Academic journal article Child Welfare

Child Welfare Reform in the United States: Findings from a Local Agency Survey

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Child Welfare Reform in the United States: Findings from a Local Agency Survey

Article excerpt

Efforts to improve the public welfare and child welfare system sparked an unprecedented amount of federal legislation in the 1990s, including the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA), the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 and Interethnic Adoption Provisions of 1996 (MEPA-IEP), and welfare reform. Such reforms allow an unprecedented degree of flexibility, but little is known about their implementation. Researchers administered the Local Agency Survey to the first national probability sample of public child welfare agencies from 1999 to 2000. Findings indicate that ASFA has had the most effect on child welfare service delivery. Welfare reform has had less effect, and MEPA-IEP seems to have had little effect at all.

Efforts to protect children and ensure their well-being have long been controversial in the United States, reflecting changing and contested notions of childhood, poverty, and the role of race-ethnicity in development (Pass & Mason, 2000). In its most simplistic form, one can characterize this debate as one between parents' rights and children's rights. Currently, the more child-focused approach appears to be in ascendance, after a period of reforms aimed at preserving and supporting birth-parents and -families (Larner, Stevenson, & Behrman, 1998). Several reforms, such as the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) and the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 and Interethnic Adoption Provisions of 1996 (MEPA-IEP) refocus the child protection system on the child's fundamental right to a safe, permanent home.

In part, this renewed emphasis on child outcomes reflects disillusionment with prior policies. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272) was designed to address criticisms of the public child welfare system by emphasizing due process rights for parents, placement prevention, timely achievement of permanence for children, and subsidies for special-needs adoption. Despite many improvements in services to parents and children resulting from these reforms, children typically still remain in care for more than 18 months and often go home, only to enter again (Stein, 2000; U.S. General Accounting Office [GAO], 1997). Mounting evidence from state and local data showed high rates of placement moves of children who stay in care, barriers to adopting children who were not likely to go home, high reentry rates for children who do go home, and particularly long stays of African American children (Derrick, Needell, Earth, & Jonson-Reid, 1998; Goerge, Wulczyn, & Harden, 1996). Researchers have also expressed special concerns regarding the increasing number of infants and very young children in placement (Derrick et al., 1998). Research on brain development has drawn public attention to the birth-to-3-years phase as a critical period for child development (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).

These findings raised enough concerns to call for a major reexamination of child welfare policy-an effort that resulted in several major pieces of federal legislation in the 1990s. The absence of more definitive child welfare data also encouraged Congress to fund the first national probability study of child welfare services (National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being [NSCAW] Research Group, 2002) as part of welfare reform, passed in the fall of 1996. This survey included questions for agency managers about the implementation of key child welfare and welfare reform legislation, briefly summarized here.


ASFA represents a renewed attempt to address these persistent concerns and correct the perceived failures of RL. 96-272. ASFA shortened timelines for permanency hearings and termination of parental rights and required the documentation of reasonable efforts to develop an alternative plan for permanency, should reunification efforts fail. ASFA expressly allows concurrent planning. Under certain aggravated circumstances, agencies may waive or bypass reunification services for high-risk families. …

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