Emerging Issues in Child Welfare

By Berrick, Jill Duerr; Lawrence-Karski, Ruth | Public Welfare, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Emerging Issues in Child Welfare


Berrick, Jill Duerr, Lawrence-Karski, Ruth, Public Welfare


A state survey of child welfare administrators identifies issues of concern.

With the installation of the 104th Congress, public attention has turned to U.S. domestic policy. Long dormant or quietly simmering issues have moved to center stage. Welfare policy, food policy, program funding, and health issues are being examined in a new light.

Child welfare has not escaped this new scrutiny. Most of the current discussions about child welfare have centered on funding strategies, but issues of practice also have emerged. Most prominent was the debate over orphanages last fall. Commenting on unwed adolescent mothers, House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested that low-income children who could not be cared for by their mothers might be better served in orphanages.(1) Recalling a previous age when large numbers of children were cared for in orphanages, the reference sparked a lively debate in the news media and among public policymakers and child welfare professionals across the country.(2) Although the American public was divided on the issue, child welfare professionals generally agreed that orphanages would not be an optimal placement alternative for low-income children.(3)

Are all areas in child welfare so easily agreed upon among child welfare professionals? Probably not. Child welfare practice has never been straightforward. Most child welfare decisions center on intensely personal problems between parents and children. Problems involving people's lives are not easily defined, solutions not easily devised. Family difficulties are as much a reflection of failures within the larger social service system as they are about the strains of daily living in modern family life. How child welfare professionals respond to problems that are beyond their purview makes the work especially challenging. Confounding the work further, the mission of child welfare often involves balancing competing interests: Child welfare workers must serve the best interests of the child, but they must also maintain and preserve the family. In some instances, separating these competing goals is difficult.

As with most policy debates, it is important to understand whether the controversies reflect widely divergent beliefs or beliefs that are only modestly different in degree. Similarly, it is instructive to understand whether the debate is fueled by a few outspoken opponents or if the entire profession is divided in its views. Child welfare administrators face the daily challenges imposed by these questions; their views should help shape the direction of future policy.

In 1994, we surveyed public child welfare administrators nationwide on a series of current issues in child welfare. With funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Office of Planning and Evaluation of the Administration on Children and Families, as well as through the HHS Children's Bureau, our goal was to understand areas where there is consensus and to further explore substantive issues that continue to spark debate. We proposed the study in order to fulfill one of the fundamental goals of a federally funded Child Welfare Research Center: to act as an information resource for public policymakers and agency administrators in child welfare.

The Survey

We distributed the survey in June 1994 to 2,268 state, county, and regional public child welfare administrators in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories. The survey went to child welfare administrators listed in APWA's Public Welfare Directory. We also contacted state child welfare agency officials for names and addresses of local child welfare administrators. To increase the response rate, we sent out follow-up post cards three and six weeks after the initial questionnaires. Responses were anonymous.

Of the original sample, 1,096 administrators returned their completed surveys - a response rate of 50 percent, after adjusting for surveys that were not deliverable and for the state of New Jersey, which chose not to participate. …

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