The American child welfare system is complex. Involving foster care, adoption, prevention of neglect and abuse, and family support. A tangled web of federal and state policy guides both public agencies and private organizations.
A groundbreaking Harris Poll conducted for the Bipartisan Policy Center—one of the few national surveys to gauge public attitudes toward the child welfare system—finds that Americans accept this complexity. They hold strong opinions about the system’s operations and parental responsibility but clearly prioritize both child safety and family unity. The fact that more than one-third of respondents (35%) have had some direct interaction with the child welfare system informs these nuanced views.
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- Dual Mission Appreciated: Respondents see the child welfare system’s mission as two-fold: ensuring child safety and strengthening parents, with a nearly equal emphasis on protecting children (44%) and supporting families (51%).
- Faith in Family Improvement: A significant majority (74%) believe neglectful parents can provide safe and nurturing care for their children, with appropriate support. The same hope extends to abusive parents, with over half (53%) holding this view.
- Support for Kinship Care: Americans advocate for engaging extended family members when parents face challenges, with 90% favoring family involvement before considering foster care and 76% opposing adoption until all family care options are exhausted.
- Shared Responsibility: Two-thirds of participants (66%) agree that child safety and family assistance should be a shared effort between government and community/religious organizations.
- Balancing Act in Child Welfare Decisions: Americans lean towards erring on the side of caution, with 61% supporting investigations into reports of child neglect and abuse, even when there is uncertainty. Following an investigation, 53% favor keeping the child in the home even if the perceived risk of future harm is unclear; 39% say the child should be removed. At the same time, majorities of the public are concerned that decisions to intervene may sometimes reflect socioeconomic (73%) and racial (60%) biases.
- Timeline for Reunification: The public supports parents having sufficient time to meet requirements for family reunification, even if it means children spend more time in foster care. Just over half (57%) agree with the standard 15-month timeline, the suggested duration that agencies must give parents before moving on to other options.
- Neglect and Abuse Seen as Willful: Parenting is widely recognized as a difficult task, with 89% sharing that sentiment. Two thirds (65%) of respondents, however, believe that child neglect and abuse stem from deliberate parental actions rather than circumstantial factors. Nearly three-quarters (72%) attribute neglect to parents not wanting to care for their child; 8 in 10 attribute abuse to ill intent and desire to harm on the part of parents.
- Complex Views on Adoption and Cultural Preservation: While 47% of respondents agree that once a child is adopted from foster care, it is better to avoid contact with biological families, nearly three-quarters (71%) agree that, in general, adoptive parents should help adopted children maintain ongoing and safe relationships with their biological families.
- Acknowledgment of Systemic Strains and Media Bias: Respondents are aware of the overwhelming challenges child welfare systems face, including funding, resources, bureaucracy, and negativity bias in media coverage. Yet they believe the system generally does more good than harm. More respondents perceive the U.S. child welfare system positively (48%) than negatively (43%).
These insights lay a solid foundation for BPC’s new Child Welfare Initiative. In the coming weeks, BPC will share additional information about the public’s perception of the child welfare system as well as an overview of policies being considered in all 50 states.
The research was conducted online in the U.S. by The Harris Poll on behalf of the Bipartisan Policy Center among 2013 US adults aged 18 from all over the U.S. The survey was conducted from June 29 – July 19, 2023.
Data are weighted where necessary by age, gender, race/ethnicity, region, education, marital status, household size, household income, and propensity to be online to bring them in line with their actual proportions in the population.
Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in our surveys. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the main sample is accurate to within ±2.9 percentage points.
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