Child Welfare Introduction and Overview


Federal child welfare policy is largely concerned with preventing the abuse or neglect of children in their own homes and responding to the consequences of such abuse or neglect. The primary goals of the policy are to ensure children’s safety and permanence  and to promote the well-being of children and their families.  Under the U.S. Constitution, states are believed to have the primary obligation to ensure the welfare of children and their families. At the same time, the federal government has demonstrated longstanding interest in working with states to strengthen their child welfare services and supports. Through the provision of funding to states, the federal government is able to require certain standards for those services and supports.

State Child Welfare Agency Spending for Child Welfare Purposes

States spend significant resources on child welfare functions. A survey of state child welfare agencies found they expended some $25.7 billion for child welfare purposes in state fiscal year 2006.[i] A little more than half of this spending ($13.3 billion, 52%) represented expenditures of state and local dollars; the remainder ($10.7 billion, 48%) represented expenditures of federal funds.[ii]

A slight majority of these federal dollars spent by child welfare agencies (53%) was received by states via programs authorized in Title IV-B or Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. These parts of the law (along with the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, CAPTA) provide funds dedicated to child welfare purposes and they also spell out federal child welfare policy. The remaining federal funds expended by child welfare agencies were derived from programs not exclusively or primarily dedicated to child welfare. Close to one-third (31%) came from funds provided via the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant and the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG). Neither TANF nor SSBG are solely dedicated to child welfare purposes. However, both are relatively flexible funding streams and they have one or more program purposes that overlap with or are consistent with those of federal child welfare programs. (For more information on TANF and SSBG, see Green Book Chapters 7 and 10, respectively.) Additionally, about 13% of state child welfare agency expenditures were of federal Medicaid dollars.[iii] Medicaid dollars spent by child welfare agencies (i.e., dollars for which the child welfare agency was required to provide the non-federal share of support) have typically been used to provide children in foster care with rehabilitative services (e.g., behavior modification or residential treatment) and targeted case management.[iv] Finally, the remaining 3% of state child welfare agency spending of federal funds for child welfare purposes was derived from Supplemental Security Income (SSI, see Green Book Chapter 3) and a variety of additional, smaller funding sources (including CAPTA).

Congressional Interest in Child Welfare

At least since enactment of legislation to create the federal Children’s Bureau in 1912 – which currently administers nearly all federal child welfare programs –  the Congress has actively sought to improve public child welfare services. The current constellation of federal child welfare programs, authorized primarily in Title IV-B and Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, developed over the last 75 years, with significant program developments in: 1935 (first federal funds authorized to states to improve public child welfare services); 1961 (original authorization of federal support solely for foster care to children removed from low income families); 1974 (some federal funds tied to requirement that each state have a system to receive and respond to allegations of child abuse and neglect); 1980 (establishment of ongoing federal support for eligible children adopted, primarily out of foster care); 1985 (funds authorized for services specifically to assist children “aging out” of foster care); 1993 (creation of new child and family services program to help strengthen families and prevent entry to foster care when possible); and 2008 (establishment of ongoing support for eligible children who leave foster care for legal guardianship with a relative). Significant policy developments have also occurred in the more recent decades, sometimes as a part of legislation making structural changes in federal support for child welfare services and sometimes in independent bills. Notably, these include the 1980 effort to support greater permanence for children in foster care, the 1997 focus on both their safety and timely permanence, and the more recent statutory attention (2006, 2008 and 2011) to the well-being of children in foster care – specifically health and education needs.

Federal Funding Dedicated to Child Welfare Purposes

Federal funding dedicated to child welfare purposes is largely distributed to state-level child welfare agencies, and most federal child welfare program requirements apply to those same agencies.[v]  For FY2011, federal funding dedicated to child welfare purposes was expected to total about $7.7 billion. The large majority of that funding was authorized under Title IV-B or Title IV-E of the Social Security Act (98%), distributed to state child welfare agencies (97%), and provided on a mandatory or direct funding basis (92%). Figure 1 shows general purposes for which these funds were provided.

Services and Assistance Under Title IV-B and Title IV-E of the Social Security Act

 Most children or families served by a public (state or local) child welfare agency first come into contact with that agency following an allegation of child abuse or neglect. There are some 75 million children in the nation and, in a given year, states respond to allegations of abuse or neglect involving some 3.6 million children. An estimated 1.1 million of those children and their families receive additional services following this child protective services response – most in their own homes. However, a minority of these children (less than 1 in 4) are removed from their homes and placed in foster care to ensure their safety.

Funds distributed to all states via programs authorized in Title IV-B of the Social Security Act (i.e., Stephanie Tubbs Jones Child Welfare Services and Promoting Safe and Stable Families programs) are the primary source of dedicated federal support for child welfare-related services to children and their families. Services are available without regard to whether a child lives at home, lives in foster care, or previously lived in foster care. States spend the majority of their Title IV-B funds to provide child protection services, as well as family support, family preservation, family reunification, and adoption promotion and support services.

The largest part of federal child welfare policy and funding is concerned with the smaller number of children for whom foster care is provided. The number of children in foster care has declined over the past decade – from a recorded high of 567,000 children on the last day of FY1999 to a recent low of 408,000 on the last day of FY2010. The decline may be credited to successful efforts by states to – reduce the length of time children spend in care; locate more permanent homes for children; and, in more recent years, reduce the number of children entering care. Most federal support provided to states for children in foster care is provided under Title IV-E and is tied to that portion of a state’s caseload that meets federal Title IV-E eligibility criteria. As of FY2010, that was estimated to be less than half of all children in foster care (or some 181,100 children on an average monthly basis).

Additional federal funding (also under Title IV-E) is available for children who leave foster care for adoption or legal guardianship (with kin). The number of children on whose behalf federal adoption assistance was paid more than doubled between FY1999 – when this assistance was paid on behalf of 195,200 children on an average monthly basis and FY2010 – when some 429,200 children received this assistance in an average month. Federal Title IV-E support for kinship guardianship was initially authorized effective with FY2009, and the number of guardianship recipients has been small but is expected to grow considerably as more states take the option to provide this kind of Title IV-E support. (In FY2009 about 100 children received Title IV-E kinship guardianship assistance on an average monthly basis; in FY2010 that number was 3,600.)

Further, there is some federal policy and dedicated funding (under the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, also under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act) related to meeting the needs of youth who are expected to “age out” of foster care without placement in a permanent family and for those who have aged out. The number of  youth aging out (also referred to as “emancipating”) grew from an estimated 19,000 during FY1999 to close to 30,000 during FY2008; during FY2010, the number of youth aging out was roughly 28,000. Services and other supports provided are intended to help these youth make a successful transition to adulthood, and they are generally available for youth under the age of 21.

Federal child welfare programs authorized under Title IV-B and Title IV-E of the Social Security Act are administered by the Children’s Bureau, within the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), Administration for Children and Families (ACF), at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In Congress, those programs are under the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Finance.

CAPTA and Other Child Welfare Programs. A comparatively small amount of dedicated federal child welfare funding ($113 million in FY2011) is provided under several grants authorized in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). Under CAPTA, first established in 1974, states are required to have a system in place to receive and respond to allegations of abuse and neglect, among other requirements. CAPTA is also administered by the Children’s Bureau, and in Congress is under the jurisdiction of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Other federal child welfare programs authorized outside of the Social Security Act include primarily competitive grants to states, local governments and nongovernmental agencies to – improve opportunities and remove barriers to adoption for children for whom being reunited with their parents is not possible or appropriate and who because of age, race/ethnicity, emotional or mental health concerns, or other issues (as specified by a state) might be less likely to be adopted; fund training and technical assistance for programs that provide court-appointed special advocates for children in abuse or neglect proceedings; fund children’s advocacy centers and other support for multidisciplinary responses to child abuse and neglect; provide services for abandoned infants and children with AIDS or other serious health issues; and support a range of federally administered research and demonstration projects related to preventing abuse and neglect and improving services to children and their families. Most of the programs authorized outside the Social Security Act have annual funding of less than $30 million each and are administered by ACF; a few are administered by the Office of Justice Programs within the Department of Justice. In the House, jurisdiction of these programs has traditionally been spread over the Education and the Workforce, Judiciary, and Energy and Commerce Committees and, in the Senate, over the HELP, Judiciary, and Finance Committees.

Requirements and Oversight

As noted earlier, most federal child welfare requirements are included in Title IV-B and Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. To receive federal support through the federal child welfare programs authorized under those parts of the law, states must provide no less than 20% of total program costs, and may be required to provide up to 50% of total program costs (depending on the program and kind of activity). As a condition of receiving these federal funds, states must also provide certain protections to each child in foster care (and without regard to whether or not the child meets federal Title IV-E eligibility criteria). Further, states must meet additional federal requirements related to planning for and administering services to children and families. State compliance with these requirements is subject to various federal audits and conformity reviews, of which the most comprehensive is the Child and Family Services Review (CFSR).  

Chapter Overview

This chapter focuses on programs that authorize federal child welfare funding to all states, and that must be used for child welfare purposes and are authorized under Title IV-B and Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. It includes links to several Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports about those programs. A separate Tables and Figures section lists all the tables and figures included in those CRS reports. Additional parts of this chapter include a Legislative History and Links to Additional Resources.

[i] Kerry DeVooght, Tiffany Allen, and Rob Geen, Federal, State, and Local Spending to Address Child Abuse and Neglect in SFY 2006, Child Trends, Casey Family Programs, and Annie E. Casey Foundation (December 2008).  As of October 2011, these are the most recent comprehensive survey data available.

[ii] Ibid, p. 5. Share of federal versus state/local spending is given for 48 states and the District of Columbia. Share of total state child welfare spending derived from federal sources ranged between roughly 25% to 75%.  The majority of states fell somewhere in the middle, with federal dollars providing 40% to 60% of state child welfare agency expenditures in 31 states.

[iii] Nearly all children in foster care are eligible for, and receive direct health services via Medicaid. This spending is handled through the state agency that administers Medicaid; it is not included here because it does not represent a cost to the child welfare agency.

[iv] Ibid, p. 18. These survey data were collected prior to changes in policy that may have limited some of this kind of child welfare spending in Medicaid.

[v] Some states provide for local (e.g., county) administration of federal child welfare funds. However, even in these states, federal funds are provided to the state agency, and the state agency is required to supervise the local provision of services to ensure they are provided in a manner consistent with all federal requirements.