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Home > Advocacy > CWLA Testimony and Comments > CWLA Testimony on Adoption



CWLA Testimony Submitted to the House Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means for the Hearing to Examine Recent Failure to Protect Child Safety

November 6, 2003

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The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) welcomes this opportunity to offer testimony on behalf of our 1,000 public and private nonprofit child-serving member agencies nationwide for the hearing on "The Recent Failure to Protect Child Safety" focusing on the recent tragic case in Camden County, New Jersey. We share with this subcommittee a desire to ensure that we can work together to prevent other children from enduring such horrible abuse.

It has been nearly two weeks since the nation learned of some of the details surrounding the New Jersey family that adopted six children. The image of a child-indeed a young man-rummaging through a trash can to find food is both sad and appalling. It easily causes us to ask the question how could this happen and, more importantly, to ask how can we make sure that this never happens again.

Adoption Is An Important Permanency Option

It is important to begin with a reminder that adoption is a very important permanency option for some children. Although the majority of children in foster care are able to be safely reunited with their families (in 2001, 263,000 children exited foster care, and 57% returned to their birth parents or primary caregivers), adoption is a very important option for those children who cannot safely return to their families. Adoption for these children can be their best chance for safety and security.

Research has shown that adoption produces good outcomes for children. A study in 1994 on special-needs adoptive families indicated that most outcomes-in particular, school performance, family functioning, and parents' reports of the adoption's impact-are distinctly positive. 1 Another study on postadoption experience indicated that placements were very stable with approximately 97% of parents reporting that the adoptive children were still living in the home at the time of the survey up to two years later. In addition, this study reported positive outcomes not just for the children but the parents involved. 2

The numbers of legalized adoptions from foster care have increased since the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997. Nationally, adoptions have increased 37% from 37,059 in 1998 to 50,950 in 2002. In the last three years, these national figures have remained relatively stable.

Existing Federal Supports For Adoptions From Foster Care

Federal policy recognizes the importance of adoption of children from foster care and supports such adoptions in several ways. The primary support is the Title IV-E Adoption Assistance Program. That program provides subsidies to families who adopt children with special needs (as defined by the state) from foster care. In FY 2003, federal funding for that program was $1.6 billion. That federal program had increased its level of support from serving 34,698 children in 1988 to 195,243 in average monthly claims in 1999.

Since the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997, the federal government has also provided states with incentive payments for every child adopted above the previous year's level. On October 8, 2003, by voice vote, the House of Representatives extended an authorization of $43 million per year for those incentive payments through 2008. Current funding for these federal payments to states is $42.7 million.

Since 1981, adoptive families have also been supported with a federal tax credit. Currently, families who adopt children from foster care are eligible to receive a federal adoption tax credit of $10,000 per child.

The current federal supports in place to support adoption are important and should continue, however, more needs to be done. Despite the strides that have taken place to promote adoptions, the need continues: The number of children in foster care waiting to be adopted in 2001 was 126,000. Approximately 59% of these children were living in nonrelative foster homes. The average age of these children was 8.3 years. 3

The need for foster and adoptive families continues to grow. Many states are instituting expedited permanency planning systems that seek to place foster children with resource families who will eventually become the adoptive parents. Despite this trend, the need for unrelated adoptive families has not diminished; there continue to be waiting children. Renewed efforts must be made to recruit and retain well-qualified foster and adoptive families.

Federal Supports For Other Permanency Options

In addition to adoption, there are a number of other permanency options that are desirable and good for children. First and foremost is the option of keeping children safely at home with their families. Family support and preservation strategies are not always associated with permanency planning, yet they should be the first consideration in our efforts to ensure permanency for children. Primary prevention services can prevent many families from ever reaching the point where a child is removed from the home. Family support, home visiting, and in-home services enable many parents to gain competence and confidence in their parenting while addressing other family concerns. Child care, housing, and job training/employment are services that enable families to stay together to the fullest extent possible. These and other preventive services need to be much more available to families early on as well as when a crisis occurs. Currently, the federal government provides only limited support for prevention and family support services. Too often, these programs must compete with other human services programs for scarce federal resources.

For children who are away from their families, in family foster care or residential care, the preferred option is that of reunifying children with their families, whenever that can be done safely. Forty-three percent (239,552) of children in care on September 30, 2000, had a case plan goal of reunification with their parents or other principal caregiver, whereas 57% (157,712) of the children who exited care during FY 2000 returned to their parent's or caregiver's home. 4 Successful permanency through reunification requires many things, but at a minimum, skilled workers, readily available support and treatment resources, clear expectations and service plans, and excellent collaboration across involved agencies. There also is a critical need for aftercare or post permanency services to ensure that safety and permanency are maintained following reunification.

Finally, guardianship with relatives or, in special circumstances, with foster parents or another caring adult can be a positive permanency outcome for children. Kinship care, when properly assessed and supported, has been shown to provide safe and stable care for children who remain with or return to their families. 5 Twenty-five percent of children in care are living with relatives, and some of the children will not be able to return to their parents. 6 States vary in their use of kinship guardianship, even though federal regulations state that there is a preference for relative placements.

In all these efforts, we must resist-on a national level-the temptation to see any one program or option as the answer for all children or any one child. If maintaining the child at home or reunifying the child with parents is not possible, the remaining options should be pursued on a case-by-case basis, weighing the strengths and risks of each option for a particular child and family.

CWLA's Observations About New Jersey's Child Welfare System

CWLA has been engaged in a series of practice improvement projects with the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) over the last several years. These activities have ranged from broad-based planning efforts to highly targeted assessment of direct case practice.

DYFS has made a consistent and conscientious effort to evaluate the scope of its programs and to assess the quality of its direct services. It has developed generally sound plans, has sought both community and legislative support for implementation, and has initiated many program improvements.

Despite the ongoing effort, the division has not been fully able to implement its plans and has continued to struggle in achieving a consistent standard of practice in all of its field offices. The practice issues faced by DYFS are similar to those that CWLA sees in other public child welfare systems that are confronted with resource shortages, larger than recommended caseloads, and ongoing staff turnover.

In recent reviews of DYFS case records, CWLA has observed practice weaknesses that are similar to those seen in other jurisdictions and are consistent with inadequate investment of caseworker time in individual cases and lack of internal review and oversight. Concerns have included such issues as:
  • Case records may not be well organized, making it difficult to follow the family, and child, progress over time.

  • The basis for case decisions frequently is undocumented or lacking clarity.

  • The results of investigations of alleged abuse in placement settings are not documented in a location easily identified or accessible.

  • Application of policy may be uneven among the various district offices.

  • Case narratives and other documents suggest that caseworkers make efforts to obtain services needed by a child. However, the outcomes of the services or utilization patterns are not clearly documented.

  • Supervisory oversight of casework activities is not clearly documented.

  • Case plans appear to be developed within appropriate time frames. However, they are sometimes missing from case records.
CWLA's experience in New Jersey has revealed a microcosm of many of the serious problems that confront child welfare systems throughout the United States. Inadequate staffing levels coupled with staff turnover, at both the front line and state office levels, have made it difficult to implement what might otherwise be sound plans for reform and improvement. The need to respond to continuing crises has distracted the agency's staff and has worked against orderly and sustained implementation of new practices. The system is most in need of a consistent, long-term commitment to support well-trained, well-supervised staff who are provided with the tools to implement the established standards of sound child welfare practice that DYFS has recognized in its own plans.

Workforce Supports Are A Fundamental Building Block To An Improved Child Welfare System

We know that the majority of child welfare workers are dedicated with a commitment to helping children and families. We also know that child welfare workers do not have the necessary supports and tools to protect children under their care.

No issue has a greater effect on the capacity of the child welfare system to effectively serve vulnerable children and families than the shortage of a competent and stable workforce and the adherence to national service and caseload standards. As more information on this particular case in New Jersey is revealed, we are likely to learn that high caseloads, inadequate supervision, and inadequate training contributed to this tragedy.

Initial information from the New Jersey case indicates that adoption workers are operating with a caseload that is well beyond what is considered good practice. The CWLA Standards of Excellence for Adoption Services (2000) recommend a caseload of 10-12 children per social worker preparing children for adoption who are older or who have special needs and supporting the children and families following placement.

The challenges facing the child welfare workforce are not unique in New Jersey and are well documented in a March 2003 U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report entitled HHS Could Play a Greater Role in Helping Child Welfare Agencies Recruit and Retain Staff (GAO-03-357). The report found that the child welfare system is seriously understaffed, undertrained and undervalued. The GAO report found that workforce problems limit state's ability to meet the goals established in the newly mandated federal Child and Family Service Reviews (CFSR). The report found that "our analysis of the 27 available CFSR's corroborates caseworkers' experiences showing that staff shortages, high caseloads and worker turnover were factors impeding progress toward the achievement of federal safety and permanency outcomes." 7

The GAO report also found:
  • Workforce issues were cited by one-third of the 27 states reviewed as a barrier to caseworkers maintaining diligent efforts to provide services to families in order to protect children in the home and to prevent removal.

  • Another one-third of the states reported that workforce issues meant that caseworkers had difficulty finalizing adoptions with appropriate and timely efforts.

  • Twelve states reviewed reported that they had problems with their caseworkers adequately monitoring safety and well-being through frequent visits with children, focusing on case planning, the delivery of services, and reaching goals for the family.

  • All 27 states reviewed reported problems providing adequate training and necessary staff development to reach the goals of safety and permanency set forth in the CFSR. 8
Recent evidence from the federal CFSRs and the Program Improvement Plans (PIP) submitted by states to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) present a clear picture of how workforce issues impact outcomes for children. The federal government has found through this process, designed to measure the performance of state child welfare systems, that states need additional workforce supports to make the improvements required to meet the needs of children and families. More than half of the states that have submitted a PIP to HHS have addressed the need to improve workforce training, reduce caseloads, improve management, and provide better supervision.

The bottom line is that child welfare work is labor intensive. Workers must be able to engage families through face-to-face contacts, assess the safety and well-being of children, monitor progress, assure that essential services and supports are provided, and assist with problems that may develop. This cannot be done if workers are unable to spend quality time with children, families, and caregivers.

State budget decisions have contributed to the reductions in the child welfare workforce even though caseloads continue to climb. State cutbacks in workforce, whether direct cuts or hiring freezes, as well as reductions in training opportunities, undermine states' ability to guarantee a competent and stable workforce and increases the caseload burden on the remaining child welfare workforce. CWLA recently conducted a survey of state budget decisions. The findings of that survey revealed that:
  • Virtually every state has developed spending or reduction plans for their child welfare agencies over the past three years. Forty states reported formal spending reduction plans and two states reported informal plans. The average annual percentage cut is approximately 8%, with a range of 3% to over 20%.

  • States have made significant reductions in staffing and services within their own agencies. Nearly half have reduced staff training, tuition/education reimbursement, and other professional development/continuing education.

  • Although New Jersey experienced a $30 million cumulative increase in the budget for the Office of Children's Services in FY 2003 and 2004, including an exemption of front-line child protection workers from the state's hiring freeze and a refocus on protection and permanency, New Jersey's baseline budget and the cumulative increase were still insufficient to guarantee an adequate workforce and to restrict caseloads to CWLA's recommended standards.
Although the issue of supporting a child welfare workforce defies a simple solution, we do know that providing staff the right supports, including training and a manageable caseload, will result in better outcomes for our most vulnerable children. This can only be accomplished with greater financial investments by both the states and the federal government.

Comprehensive Reform Of The Nation's Child Welfare System Is Needed To Ensure Children Are Protected

CWLA recognizes that the child welfare system, as currently constructed, cannot protect all children adequately. Failures occur. They are not limited to any single state. These failures to protect children will continue to occur until we put into place a comprehensive child protection system.

This tragic case in New Jersey does bring into focus the need for a renewed national commitment to support abused and neglected children and underscores the urgency of that reform. We are overdue in implementing an improved and strengthened system. True child welfare reform will hinge on an improved system of shared financing responsibilities among federal, state, local, and tribal governments.

The national child welfare system continues to be in need of:
  • A reliable, responsive, and predictable method of guaranteed funding, for a full range of essential services, as well as placement and treatment services.

  • A means of maintaining consistent focus on safety, permanency, and well-being as outcomes for children.

  • Rigorous standards combined with strong federal and state accountability mechanisms.

  • Recruitment and support of adequately trained child welfare professionals, foster and adoptive parents, mentors, and community volunteers.

  • Resources that enable parents to provide adequate protection and care for their own children.


This recent case in New Jersey is another reminder that we need to do better to care for our most vulnerable children. CWLA believes that important and necessary reforms must be enacted to ensure a consistent level of safety and care for all of America's children. We look forward to working with this subcommittee to develop a comprehensive child welfare reform proposal that meets all the needs of America's the most vulnerable children and families and ensures that every child is protected.


  1. "A Longitudinal Study of Special Needs Adoptive Families" by James A. Rosenthal and Victor K. Groze, Child Welfare, 1994.

  2. "The Postadoption Experience: Child, Parent and Family Predictors of Family Adjustment to Adoption," by Thomas P. McDonald, Jennifer R. Propp, and Kimberlee C. Murphy, Child Welfare, January-February 2001.

  3. AFCARS report, Preliminary FY 2001 Estimates March 2003, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau.

  4. The AFCARS Report: Interim FY 2000 estimates as of August 2002.

  5. Benedict, M.I., Zuravin, S., & Stallings, R.Y. (1996). Adult functioning of children who lived in kin versus non-relative family foster homes. Child Welfare, 75 (5), 529-549; Berrick, J.D., Barth, R.P., Needell, B. (1994) ,A comparison of kinship foster homes and foster family homes. Implications for kinship foster care as family preservation. Children and Youth Services Review, 16 (1-2), 33-63.

  6. U.S. Children's Bureau. (2002).

  7. HHS Could Play a Greater Role in Helping Child Welfare Agencies Recruit and Retain Staff. General Accounting Office, March 2003.

  8. Ibid.

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