen; furthermore it can never be legislated (Hill, 2004). Since we know that caring and being cared for is crucial to the well-being of a child, the better way to start serving the children in a more humane way is to embrace change of thought patterns concerning child welfare (Hunter et al. 2007) states that the three practical changes that are necessary in this context are to reclaim and rename the children, highlight communities versus agencies, and place value on principles. The first change is to stop labeling children; child welfare workers must change their language to include positive terms and labels-the “cases” that are worked on are children and families who need assistance (Hunter et al. 2007). Hunter et al. (2007) warns that terms such as ‘dysfunctional’, ‘at-risk’, ‘emotional’ or ‘behavioral disorder’ negatively label a child and decrease their already fragile self-esteem. The second change affects entire communities; children are products of their environments and if one child is in need of help then all children in that environment require help (Hunter et al. 2007). Lyons-Ruth (1996) adds that child welfare workers must be cognizant of the religious, ethnic, cultural, and racial environments that a part of each child. The third and final practical change is to promote positive ways to develop dignity, opportunity, positive relationships, and continuity. How then can we measure the level of success in terms of the above highlighted needs of the children and community/ society responsibility?

The Care-Justice Balance

For critical analysis to examine the issues that relate to care in the child welfare, I will use two theoretical perspectives that Carol Gilligan developed in 1988. Gilligan postulated two ways to describe ethical orientation, how people determine what makes things right or good:

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  1. Justice (or order) that is based on roles, rules, and reciprocity, and
  2. Care that includes responsiveness towards the needs of other as well as concern of minimizing harms (Kufeldt & McKenzie, 2003).

However, the problem with the two perspectives is the difficulty in making decision about switching from one care perspective to justice perspective. For example, if a child is given household chore of cleaning toilet, will failure to do it portray a sign of disobedience? And who will make that decision of what is right or what annoying behavior is? Who actually decides when the middle age children who are often just a few years separating them from the youth are peers in informal interaction, and when to invoke a hierarchy that transforms the transaction into a clinical or legal matter? (Kufeldt & McKenzie, 2003).

Justice perspective

Justice perspective begins with the selection of issue that determines the roles and rules of that apply. In this approach, the selection criteria are inequitably negotiated. However, the problems associated with justice perspective have been of much concern.

A study conducted by Kufeldt & McKenzie (2003), confirm the confusion surrounding the justice perspective when they state: “boys in my research group talk about staff ‘pushing your button’ (i.e. provoking emotional response), presumably as part of their roles as therapist, and youth being physically restrained and /or charged under the law of their reactions”. The report further elaborates that the response from some boys indicted that they openly preferred jail to group homes because rules and regulations of juvenile jails were not only clear but consistent too, while rules in group homes changed with the “idiosyncrasies of individual staff” (Kufeldt & McKenzie, 2003).

The other problem of conflation: in child foster homes; there is a common confusion that leads to mistaking one thing for another i.e. one thing is taken for another or incorporated into another (Malinosky-Rummell & Hansen, 1993). For example, in a recent case, a regular foster family who has, for three years, cared well, with much community support for some two siblings got into trouble with conflation. When their long time worker went on sick leave, the new worker, having read the file, announced on her first home visit that the two siblings had diagnoses that warranted ‘treatment’ foster home placement (NIS, 2006). If the family of the siblings did not want to undertake the training to qualify for that designation, she said, perhaps it would be best-particularly since testing indicates that both kids had a limited capacity for attachment- that they be moved to appropriate placement so that their psychological needs could be addressed (NIS, 2006). In this case, it is apparent that the diagnosis stands for the children, while the designation defines the home, as Prinz (2008) puts it, such a scenario means “the files replaces lived reality”.

While it’s a cut reality that the rationale of minimizing child welfare in the United States is the bottom line priority, the unforeseen problem emanates everywhere. Some scholars do not agree to the idea of huge spending of public money on parenting, when according to them, “parenting is ordinarily funded from personal pockets” (Robyn, Alan, Chiodo & O’Neill, 2006). This argument is economic-focused and could be interpreted to mean that if kids from failed families have more advantage than kids from struggling families in the financing law, then there is a possibility of the struggling families abandoning their struggle, which will ruin society and bankrupt the state.

The idea of independence is too another theoretical idea that offers much confusion. The persistent practice of justice perspective making the ages of the majority synonymous with granting adult “independence” is rather blunt; as Pope& Feyerherm (1995) explains, “independence” being on one’s own, is not the normal or healthy adult condition. Healthy adults live interdependently, with partners, children, neighbors, employees, relatives and business associates of all sorts”. It is therefore logical to argue that children who live without these social connections are socially isolated or marginalized. The other common reasoning is that age of majority has no connections or relationships with real life scenario; as Wulczyn, Lery & Haight (2006) vividly put it, “it is a legal nicety, a line arbitrarily drawn because a line is needed to satisfy the linearity of legislation and the rigidity of bureaucracy”.

Care perspective

On the other hand, a care perspective needs the end goal to be specifically articulated to rescue it from endless process and the choice of a goal will determine who gets included, and the needs and vulnerabilities that needs to be respected (Solomon & George, 1999). As stated earlier, well functioning families have both care and justice organized and working together. Care perspective is important since it offers middle ground during transition time, that is, it helps renegotiate roles, reconsider rules, and redefine reciprocity (Wulczyn, Lery & Haight, 2006). When a child comes of age, it is viewed in a developmental perspective rather than a legal parameter, hence the decision to leave foster home is negotiated taking into consideration other factors such as specific needs and strength of the “graduating youth”, minimizing the potential harm while at the same time addressing the longer task ahead of establishing the “new person” into the bigger world (Solomon & George, 1999).

But why is the justice perspective taking the lead in defining the foster children in the United States? In his study of Synthesis of research on disproportionality in child welfare, Hill (2006) states that justice perspective is an easy way out, as people do not want to ‘knock their heads’ with the a seemingly bigger task of negotiation that care perspective demands.

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What’s in for imbalance correction?

As highlighted above, justice perspective, despite inherent anomalies, is preferred to Care perspective. So what can be done to correct this imbalance? Care has always been a core factor in the child welfare issues all over the world and many social workers believe it is the way out to ensure the tranquility in child welfare protection. Wulczyn, Lery & Haight (2006) expalins that “we need justice (or order) perspective that honors care to replace justice (order) perspective that disregards (silences, confuses, conflates, minimizes) care. We need to integrate and legitimize language of care.”

To emphasize his need of balancing care perspective with justice (or order) perspective, Wulczyn, Lery & Haight (2006) propose a series of criteria to be applied in the process of making decisions in the event of child welfare activity, albeit in the form of questions:

  1. What are the issues we are addressing?
  2. What are the roles involved in this issue?
  3. What are the rules that relate to the roles involved in this issue?
  4. Who are the people impacted by this issue?
  5. What are their needs relative to this issue?
  6. What is the overall goal to be achieved by the possible resolutions to this issue and the related actions?
  7. Which course of action is least harmful to the group of people impacted? and
  8. How will we evaluate the success of the course of action we choose?

In the critical overview of the policy preference on the two theoretical perspectives, it is evident that the child welfare policy is inclined towards the justice perspective against the care perspective, a clear sign that the child welfare policy in the United States needs reform. One activist once commented, “We do better with animals than we do with children-punishments are more severe when animals are abused and a judge can award an injunction against having other pets” (Hunter, et al., 2007).

The Need for Continuum Child Welfare

After the analysis of the child welfare through the context of care perspective and the justice perspective, it is prudent to look at what the continuum child welfare will mean. Critically, it is essential to: 1. incorporate child welfare into context; 2. analyze the discontinuity of care; 3. concerns about the focus of services i.e. whose best interests are we serving?; 4. critically look at the needs of adequate resources

Incorporating child welfare into context

In this approach, there is urgent need to support, prevent, and manage transitions in children. Vividly put, there is critical and immediate need to take ecological approach to child welfare (Carlson, 1988). Despite numerous changes and legislations in the child welfare policy that emphasize that supporting family as the preferred first choice line of defending children, resources are still limited in the area, putting the primary focus of child care into jeopardy (Hill, 2006). The argument that is normally put forward by the critics of child welfare huge financial support is that it is the community’s responsibility to provide support and prevention to the children. However the term “community” is amorphous in nature and even if we assumed the term community was solid, it is still engulfed in poverty, one single most reason why the “community” takes their children to the foster homes (Hill, 2006).

Within this context of prevention and support, the principle focus is the need to expand the preceding factors in family wellness and prevention (Kufeldt & McKenzie, 2003). First, the child welfare services should work towards prevention techniques rather than reactionary approach when a serious problem occurs such as risk of social structure breakdown. Secondly, to be effectively and truly preventive in approach, all the possible efforts to reduce abuse and neglect should be considered a policy priority that would help promote family wellness, instead of just targeting family “dysfunction” (Hill, 2006). Third, there is the complexity of which approach to go for, holistic or biological (Lyons-Ruth, 1996. This resonates in very corner of argument but continual dilemma that has led to many scholars and policy makers alike shy away from the two paradigms is not healthy for the efforts to eliminate or minimize child problems.

One important approach to solve this complexity is seen in the United Kingdom’s Department of Health. In their treaty to solve the complexity and effectively assess the children in needs, they have broken the ecological approach into key dimensions to assessing whether the child is in need, namely:

  1. Absolute and thorough understanding of the developmental needs of the child,
  2. The capacities of parents and care givers to appropriately respond to the highlighted needs, and
  3. The wider families’ impacts as well as environmental factors on parenting capacity and children (Prinz, 2008).

Discontinuity of Care

The discontinuity of the care in the child welfare can be observed into two fronts: the discontinuity of the individual child and the discontinuity of different phases of services offered (Scott, 1994). According to Scott (1994), child welfare services must be transformed from their residual role and present tendency toward “people processing” that leaves children adrift in a limbo characterized by too much discontinuity.

Currently, the child welfare workers and scholars have accepted that there is the possibility of “people changing” and that despite any form of physical discontinuation from the former environment, there should be more into accepting that reality (Prinz, 2008). Nonetheless, there is a general improved awareness that problems are basically not the outcome of individual pathology but can easily arise from inequalities and inadequate justice existing in the society, hence the increased demand and emphasis on support and prevention (Scott, 1999). While it is acknowledged that “people changing” i.e. learning different parenting approaches, in some cases are essential, Scott (1994) notes that for the most part effective promotion of children’s welfare will require transformation at all levels of our system.

The inherent discontinuity of services offered for the child welfare in the United States is seen in the services offered as they are broken in different branches, principally to search for efficiency (Solomon & George, 1999). In this state, children and their families are processed through various and numerous services instead of use of services that wrap the whole package of child and family need, as Solomon & George (1999) aptly dismiss the approach, “efficiency is no longer efficient if it reduces effectiveness of our interventions.”

How can this discontinuity be changed into continuity?

Scott (1994) explains this concept using his experience with Looking after Children in Canada Project, that in their community, the same worker stayed with child and the family throughout their history with child welfare services, a concept that created continuity of planning as well as placement. The effect of this discontinuity in between the care givers and the child and family leads to the discontinuity in service provision (Scott, 1994). Furthermore, for the change of status from “at risk” to “in care” and other changes throughout the whole level of guardianship like to “available for adoption” and sometimes occasional change of workers may result into change of placement (Scott, 1994). Prinz (2008) acknowledges that this change of placement is likely to create more changes in school, in worker, loss of peer relation, and at worse may lead to broken and unsustainable family connections.

The design of the welfare services is in whose best interest?

Principally, everyone would agree with me that the whole intent of designing the child welfare programs is to serve the children. But the predominant themes in most arguments are inclined towards serving others interests rather the primary planned focus, and subsequent loss of sight of the overall child welfare. However, Hunter (2007) defends this phenomenon by arguing that no one intends to shift this reasoning perspective, but says that to the best possible option, children should remain with their families. Certainly no one would argue against this reasoning, considering the underlying benefits of such arrangements, if only all these children in foster homes could be safely raised in their own homes. This would be appropriate if all the stressors like poverty, lack of adequate housing, and other forms of child abuse were removed, and all the necessary supports were given promptly (Carlson, 1988; Malinosky-Rummell & Hansen, 1993). Again as Carlson (1988) points out, the majority of those children in foster would opt for their home, given chance through just a slight improvement of resource provision.

The family support and preventive measure that are most likely to succeed will have adequate resources. As one informant in a research clearly stated, “prevention should be having people well and happy, and not so much that they just squeak by” (Kufeldt, & McKenzie, 2003). This calls for the expansion of the innovative methods of resource distribution for the optimum welfare services to succeed.

Such approaches are known to increase full participation of the community, in design, implementation and empowerment to ensure positive change and improvement of the whole family, children included. In the meta-analysis of such a program on United Kingdom, Malinosky-Rummell & Hansen (1993) found out that the importance of such programs is that they demonstrate the importance of tailoring the design to the need rather than client having to fit into whatever an agency has to offer.

Even though some of the highlighted strategies like the biological may have evidenced efficacy, such programs have been found to be vulnerable to the vagaries of resource allocation and funding (Hunter et al 2007). That is to say, they are far from being sustainable as the funding priorities do change as time goes by.


In general, the degree of success in the child welfare appraisal will largely depend on the degree of inclusiveness in the program. That is, inclusive care and justice practice where the child and family contacts are maintained and involved to the best interest of the child and the society as whole.

Again the other aspect is partnership and collaboration to incorporate the whole concept optimum care. This corporation should in the first instance take care of the parental collaboration, in tandem with the principle of keeping in touch with the “parental responsibility”, a concept that has been found to increase the success of transition and eliminates detachment (Hunter et al 2007). Further, government agencies that have been established for child welfare must be ready to collaborate and work together as a team. Hunter et al (2007) explain that child welfare workers, treatment providers and the court system must open the lines of communication in order to be effective in bettering the lives of the children. This collaboration will also improve the sharing of resources and ideas, all in the interest of children.

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Prinz, R. (2008). Dissemination of a Multilevel Evidence-Based System of Parenting: Interventions with Broad Application to Child Welfare Populations, Child Welfare Journal, Issue (6). 1432-1449.

Scott (1994). Relationship of Child Neglect and Physical Maltreatment to Placement Outcomes and Behavioral Adjustment in Children in Foster Care: A Canadian Perspective. Canadian Journal of Childcare. Web.

Scott, B. (1999). Out of Control: Who’s Watching Our Child Protection Agencies? Child Protection Agency, p. 179.

Solomon, J., & George, C. (1999). Attachment Disorganization. NY: Guilford Press.

Susan, P., Kemp, O., Marcenko, H., & William V. (2001). Engaging Parents in Child Welfare Services: Bridging Family Needs and Child Welfare Mandates. Child Welfare Journal, 73, 88-93.

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Wulczyn, F., Lery, B., & Haight J. (2006). Entry and Exit Disparities in the Tennessee Foster Care System. Chapin Hall Discussion Paper. Web.

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