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Federal Child Welfare Policy

Considering that children’s issues only made their debut on the nation’s political stage a few decades ago, the federal government has made important strides in protecting vulnerable children – although there remains much work to be done. The 1960s and 1970s marked the inception of child policy making, as the federal and state governments assumed greater responsibility for social welfare programs via funding and administration. In particular, 1974 was a watershed for children’s wellbeing with the creation of the first Federal Office for Child Support Enforcement and the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). In the years since, the area of children’s protection services have evolved substantially.


Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 was the first national legislation Congress passed in regard to child maltreatment. CAPTA was created to bring a federal focus to preventing and responding to child abuse and neglect in the United States by offering funding to states and non-profit organizations for programs that address this important issue. Currently, all fifty states and the District of Columbia accept CAPTA funding for “prevention, assessment, investigation, prosecution, and treatment activities” related to child abuse and neglect. CAPTA also requires the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) to establish a national clearinghouse for child abuse information. HHS created the Child Welfare Information Gateway which contains a wide range of information and statistics on child abuse and neglect.


Each state that accepts CAPTA funding must establish programs that comply with several CAPTA requirements. States accepting CAPTA funding must:

  • Enforce child abuse reporting laws

  • Investigate reports of abuse and neglect

  • Ensure the safety of children who are victims of abuse or neglect

  • Educate the public about abuse and neglect

  • Provide a guardian ad litem (GAL) to every abused or neglected child whose case is subject to a court proceeding.

  • Maintain confidential records of child abuse or neglect reports and investigations. States must be prepared to release the information to federal, state, and all other government offices in need of the information. States must also release reports of child abuse or neglect that led to the death or near death of a child to the public.

  • Expunge public records of unsubstantiated used for employment or background checks of unsubstantiated and false reports of abuse and neglect.


Although CAPTA set national standards for what child abuse means, each state has the freedom to set its own specifications, and these can vary across the spectrum. While respecting the states’ need for flexibility, Congress has indicated a desire to become increasingly involved in shaping child protective services. To this end, six additional pieces of legislation were passed between 1980 and 2001 that dealt with concerns ranging from ending foster care drift to the inclusion of community agencies in protective service delivery. CAPTA was most recently amended by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010.


Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act

The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 created Title IV-E of the Social Security Act and established the first federal rules to govern child welfare case management, permanency planning, and foster care placement reviews. The act requires courts to review child welfare cases more regularly and mandates that states make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together via prevention and family reunification services. States were also required to develop reunification and preventative programs for foster care and assure that children in non-permanent settings were seen at least every six months.


Family Preservation and Family Support Services Program

The Family Preservation and Family Support Services Program was passed by Congress in 1993 to provide flexible funding for community-based services that focused on child abuse prevention and/or helping parents whose children were at risk of being removed. It is authorized through Title IV-B, subpart 2 of the Social Security Act. This legislation also created the Court Improvement Program, which enabled state courts to assess innovative methods of improving family court performance.

Child Welfare Waiver Program

In 1994, Congress authorized a Child Welfare Waiver program similar to the Court Improvement Program that would enable state agencies to test new approaches to delivering and financing child welfare services. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grants waivers annually to states through its discretionary grants program.

Adoption and Safe Families Act

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 was created in response to criticisms that inadequate resources were devoted to adoption as a permanent placement option for abused children, that the child welfare system was more concerned with family preservation than with child protection, and that too many children languished indefinitely in the foster care system. ASFA’s guidelines were meant to increase the number of adoptions, to encourage states to expedite permanency decisions for children in foster care, to establish performance standards and implement a fiscally punitive state accountability system; and to expand the waiver program explained above. It also expanded the Family Preservation and Family Support Services Program, now called Promoting Safe and Stable Families, to provide additional funding for adoption promotion and support activities and for time-limited family reunification services.

Strengthening Abuse and Neglect Courts Act

In 2000, Congress passed the Strengthening Abuse and Neglect Courts Act. Under this law state courts can apply for federal grants that must be used toward a) reducing the backlog of abuse and neglect cases and/or b) automating case-tracking and data-collection systems.

Promoting Safe and Stable Families Amendments

The Promoting Safe and Stable Families Amendments of 2001 increased the authorization level from $305 million to $505 million for PSSF. However, the mandatory funding level was held at $305 million, meaning that any funding amount above that figure is entirely discretionary. The funding is used for four core purposes: family preservation, community-based family support services, time-limited reunification services, and adoption promotion and support services. In FY 2008, the program funding was approximately $404 million. The Act gave the Promoting Safe and Stable Families program new authority to fund a voucher program for the postsecondary education and training of children who have aged out of the foster care system. The Act also allowed the Promoting Safe and Stable Families program to support mentorship programs for children of incarcerated parents.


  • Child Welfare Information Gateway (2011) About CAPTA: A legislative history 1 .Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

  • The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, Pub. L. No. 111-320, § 5104.

  • U.S. Congressional Research Service. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA): Background, Programs, and Funding (R40899; 1, November 4, 2009), by Emile Stoltzfus.

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