While child welfare policy has a long tradition of bipartisanship, polarization has invariably begun to affect the systems and organizations charged with protecting children and strengthening families. To explore this changing landscape, BPC spent the past nine months listening to the diverse perspectives of those working for, involved with, and directly affected by child welfare policy.
These conversations informed the launch of our new Child Welfare Initiative and demonstrated widespread consensus on challenges in the field. Despite ideological differences, we found strong agreement on the direction the field should be going and acknowledgment of the difficulty in building common ground solutions.
This blog summarizes BPC’s landscape assessment. These findings will inform our work to facilitate the development and implementation of effective, bipartisan policies.
Defining Child Welfare
Child welfare includes an array of federal and state policies relating to how the government intervenes to prevent or address child neglect and abuse. This encompasses policies across the child welfare continuum, including but not limited to, child maltreatment prevention; child protective services, including how reports of suspected cases of abuse and neglect are received and responded to; family strengthening programs; foster care; reunification; kinship; and adoption.
Child welfare is a team game. We need all the best minds and resources together to make it work in practice and policy.
Landscape Assessment Methodology
To gather information about the child welfare policy environment, BPC conducted:
- more than 100 interviews with those with lived experience (foster care alumni, birth parents, kinship caregivers, foster and adoptive families), agency leaders and staff, policymakers, judicial officials, faith leaders, tribal leaders, researchers, service providers, and advocates
- a dozen small group discussions with foster care alumni, birth parents, caregivers, provider agencies, agency leaders, law enforcement and judges
- site visits to two states to engage stakeholders in Republican and Democratic-leaning communities
- surveys of community representatives, caseworkers, caregivers, and faith leaders
- nationally representative poll and two representative state polls, in Georgia and Ohio, conducted by The Harris Poll
- 50-state review of child welfare legislation (findings coming soon)
- media scan examining how child welfare appears in news and social media platforms (coming in 2024)
Five Key Findings from Landscape Assessment
1) Significant consensus exists on many of the major challenges currently facing the child welfare field
Stakeholders largely agree the most urgent challenges include:
- insufficient workforce capacity and skills
- high needs of youth and lack of sufficient services
- child welfare becoming a catch-all system, resulting in some children and families being inappropriately involved
- lack of appropriate placement resources and concerns about unsafe placements, such as hotels and offices
- lack of accessible, appropriate mental health services to meet heightened demand among children, parents, and the workforce
- barriers to implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018
- persistent challenges meeting the basic needs of youth aging out of foster care at age 18
- bureaucratic red tape
- not fully leveraging lived experience and expertise
2) Significant consensus exists around the need to improve child welfare systems through strengthened implementation of existing policies and targeted new reforms that clarify and scale up best practices and reduce system burden.
Agreement on the need for improvement was accompanied by an acknowledgment that local and state systems have limited capacity to take on new reforms. Any efforts at improvement will require assistance. Specific ideas for improvements include:
- limiting the number of families referred to child welfare and diverting families to other community resources
- helping child welfare and other social service agencies work together more effectively and with community-based and faith-based organizations
- assisting agencies with implementation of Family First Prevention Services Act
- continuing the positive progress on supporting kinship families
- creating more flexible funding options to meet unique community needs
- re-examining policies and practices associated with terminating parental rights
- making services more accessible, especially in rural areas
3) Effects of political polarization on discussions and decisions in child welfare systems have raised widespread concern.
Political polarization, most people pointed out, is not new. Yet they agree that divides in the child welfare field have worsened, prompting concern about service delivery and effectiveness. Respondents also said that the child welfare field feels more combative than ever before. Individuals yearn for space to discuss issues and raise questions without fear of judgment or being “canceled.” Many said that trust has broken down, making it risky even to respectfully disagree.
There should be a big effort to revive bipartisanship. The fringes on both sides need to be balanced out. We need the middle.
This environment makes it difficult for productive discussions. The dynamic appears to be more intense at the national level, where policy discussions focus more on overhaul of the child welfare system, while state-level discussions focus more on program implementation.
4) Polarization results from differences in values, not just party affiliation. Even when values overlap, they are often expressed in diverse ways.
Value differences about parenting, children’s rights, parental rights, and the role of government don’t fall neatly within party lines. At the state level, for example, Republicans and Democrats are both working on legislation ranging from child maltreatment prevention to adoption.
Political tensions heightened when discussions involved racial inequities, LGBTQ+ youth, and responses to families in poverty. These topics can stall policy progress or derail conversations.
We also identified areas of commonality in beliefs and values. For example, the vast majority of stakeholders care about strengthening families, yet these shared values can be interpreted and communicated differently. Further, findings from the national poll show that Americans believe there are socioeconomic and racial biases in the child welfare system; yet the reasons given for these biases differ based on people’s values.
Word cloud of polarizing rhetoric heard in focus groups and interviews
5) Limited appetite and capacity reduce the space for major new policy reforms. Many in the field, especially system leaders, feel overwhelmed and exhausted.
Child welfare faces severe workforce challenges. State systems are challenged by expectations of reform and innovation, and they struggle with staffing shortages, high turnover, and resource constraints. Many described being overwhelmed by trying to balance the daily demands of managing a complex system while meeting expectations for transformational reform. Leaders want to achieve meaningful reforms, but also must make the “now” better. Many find it incredibly difficult to innovate.
In the coming months, BPC’s Child Welfare Initiative will:
- convene stakeholders for constructive conversation about policy opportunities and approaches
- conduct research to assist state policymakers and program leaders with program implementation and develop new policies that strengthen families and promote child health and safety
- facilitate the exchange of ideas and information among and between state and federal decision-makers and the broader child welfare community
- develop and elevate policy solutions
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