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Home > Advocacy > Financing Child Welfare Services > Supporting Documentation for CWLA's Statement on Optimal Child Welfare Service Delivery


Supporting Documentation for CWLA's Statement on Optimal Child Welfare Service Delivery

Child Welfare League of America's vision for an optimal child welfare system encompasses a continuum of services ranging from prevention of abuse and neglect to permanency and stability for children who experience out of home care. Key ingredients of this system are a family-centered approach, an ample, stable, and highly professional workforce, and the availability and targeted application of services to prevent child abuse and neglect, maintain families when maltreatment has occurred and child safety can be reasonably assured, and to achieve permanency and stability for children who must experience foster care. These components are consistent with current research and with federal expectations associated with the Child and Family Service Review process.

Family-Centered Approach

Research in child maltreatment, juvenile justice, children's mental health, and parent education supports the effectiveness of interventions that involve the entire family over those targeting the individual parent or child alone (Bethea, 1999; Kumpfer, 1999). A family-centered approach engages families in addressing the problems that affect the care of their children. Such engagement has been linked to compliance with and completion of case plans (Dore & Alexander, 1996).

Stable, Professional Workforce

Effective child welfare services are based on accurate differential assessment and require knowledge of human behavior, of the factors underlying child maltreatment, and of the way in which both risks and protective factors interact to produce an overall picture of a family's needs (Macdonald, 2001; DePanfilis, 1999). Thus, it is not surprising that child welfare workforce research suggests the need for staff who have formal social work education (Albers, Reilly, & Rittner, 1993; Booz-Allen & Hamilton, 1987; Dhooper, Royse, &Wolfe, 1990; Ellett, 2000; Lieberman, Hornby, & Russell, 1988), especially that obtained through specialized child welfare programs such as those developed through Title IVE-supported agency-university partnerships (Huebner, 2004; Dickinson & Perry, 2002). Studies further point to the importance of consistent mentoring by competent supervisors (Dickinson & Perry, 2002), and to a supportive and flexible organizational environment (Rycraft, 1994). All of these factors have been linked to reduced staff turnover, which recent research suggests is critically important both to minimize costs associated with frequent hiring and training (Graef & Hill, 2000) and to improve outcomes for children and families (U.S. Children's Bureau, 2003; Potter & Klein-Rothschild, 2002; Flower, McDonald, & Sumski, 2005).

Greater amount of caseworker contact with children and parents has also been associated with better outcomes (Barth, et al., 1994; U.S. Children's Bureau, 2003). These findings suggest that it is imperative that agencies maintain staff in sufficient numbers to provide manageable workloads that do not require caseworkers to sacrifice the provision of direct services in order to complete administrative tasks and documentation.

Prevention of Abuse and Neglect

Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness or promise of several approaches to prevention of child maltreatment. Models such as Nurse Family Partnerships and Healthy Families have produced evidence that they positively impact a variety of outcomes for children and families, including prevention of abuse and neglect. Likewise, high quality pre-kindergarten programs like the Chicago Child Parent Centers and Headstart that include parental involvement and supports have also demonstrated effectiveness (Alexander, Baca, Fox, Frantz, & Huffman, 2003). Independent studies have found that the financial savings achieved by the most effective of these approaches far exceeds their cost (Alexander, et al., 2003). Rigorous cost-benefit anaylsis conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy showed cost savings for several pre-kindergarten and home visitation programs as well as for Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, a center-based intervention that provides direct coaching to parents as they interact with their young children (Aos, Lieb, Mayfield, Miller, & Pennucci, 2004).

Several interventions that target older children and their families have also been demonstrated to have benefit in lessening children's problematic behavior and improving family functioning. Family-based therapeutic models such as Functional Family Therapy and Multi-Systemic Therapy have been rigorously tested in sites across the country and, despite some variation in findings, there is substantial evidence of their benefit to youth and their families (Aos, et al., 2004).

In prevention, as with intervention, quality control and ongoing evaluation are crucial. Many well-intentioned programs are not effective and even models that have been tested models such as those mentioned above may be ineffective if they are not implemented with strict adherence to design.

Maintaining Families

Many children can be safely maintained in their families through the timely application of interventions that correctly target the underlying causes of maltreatment. A number of studies support the benefits of interventions that have a behavioral, skill-building focus and that address family functioning in multiple domains including home, school, and community (Corcoran, 2000; Macdonald, 2001). Cognitive behavioral models have been demonstrated to reduce physical punishment and parental aggression in less time than alternative approaches (Kolko, 1996, cited in Corcoran, 2000). The most effective treatment involves all members of the family and addresses not only parenting skills, but also parent-child interaction and a range of parental life competencies such as communication, problem solving, and anger control (Corcoran, 2000; Dore & Lee, 1999). Attention to immediate, concrete needs has also been identified as a key factor in supporting family engagement and positive outcomes ((Berry, 1994; Dawson & Berry, 2002; Gaudin, 1993).

Permanency and Stability

A wealth of research demonstrates the importance of children's being nurtured in a stable family environment (Harden 2004), confirming the need to move those who must enter foster care into permanent living situations as quickly as possible. Recent studies suggest that, when children must leave their families, well-supported kinship placements have the potential to provide more stable and normalizing environments than unrelated family care (Webster, Barth, Needell, 2000).

Most children who enter foster care are able to return to their families of orgin, often within less than one year (Wulczyn, 2004). However, when that is not possible, alternatives such as adoption or subsidized guardianship can offer long term stability (Mandel, Harrington, & Orlin, 2001; Testa, 2004). Cost analyses of child welfare services have linked kinship care and subsizidized guardianship to cost savings (Casey Family Programs, 2004). One study (Allphin, Simmons, & Barth, 2001) found the cost of effecting an adoption for children in foster care to range from $6,000 to $28,539, or an average of $19,141, suggesting that this permanency alternative has the potential to achieve a substantial savings over long term foster care. Findings concerning the stability of adoptions are also encouraging; overall, disruptions occur in 10% to 16% of adoptions, while rates may be higher for some placements such as those of much older youth or in families lacking prior experience in foster care or adoption (Barth, Gibbs, & Siebenaler, 2000).

While research supports the use of family care when deemed appropriate by a full assessment, group care is another placement option that may offer benefits for certain youth when used strategically, for relatively short periods of time, and as part of a plan to maintain or rebuild family and community connections (Barth, 2002). However, family care, even in therapeutic foster care settings with multiple supportive services, tends to be substantially less expensive (Barth, 2002; U.S. Department of Human Services, 2000).

Aftercare and Transitional Services

Data indicate that about 25 percent of all children who exit out-of-home care will return at some point, often within one year (Wulczyn, 2004). The likelihood of re-rentry is especially great when children or parents have more numerous or complex needs or when they are exposed to more extreme environmental stressors (Festinger, 1996; Terling, 1999). Although the likelihood of maltreatment recurrence and/or subsequent re-entry into foster care is undoubtedly related to decision making and services offered prior to reunification, these findings, as well as those of research that has documented problems in the functioning of reunified youth (Taussig, Clyman, & Landsverk, 2001), strongly suggest a need for aftercare services.

The limited research in family reunification aftercare, indicates that it is most successful when it is initially intensive and includes the availability of concrete services (Maluccio, 2000; Walton, Fraser, Pecora, & Walton, 1993; Wulczyn, Zeidman, & Svirsky, 1997) and ongoing assessment of risk (Kirk, 2001). The association of social isolation with failed reunification (Terling, 1999) also suggests the importance of linking with extended family, extra-familial social networks, and informal resources. Tapering off of services should be based on the family's needs rather than on an arbitrary time frame (Kirk, 2001).

Services during and after the adoption process are also an important part of the service continuum. Although the rate of adoption dissolution is quite low overall, research indicates that some placements may have greater needs for follow-up services and supports (Barth, et al., 2000; Barth & Miller, 2001). One study (Brooks, Allen, & Barth, 2002) reported that, while less than 30% of all adoptive families used post-adoption services other than informational resources, most families adopting through a public agency used some type of counseling. This finding was attributed to the larger number of special needs of children placed with these families. As in other types of child welfare intervention, family-focused approaches appear to be the most helpful in supporting adoption stability. Research suggests that adoptive parents may also value participation in support groups, access to literature and seminars, and concrete services like respite care, subsidies, and health benefits (Barth & Miller, 2001).

Services targeting youth who will exit foster care to independence are another important component of a continuum of care. Studies have identified four key elements: school completion, high-intensity supports over time, a work experience component, and the presence of a stable, caring adult (Baker, Olson, & Mincer,2000; Dale,2000) as factors leading to successful transition of youth to work and independence. Youth have been shown to benefit from a plan based on systematic assessment, combined with focused skills development, involvement of caregivers as teachers, and re-establishing or maintaining connections to birth/extended family and community (Courtney & Piliavin,1998; Nollan, 2000).


This document draws from literature reviews and from original studies to reflect the prevailing current research pertaining to the above sub-topics. Further research is ongoing and is needed in each area to build a more substantial knowledge base; accordingly, CWLA's description of an optimal child welfare service delivery system should be periodically revisited to ensure that it comports with the most current evidence. However, despite the limited nature of research in some areas, the use of the work cited here as a foundation for policy and practice is consistent with the accepted understanding of evidence-based practice as relying on the best available research (APHSA, 2005).
Albers, E., Reilly, T., & Rittner, B. (1993). Children in foster care: Possible factors affecting permanency planning. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 10(4), 329-341.

Alexander, R., Baca, L., Fox, J., Frantz, M. & Huffman, L., et al. (2003). New hope for preventing child abuse and neglect: Proven solutions to save lives and prevent future crime. Washington, DC: Fight Crime, Invest in Kids. Retrieved September 13, 2005 online.

Allphin, S., Simmons, B., & Barth, R. (2001). Adoption of foster children: How much does it cost public agencies? Children & Youth Services Review, 23, 865-891.

American Public Human Services Association, (2005). Guide for child welfare administrators on evidence-based practice. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved online September 19, 2005.

Aos, S., Lieb, R., Mayfield, J., Miller, M., Pernucci, A. (2004). Benefits and costs of prevention and early intervention programs for youth. Olympia: Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Retrieved online September 16, 2005.

Baker, A., Olson, D. & Mincer, C. (2000). The WAY to work: An independent living/ aftercare program for high-risk youth. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Barth, R. (2002). Institutions vs. foster homes: The empirical basis for the Second Century of Debate. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina School of Social Work, Jordan Institute for Families. Retrieved online September 19, 2005.

Barth, R.P., Courtney, M., & Berry, M. (1994). Timing is everything: An analysis of the time to adoption and legalization. Social Work Research, 18(3), 139-148.

Barth, R., & Miller, J. (2000). Building effective post-adoption services: What is the empirical foundation? Family Relations, 49, 447-455.

Barth, R., Gibbs, D., and Siebenaler, K. (2001). Assessing the field of post-adoption services: Family needs, program models,& evaluation issues. Chapel Hill, NC: Research Triangle Institute and the University of North Carolina School of Social Work.

Berry, M. (1994). Keeping families together. In S. Bruchey (ed.) Children of poverty: Studies of the effects of single parenthood, the feminization of poverty, and homelessness. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Bethea, L. (1999). Primary prevention of child abuse. American Family Physician, 59(6). Retrieved online September 13, 2005.

Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Inc. (1987). The Maryland social work services job analysis and personnel qualifications study. MD:Author.

Brooks, D., Allen, J., & Barth, R. (2002). Adoption services use, helpfulness, and need: A comparison of public and private agency and independent adoptive families. Children & Youth Services Review, 24, 213-218.

Casey Family Programs, (2004). The effects of federal child welfare financing waivers. Retrieved online September 12, 2005.

Corcoran, J. (2000). Family interventions with child physical abuse and neglect: A critical review. Children and Youth Services Review, 22, 563-591.

Courtney, M.C. and Piliavin, I. 1998. Foster Youth Transitions to Adulthood: Outcomes 12 to 18 Months After Leaving Out-of-Home Care. Madison, WI: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dale, (2000) Dale, N. (2000). What works in employment programs for youth in out-of-home care. In M.P. Kluger, G. Alexander & P.A. Curtis (Eds). What works in child welfare (187-193). Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Dawson, K. & Berry, M. (2002). Engaging families in child welfare services: An evidence-based approach to practice. Child Welfare, 81(2), 293-317.

DePanfilis, D. (1999). DePanfilis, D. (1999). Intervening with families when children are neglected. In H. Dubowitz (Ed.), Neglected Children: Research, Practice, and Policy (211-236). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Dhooper, S., Royse, D. & Wolfe, L. (1990). Does social work education make a difference? Social Work, 35(1), 57-61.

Dickinson, N. & Perry, R. (2002). Factors influencing the retention of specially educationed public child welfare workers. Journal of Health & Social Policy, 15(3/4), 89-104.

Dore, M. M. & Alexander, L. B. (1996). Preserving families at risk of abuse and neglect: The role of the helping alliance. Child Abuse & Neglect: The International Journal, 20(4), 350-364.

Ellett, A. J. (2000). Human caring, self-efficacy beliefs, and professional, organizational culture correlates of employee retention in child welfare. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA.

Festinger, T. (1994). Returning to care: Discharge and reentry in foster care. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Flower, C., McDonald, J. & Sumski, M. (2005). Review of turnover in Milwaukee County: Private agency child welfare ongoing case management staff. Retrieved online September 14, 2005.

Gaudin, J. (1993). Effective interventions with neglectful families. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 20(1), 66-89.

Graef, M. & Hill, E.L. (2000). Costing child protective services turnover. Child Welfare, 79(5), 517-533.

Harden, B., (2004). Safety and stability for foster children: A developmental perspective. The Future of Children, 14(1), 31-48.

Huebner, R. (2003). Public Child Welfare Certification Program outcomes evaluation. Kentucky Cabinet for Families and Children, Frankfort, KY.

Kirk, R. (2001). Tailoring intensive family preservation services for family reunification cases. Phase 2: Field testing and validation of the North Carolina Family Assessment Scale for Reunification. Project report to the National Family Preservation Network and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Kumpfer, K. (April 1999). Strengthening America's families: Exemplary parenting and family strategies for delinquency prevention. University of Utah. OJJDP. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved online September, 12, 2005.

Lieberman, A., Hornby, H., & Russell, M. (1988). Analyzing the educational backgrounds and work experiences of child welfare personnel: a national study. Social Work, 33(6), 485-489.

Macdonald, G. (2001). Effective interventions for child abuse and neglect: An evidence based approach to planning and evaluating interventions (pp. 228-284). Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.

Maluccio, A. (2000). What works in family reunification. In M. Kluger, G. Alexander, & P.A. Curtis, What Works in Child Welfare (pp. 163-171). Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Mandel, M., Harrington, D. & Orlin, M. (2001). The effect of subsidized guardianship on exits from kinship care: Results from Maryland's guardianship assistance demonstration project. Unpublished paper presented at the annual conference of the Association for Public Policy and Management, Washington, DC.

Nollan, K.A. (2000). What works in independent living preparation for youth in out-of home care. In M.P. Kluger, G. Alexander & P. A. Curtis (Eds.) What works in child welfare (195-204). Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America

Pecora, P.J., Whittacker, J.K., Maluccio, A.N., & Barth, R.P. (2000). The child welfare challenge: Policy, practice and research, second edition (pp.157-160; 224-228). Hawthorne, NY:Aldine De Gruyter.

Potter, C.C. & Klein-Rothchild, S. (2002). Getting home on time: Predicting timely permanence for young children. Child Welfare, 81(2), 123-150.

Rycraft, J. (1994). The party isn't over: The agency role in the retention of public child welfare caseworkers. Social Work, 39(1), 75-80.

Taussig, A. N., Clyman, R. B., & Landsverk, J. (2001). Children who return home from foster care: A 6-year prospective study of behavioral health outcomes in adolescence. Pediatrics, 108(1).

Terling, T. (1999). The efficacy of family reunification practices: Reentry rates and correlates of reentry for abused and neglected children reunited with their families. Child Abuse & Neglect, 23(12), 1359-1370.

Testa, M. (2004). When children cannot return home: Adoption and guardianship. The Future of Children, 14(1), 115-130.

United States Children's Bureau (2003). Relationship between caseworker visits with children and other indicator ratings in 2002 cases. Retrieved online, September, 2003.

Walton, E., Fraser, M., Pecora, P. & Walton, W. (1993). In-home family-focused reunification: An experimental study. Child Welfare, 72(5), 473-487.

Webster, D., Barth, R.P. & Needell, B. (2000). Placement stability for children in out-of home care. Child Welfare, 79(5), 614-631.

Wulczyn, F. (2004). Family Reunification. The Future of Children, 14(1), 95-113.

Wulczyn, F., Zeidman, D. & Svirsky, A., (1997). Homebuilders: A family reunification demonstration project. In J.D. Berrick, R.P. Barth, & N. Gilbert, Child Welfare Research Review, Volume II. New York: Columbia University Press.

Child Welfare League of America
September, 15, 2005

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