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 state level, the child welfare “system” consists of public child protection and child welfare workers, private child welfare and social service workers, state and local judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement personnel.  These representatives of various state and local entities assume interrelated roles while carrying out child welfare activities, including investigating reports of child abuse and neglect, providing services to strengthen and support biological, adoptive, and kinship families, removing children from their homes when that is necessary for their safety, supervising and administering payments for children placed in foster care, working to permit safe reunification of children with their parents or, when this is not possible, finding them a new permanent family through adoption, legal guardianship or placement with a fit and willing relative, and providing services to help youth who “age out” of foster care become successful adults.

Children and Families Served

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 FY2012 state or local child protective service workers investigated or otherwise provided a response to allegations of abuse or neglect involving some 3.2 million children.  An estimated 1.2 million of those children and their families receive additional services following this child protective services response and states identified 686,000 children as victims of child abuse or neglect under state law.  The large majority of children who received child welfare agency services after an abuse or neglect investigation or response were served in their own home rather than being removed to foster care.

Foster care is a temporary living arrangement for children who cannot safely remain in their own homes.  There were some 255,000 children who entered foster care in FY2013 and for most of them (58%) states reported that neglect was one of the circumstances that led to their removal from their homes and placement in foster care.  Other circumstances of removal for children entering care in FY2013 included (alone or in combination with additional factors) drug abuse by the child’s parent (28%), “caretaker inability to cope” (17%), physical abuse (14%), a child behavior problem (13%), inadequate housing (9%), parental incarceration (8%), alcohol abuse by child’s parent (6%), abandonment (5%), and sexual abuse (4%).

The number of children remaining in foster care on a given day of the year has been in decline.  A high of 567,000 children were reported in foster care on the last day of FY1999 and that number had declined to a low of 397,000 as of the last day of FY2012.  On the last day of FY2013, states reported 402,000 children in foster care.  The general decline in the number of children in foster care 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.

Major Child Welfare Programs in the Social Security Act and Their Funding

Federal involvement in state and local child welfare activities is tied to the financial assistance it provides to states to conduct, or supervise the conduct of, this work.  As a condition of receiving federal child welfare funds, states are required to abide by certain federal policies intended to further the overarching goals of safety, permanency and well-being for children and their families.

For FY2014, Congress appropriated $8.0 billion in funding dedicated to child welfare purposes.  The large majority of that funding was authorized under Title IV-B or Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, distributed to state child welfare agencies based on a formula or entitlement, and provided on a mandatory or direct funding basis.  States are typically required to provide their own (that is, non-federal) funds to receive these federal dollars, ranging from a minimum of 20% to 50% of total program costs.

Title IV-B is the primary source of dedicated federal support for child welfare-related services and these funds may be used to serve any child or family deemed to need these services and without regard to whether a child lives at home, in foster care, or was previously in foster care.  State, territorial, and tribal child welfare agencies receive the bulk of Title IV-B funding ($689 million in FY2014) under the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Child Welfare Services and Promoting Safe and Stable Families programs; they used these funds primarily to provide child protection, family support, family preservation, family reunification, and adoption promotion and support services.  A smaller portion of the overall Title IV-B funding is distributed to the highest court in each state (to improve handling of child abuse and neglect proceedings), awarded competitively to support child welfare-related projects (including grants addressing substance abuse and supporting family connections), or is used for other child welfare-related research, training, and technical assistance.

Under the Title IV-E program, states are entitled to receive partial federal support for the cost of providing foster care to each child who meets the Title IV-E foster care eligibility criteria.  For eligible children, federal reimbursement is available for a part of the cost of providing foster care maintenance payments (i.e., room and board) as well as for certain required case planning and review activities, program-related training, and other program administration costs.  In FY2014, Congress provided budget authority of $4.3 billion to reimburse states for the federal share of Title IV-E foster care.

Most federal child welfare requirements are concerned with children who are in foster care.   States are generally required to provide the same case planning, review and other protections to children in foster care without regard to their Title IV-E eligibility status.  However, they may not use Title IV-E program funds (federal or required state share of Title IV-E) to provide those protections to children not eligible for Title IV-E.  The number of children eligible for Title IV-E foster care maintenance payments has declined even more sharply than the overall decline in all children in foster care.  Although this share varies considerably by state, on a national basis far less than half of all children in foster care are claimed by states as receiving Title IV-E foster care maintenance payments (i.e., 159,000 on an average monthly basis in FY2013).  Federal foster care eligibility criteria are multi-faceted, reflecting Congressional concern that children not be unnecessarily removed from their homes and that while in foster care they are in safe settings.  However, the decline in the share of children meeting the federal Title IV-E foster care eligibility criteria is often attributed to the program’s static income eligibility guidelines which are fixed at levels determined in each state as of July 1996.  The average state federal foster care income eligibility standard represented 42% of the federal poverty guidelines for FY2014 (based on a family of three).  The comparable average for FY1996 was 62%.  

Additional federal funding (also under Title IV-E) is available for children who leave foster care for adoption or legal guardianship (with kin).  For FY2014, Congress appropriated $2.6 billion in budget authority to reimburse states for the federal share of the cost of supporting children in new permanent homes.  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 FY2013, when some 431,500 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 FY2013 about 17,200 children in 29 states received Title IV-E kinship guardianship assistance on an average monthly basis.)

Further, there is some dedicated funding (under the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, also in 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 already aged out.  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.  For FY2014 Congress provided $183 million for this purpose.  The number of youth aging out (also referred to as “emancipating”) grew from an estimated 19,000 during FY1999 to close to 31,000 during FY2009 when that number represented more than 11% of all children who left care.  However, it has since declined.  In FY2013 more than 23,000 aged out of foster care, representing just under 10% of all children leaving foster care in that year.

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, which is 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 ($94 million in FY2014) is provided under several grants authorized in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA).  Under CAPTA, which was 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 Committee on Education and the Workforce and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).

Other federal child welfare programs authorized outside of the Social Security Act include primarily competitive grants to states, local governments, and nongovernmental agencies to do the following:

  1. 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;
  2. Fund training and technical assistance for programs that provide court-appointed special advocates for children in abuse or neglect proceedings;
  3. Fund children’s advocacy centers and other support for multidisciplinary responses to child abuse and neglect;
  4. Provide services for abandoned infants and children with AIDS or other serious health issues; and
  5. 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 the Children’s Bureau; a few are administered by the Office of Justice Programs within the Department of Justice.  In the House the jurisdiction of these programs has traditionally been spread over the Education and the Workforce and Judiciary Committees and in the Senate over the HELP and Judiciary Committees.

Separately, funding for the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program (Title V, Section 511 of the Social Security Act; $371 million in FY2014) is distributed to all states and tribes (via formula and competitive grants) to support home visiting services that promote maternal, infant and child health; improve school readiness and achievement; prevent child abuse or neglect and injuries; improve family economic self-sufficiency; reduce crime or domestic violence; and improve coordination and referrals for community resources and supports.  Home visiting, which supports the primary child welfare goals of safety and well-being, is a service frequently provided by child welfare agencies (using Title IV-B or other federal funding).  The MIECHV program, first authorized to receive funding in FY2010, is administered primarily by state public health or social service agencies.

Requirements and Oversight

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).  

State Spending on Child Welfare Purposes

States spend substantial funds on child welfare purposes and, on a national basis, generally exceed the amount needed to access full federal child welfare funding.  For example, in FY2014 federal dedicated child welfare funding was about $8.0 billion, and given statutory participation (sometimes called “matching”) rates, states would be expected to spend about $3.9 billion in state and local funds to fully draw down that funding.  This suggests total federal, state, and local spending authorized under federal child welfare programs of just less than $12 billion.  However, according to a survey of state child welfare agency spending for state fiscal year 2012 (the most recent available), those public agencies spent $28.2 billion on child welfare activities in that year with a little more than half of this spending ($15.5 billion or 55%) coming from state or local funds.  The remainder ($12.7 billion) drew on federal funds, including the funding streams discussed above that are dedicated to child welfare purposes (primarily Title IV-E and Title IV-B), as well as additional federal funding that states may choose to direct to child welfare purposes.  Principally this “non-dedicated” funding is expended by states’ child welfare agencies out of federal funds provided under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), and Medicaid.[1]

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 section includes Additional Tables and Figures related to child welfare.  Other parts of this chapter include a Legislative History and Links to Additional Resources.

This page was prepared on October 12, 2014 for the 2014 version of the House Ways and Means Committee Green Book.

[1]Kerry DeVooght, Megan Fletcher, and Hope Cooper, Federal, State, and Local Spending to Address Child Abuse and Neglect in SFY2012, Child Trends, Casey Family Programs, and Annie E. Casey Foundation (September 2014).