Child welfare funding: Align it with best practices

Dr. William C. Bell spoke to the Congressional Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support in May of 2007.


I am William C. Bell, president and Chief Executive Officer of Casey Family Programs, the nation’s largest operating foundation focused solely on providing, improving and ultimately preventing the need for foster care.

Casey Family Programs has a more than 40-year history of serving children and families throughout the country and we commend the Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support for seeking to identify the challenges facing child welfare as well as seeking viable solutions to improve the lives of vulnerable children in America.

Like the Subcommittee, we feel a compelling sense of urgency to change the life outcomes for children in foster care, because we are extremely troubled by what the data tell us:

  • The number of children who are victims of abuse and neglect is nearly 1 million each year.
  • Children of color continue to be over-represented in the national child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
  • Youth aging out of foster care continue to struggle to build productive, successful adult lives. And,
  • The ratio of children to caseworkers continues to be too high to serve children and families effectively in far too many jurisdictions across the country.

Our collective and immediate action is absolutely essential.

We are all ultimately responsible for the outcomes for the children in America who are touched by the child welfare system. They are relying on each of us with the power and resources to act in a way that assures them that their lives matter.

When a child in this country is placed into foster care, we as child welfare providers, local, state, and federal government officials take on the parental duty to raise them – hopefully with the same standard of care that we would want for our own children if they were to experience the foster care system. And yet, children in foster care remain the most vulnerable in our society for poor outcomes.

The GAO Report produced in October 2006 at the request of the Subcommittee identified three of the most important challenges state child welfare agencies need to address in order to improve outcomes for children and families as:

  1. Providing an adequate level of services for children and families,
  2. Recruiting and retaining caseworkers, and
  3. Finding appropriate homes for children

We agree with the GAO findings and based on Casey Family Programs’ more than 40 years of direct practice experience and ongoing partnerships with child welfare systems across the country, we respectfully submit that there are seven specific challenge areas that must receive focused attention and resource investments in the near term to achieve the long-term positive results we all desire and that children deserve:

  1. Caseload Size: It is a documented fact that dangerously high caseloads severely hinder caseworkers’ ability to focus on the health and well-being of children in our care. Given the high amount of time a caseworker and/or social worker has to spend with administrative duties, travel, court appearances and providing quality service to children and families, we need to implement a reasonable caseload size standard or ceiling for all child welfare caseworkers/social workers in this country.
  1. Leadership Development: It is a documented fact that dangerously high caseloads severely hinder caseworkers’ ability to focus on the health and well-being of children in our care.
  2. Front-line Supervision: One of the critical and necessary elements of child welfare reform is investing in the front-line workforce to improve the quality of the supervision provided to front-line staff. Individual workers need proper training, relevant education, and sufficient supervisory support to make competent, experienced decisions about the needs of children. Today many workers lack the education credentials and the practical training to ensure high quality front-line performance. We know with increased preparation, management support and tools, staff can work with families more proactively on the front end to help them access existing, valuable community resources and help engage extended family and community members in the best interests of a child.
  1. Building Political Will: For any child welfare agency to be successful there must be a public, long-term commitment by the chief political leader (e.g. governor, county supervisor, or mayor) to support and sustain change for children and families. The chief politician must be informed and engaged with the child welfare leadership to implement and consistently build on their clear plan of action. In many cities and states today, political support of child welfare is extremely low or nonexistent. The average child welfare leader’s tenure in this country is 18 months to 2 years. It is clear when an issue or child incident occurs, child welfare stands very much alone — and leaders often feel forced to make near-term decisions in times of crisis. Where we have seen true, long-term success is in jurisdictions where political leaders have collaborated with child welfare leaders (just as they would with police, fire or education departments) to jointly manage and execute a vision for change.
  1. Community and Cross-Systems Engagement: Child welfare cannot do this work alone. Systems must work in tandem with local communities, law enforcement, education, health, community-based organizations, philanthropic organizations and others to build comprehensive programs to improve the lives of vulnerable children in their communities.
  2. Data: We must create and enforce data-driven accountability and publicly report our outcomes. We must have accurate systems to measure child welfare results and transparency with our communication of those results to increase public trust and accountability. Without quality data, we cannot effectively track and share progress and learning, and make better informed decisions regarding the investment of resources.
  1. Time: Systems do not improve overnight. We need to set better expectations with the public and for ourselves as leaders about the realistic timeframes needed to produce sustainable improvement of child welfare systems.

New York City has reduced crime significantly in the past 12 years. It is considered to have one of the best big city police departments in the world. But this year there will be more than 400 murders in New York City.

This year a number of women with restraining orders sanctioned by the courts and registered with the police department will be killed by their husbands or significant others, but that won’t result in a declaration that the police department is broken, nor should it.

My contention is that we must develop similarly reasonable standards for improvement in child welfare.

Systems must improve and they must be held accountable. But we must also recognize that real, lasting and sustainable improvement takes time.

Starting with the 20 states with the highest populations of children in care, Casey Family Programs has embarked on an effort that we call our 2020 Strategy for Children.

Between now and the year 2020 Casey Family Programs is committed to supporting and partnering with the child welfare system in each state in the country to implement changes in these critical challenge areas in order to achieve the goal of improving the life outcomes for children in foster care in America as well as safely reducing the number of children who experience foster care in America.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not address the issue of child welfare financing, as it is an obvious factor in any aspect of fundamental change. Currently, the federal government provides more than $12 billion each year to help pay for the cost of our child welfare systems.

Unfortunately, for several decades, federal funding policies have not aligned well with many promising child welfare practices and have had the unintended consequences of providing a disincentive for innovation in some of the practices that we know work best for children and families.

These consequences are visible in the lack of IV-E flexibility for subsidized guardianship, the lack of comprehensive post reunification services, the lack of comprehensive post- adoption services, and the lack of comprehensive transition support services for young adults who age out of the foster care system.

Recently the PEW Charitable Trusts with the support of other child welfare organizations has introduced a set of comprehensive recommendations to improve child welfare financing. We strongly believe that federal finance reform is critical to achieving better results for children, and would urge consideration of these recommendations.

In closing, as I participate here today I do so with the strong belief that change is possible and that the outcomes that we seek can be achieved — but time is of the essence. On average, each day in America, approximately 1,425 children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care. That is nearly 59 children every hour.

In the time that it will take to complete this hearing today more than 100 children will have entered the foster care system in America …

I thank you for seeking real change on their behalf.

I also thank you again Mr. Chairman, Congressman Weller, and Subcommittee members for the opportunity to share Casey Family Programs’ perspective with you today.

Casey Family Programs is honored to serve children and families and we are committed to working with government, child welfare agencies, and other systems and partners in every community in America to ensure we follow through on our promise to improve the outcomes and life possibilities for all children and families who are touched by the child welfare system.

Thank you.