Federal child welfare policy is largely concerned with preventing the abuse or neglect of children in their own homes and responding to the consequences of such abuse or neglect. The primary goals of the policy are to ensure children’s safety and permanence, and to promote the well-being of children and their families.
Under the U.S. Constitution, states are believed to have the primary obligation to ensure the welfare of children and their families. At the state level, the child welfare “system” consists of public child protection and child welfare workers, private child welfare and social service workers, state and local judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement personnel. These representatives of various state and local entities assume interrelated roles while carrying out child welfare activities, including investigating reports of child abuse and neglect, providing services to strengthen and support biological, adoptive, and kinship families, removing children from their homes when that is necessary for their safety, supervising and administering payments for children placed in foster care, working to permit safe reunification of children with their parents or, when this is not possible, finding them a new permanent family through adoption, legal guardianship or placement with a fit and willing relative, and providing services to help youth who “age out” of foster care become successful adults.
Children and Families Served
Most children or families served by a public (state or local) child welfare agency first come into contact with that agency following an allegation of child abuse or neglect. There are some 74 million children in the nation, and in FY2014 state or local child protective service workers investigated or otherwise provided a response to allegations of abuse or neglect involving some 3.2 million children. An estimated 1.3 million of those children and their families receive additional services following this child protective services response and states identified 702,000 children as victims of child abuse or neglect under state law. The large majority of children who received child welfare agency services after an abuse or neglect investigation or response were served in their own home rather than being removed to foster care.
Foster care is a temporary living arrangement for children who cannot safely remain in their own homes. There were some 265,000 children who entered foster care in FY2014, This represented an increase of 10,000 children compared to FY2013 and was the highest one-year total of children entering care in five years. For most of the children entering foster care in FY2014 (60%) states reported that neglect was one of the circumstances that led to their removal from their homes and placement in foster care. Other circumstances of removal for children entering care in FY2014 included (alone or in combination with additional factors) drug abuse by the child’s parent (30%), “caretaker inability to cope” due to physical or mental illness or other reason (15%), physical abuse (13%), a child behavior problem (12%), inadequate housing (10%), parental incarceration (8%), alcohol abuse by child’s parent (6%), abandonment (5%), and sexual abuse (4%).
The number of children remaining in foster care on a given day of the year declined from a high of 567,000 children who were reported in foster care on the last day of FY1999 to a low of 397,000 as of the last day of FY2012. On the last day of FY2013, states reported 402,000 children in foster care, and this number increased to 415,000 by the end of FY2014. The general decline in the number of children in foster care across much of the past decade and a half may be credited to successful efforts by states to reduce the length of time children spend in care, locate more permanent homes for children and, in more recent years, reduce the number of children entering care. The more recent increases in entries to foster care, which has at least anecdotally been linked to rising parental substance abuse, may explain the increase in the overall foster care caseload.
Requirements and Oversight
Most federal child welfare requirements are included in Title IV-B and Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. To receive federal support through the federal child welfare programs authorized under those parts of the law, states must provide no less than 20% of total program costs, and may be required to provide up to 50% of total program costs (depending on the program and kind of activity). As a condition of receiving these federal funds, states must also provide certain protections to each child in foster care (and without regard to whether or not the child meets federal Title IV-E eligibility criteria). Further, states must meet additional federal requirements related to planning for and administering services to children and families. State compliance with these requirements is subject to various federal audits and conformity reviews, of which the most comprehensive is the Child and Family Services Review (CFSR).
State Spending on Child Welfare Purposes
States spend substantial funds on child welfare purposes and, on a national basis, generally exceed the amount needed to access full federal child welfare funding. For example, in FY2014 federal dedicated child welfare funding was about $8.0 billion, and given the level of non-federal dollars states are required to provide to fully draw down those federal funds states would be expected to spend around $6.1 billion in state and local funds for child welfare purposes. This suggests total federal, state, and local spending authorized under federal child welfare programs of just above $14 billion. However, according to a survey of state child welfare agency spending for state fiscal year 2014 (the most recent available), those public agencies spent $29.1 billion on child welfare activities in that year with more than half of this spending ($16.3billion or 57%) coming from state or local funds. The remainder ($12.8 billion or 43%) drew on federal funds, including the funding streams discussed above that are dedicated to child welfare purposes (primarily Title IV-E and Title IV-B), as well as additional federal funding that states may choose to direct to child welfare purposes. Principally this “non-dedicated” funding is expended by states’ child welfare agencies out of federal funds provided under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), and Medicaid. 
 Kristina Rosinsky and Dana Connelly. Child Welfare Financing SFY2014: A survey of federal, state, and local expenditures, Child Trends. Casey Family Programs, and Annie E. Casey Foundation (October 2016).
The House Ways and Means Committee is making available selected reports by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) for inclusion in its 2016 Green Book website. CRS works exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to Committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation. For prior reports, please see the 2012 Green Book and 2014 Green Book.
Selected Acts Amending Child Welfare Programs
Additional Tables and Figures
Figure 11-4. Rate of Entry to Foster Care by State, FY2015; Figure 11-4A. Rate of Children in Foster Care by State, FY2015; Figure 11-4B. Percentage Change in Number of Children in Foster Care on the Last Day of FY2011 versus the Last Day of FY2015 by state; and Table 11-4. Number of Children Entering, Served, Exiting or in Foster Care by State FY2011 and FY2015
Figure 11-6. Trend in Federal and State Title IV-E Spending for Foster Care, Adoption Assistance, and Kinship Guardianship Assistance, FY1989-FY2016 and Table 11-6. Federal and State Title IV-E Spending for Foster Care, Adoption Assistance, and Kinship Guardianship Assistance, FY1989-FY2016
Figure 11-7. Trend in Federal Title IV-E Spending by Program Component, FY1989-FY2016; Figure 11-8. Share of Federal Title IV-E Spending by Program Component, FY1989-FY2016; and Table 11-7. Federal Title IV-E Spending by Component, FY1989-FY2016
Figure 11-10. Foster Care Entry Rates by Age at Entry, Selected Fiscal Years; Table 11-10. Number of Children Entering Foster Care by Age, FY2003-FY2015; Table 11-10A. Rate of Children Entering Foster Care by Age, FY2003-FY2015; and Table 11-10B. Share of Children Entering Foster Care by Age, FY2003-FY2015
No new legislation affecting the child welfare programs authorized in Title IV-B and Title IV-E of the Social Security Act had been enacted in the 114th Congress (2015-2016). For a legislative history of child welfare programs for prior years, see prior editions of the Green Book.
This page was prepared October 2016 for the 2016 version of the House Ways and Means Committee Green Book.