Child-Welfare Reform and the Role of Privatization

Executive Summary

Despite passage of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which was designed to give states incentives to expedite adoptions, more flexibility to conduct child-welfare demonstration projects, and ensure safety for children, the child-welfare statistical picture looks worse than it did before 1997.

  • In 1996, approximately 520,000 children were in foster care; by March 1999, 547,000 children were in foster care.
  • In 1996, 11 percent had been in foster care for three to four years, and 10 percent had been there for five years or longer. By March 1999, 15 percent had been in foster care three to four years and 18 percent had been in foster care for 5 years or longer.
  • In 1996, approximately 54,000 children were legally available for adoption; by March 1999, 117,000 children were legally available for adoption.

More children continue to languish in foster care despite an overall decrease in child-abuse victims. In 1998, based on data reported by the states, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that child protective service agencies received about 2,806,000 referrals of possible child abuse or neglect. Of the 66 percent of those referrals investigated, states found that an estimated 903,000 children were victims of abuse and/or neglect. In a trend that began five years ago, the number of children abused and neglected has decreased approximately 11 percent from a record 1,018,692 in 1993. The incidence of children victimized by maltreatment also declined to 12.9 per 1,000 children, the lowest record in more than 10 years.

Child-welfare policy, writes RPPI adjunct scholar Susan Orr, is set by a pendulum that swings from crisis to crisis. In Child Protection at the Crossroads, Orr writes, “A child death translates into a policy of removing children too easily from their homes and keeping them in foster care too long. An overzealous removal rate then triggers the opposite reaction, dictating that too many children stay in dangerous settings as the agency tries to be more ‘family friendly.’”

In order to address both extremes of the pendulum—child deaths versus overzealous child removal—and stop the pendulum from swinging, states need to find ways to reduce the scope of their child-protection efforts, while prioritizing to devote more resources to serious cases of child abuse. Child-welfare privatization is proving a valuable tool for improving the child-protection system by reducing the number of children and families involved with the state and ensuring permanency and safety for those children who really need to be protected. It presents an opportunity to change the child-protection system to a competitive, outcome-oriented system that focuses on specific performance measures such as increasing adoptions, ensuring child safety, and reducing the time children spend in foster care. States can implement several reforms to improve their child-welfare systems and help ensure a successful child-welfare privatization program.

A. Privatize Adoption Services First

Since adoption privatization has been the most successful and the least controversial component of childwelfare privatization, states should begin their child-welfare reform by privatizing the adoption process. Child-welfare agencies are often so busy investigating child-abuse, placing children in foster care, and providing services to families that there are not many resources left to announce the availability of children to prospective parents once they are freed for adoption. Private and nonprofit agencies can focus all of their attention on finding a child an adoptive family, especially when contracts are structured to reward the swift placement of children eligible for adoption.

B. Reduce the Foster-care Population

Since privatization often is accompanied by increases in foster-care caseloads because government social workers have more time to investigate child-abuse reports, a successful child-welfare privatization program must focus on ways to reduce the foster-care population. Some good strategies include:

  • Ranking hotline calls;
  • Offering privatized voluntary services to low-risk cases;
  • Narrowing child-abuse definitions;
  • Implementing safety-focused family preservation programs; and
  • Criminalizing all serious cases of abuse.

C. Offer One-stop Child Protection

An ideal child-protection system would protect both the safety and rights of the child and the rights of the parent. While these two goals will always conflict with one another to some extent, a complete one-stop child protective service center would solve many of the inherent conflicts in the current child-protection system. Such a system would offer a child a safe environment and provide a child-protection team with experts in investigating child abuse as well as the necessary legal representation from the district attorney’s office and the judicial system to ensure parents’ due process. It would include child-welfare caseworkers, doctors and a medical team, state attorney representatives, a video team, a citizen’s review board (including a doctor who would be present at medical exams to present a second opinion), and finally a judge, who would be available to issue court orders. All of these parties would be at the same place at the same time for quick and complete child-abuse investigations. Such a system would save time and money and eliminate the problem of communication gaps between child-welfare agencies, the police, and the judicial system.

D. Recognize that the Juvenile Court is the Gatekeeper of any Childwelfare System

Reforming the juvenile court system is the one missing component in most child-protection reforms. Fostercare privatization that sets time limits to move children towards reunification or to sever ties with biological parents will be ineffective if judges and the juvenile court system do not cooperate to meet these goals. State and local governments considering privatization should examine how their juvenile court processes impact the child-welfare system to determine what legislative reforms are necessary to keep children safe while ensuring due process for families.

Lisa Snell is Director of Education

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