The Federal Government’s Historical Role in Child Safety
Many factors go into keeping children safe, including environmentally safe conditions and secure communities. In particular, children need to be safe and secure in their families, with their parents and caregivers. Nationally, there are approximately 2 million cases of child abuse and neglect investigated annually and over 700,000 confirmed cases of abuse or neglect. Over 400,000 children are in foster care at any point in time. States and the federal government spend in excess of $25 billion annually on children in out-of-home placement due to confirmed instances of abuse or neglect.
While the responsibility for developing and administering child protection systems is largely a state responsibility, since 1935 the federal government has provided funding to states to develop child-welfare services and systems. Over three decades, both Democratic and Republican administrations have expanded federal funding and strengthened the accountability of states for meeting the needs of children and youth in foster care or at risk of placement into care. The first Bush administration provided family support funding to establish more preventive responses to children and families. The Clinton administration strengthened pathways to adoption for children for whom reunification was not viable. The second Bush administration placed new emphases on fostering connections that help foster youth transition successfully to adult life.
While there have been a number of changes to federal funding and the development of new programs to support vulnerable children, the single largest source of funding remains Title IV-e, which primarily provides basic services for children who are in foster care or adopted as special-needs children. The vast majority of funding goes to maintenance and treatment services for children once they are removed from their homes—not to preserve children safely in their families or prevent abuse in the first place.
Child Safety and the Challenges Ahead
The guiding tenets of federal legislation have been to secure the safety, permanence, and well-being of children in the foster care system, preserving families where that is possible and speeding reunification or adoption when children must be placed outside the home. Despite these tenets, children who enter the child welfare system—and particularly children who are placed into foster care—are much more likely than their peers to struggle academically, be in poorer physical health, and have social, developmental, psychological and behavioral problems, be unemployed, and reside in adult mental health and corrections systems. Half will not graduate from high school on time, giving them limited options for immediate employment or for long-term career paths. Children of color are disproportionately involved in the child-welfare and juvenile-justice systems and these systems often struggle to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services to children and their parents.
One-third of all children in the U.S. receive health coverage through Medicaid or the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP). While 10 percent of children remain uninsured, the rate of child health coverage has increased as a result of these public programs.
What federal actions should be taken to ensure that all children have coverage that meets their health and nutrition needs?
Research shows that the long-term success of children who enter the child-protective system is dependent not only on being kept safe and receiving needed treatment services, but upon their maintaining or establishing long-term ties with caring adults and having continuity in relationships outside the protective service system. At the same time, placement of children into foster care often disrupts existing relationships and makes it difficult to create others. Too many children “age out” of foster care, leaving them without a family on whom they can depend when they turn 18. While safety is often the immediate concern, the issues of permanence and well-being of children are also critically important to their healthy development, yet often receive much less attention in state child-welfare systems.
Context for Federal Electoral Dialogue
Public opinion consistently shows that voters want government to play a strong role in protecting children and keeping them free from harm, while not intruding into family prerogatives in child rearing.