A Century-long Pathway to Permanency: The Transformation of the Child Welfare System

Joseph M. Costa
CEO & President Emeritus, Hillsides

The following is an excerpt. To download Reflections on Child Welfare Areas of Practice, Issues, and Service Populations, Volume 2.

On any given day, children are referred to either the Hillsides’ Resource Family and Adoption program or our Short-Term Residential Treatment program by the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services. These children have been separated from their families for a variety of reasons. They have been traumatized by experiences within their homes and traumatized yet again by being separated from their families. Less intrusive interventions have been attempted and failed. Driven by the need to minimally keep these children safe, DCFS secures a bed in either an emergency shelter, a resource home, or a treatment center. Quick, decisive intervention during a crisis is the order of the day, every day, in the public child welfare system. This scenario is not unique; rather, it is characteristic of child welfare systems throughout the country.

One hundred years ago, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) was founded to address the policies needed to best serve children and families separated because of chronic illness, premature death, tragedy, and above all, poverty. The issue that brought the many interested parties in child welfare together at that time was how to best serve these children. Families unable to care for their children were easily dismissed, dislodging children from their origins, and jettisoning them into a world that provided no consistent approach to their care. At best, children were paired with loving families who received them as their own; at worst, children were warehoused, abused, and robed of their innocence. It was this inconsistency and the acknowledgement of the harm that many experienced that created a sense of urgency; this, in turn, yielded to a resolve to create a commonly held approach rooted in values driven by the best interests of the children to be kept safe, educated, and nurtured. Those efforts brought about the creation of the “League” of child welfare organizations that set out to improve the care of children who had been orphaned.

A century later, the urgency persists. Children continue to be traumatized; families still are challenged by chronic illness, disease, tragedy, and poverty. The interventions may have changed, but families still are being separated—sometimes irreversibly—and the system overall has failed to improve the long-term well-being of those served.

In the early 1900s, it was typical for orphaned children to live in large, congregate settings; receive a modicum of basic services; and be kept relatively safe, fed, and educated. At some point, they would leave care and find their way into the community. There was a stigma associated with being an orphan, and as a result these youth often were marginalized and left to their own resources to develop a livelihood and establish themselves in the community. It was a harsh reality eased by occasional good will of those in a position to assist.

It was the precarious circumstance of the orphan that brought together leaders in the child welfare field determined to change the way these children were treated. As a result, large institutions abandoned dormitory housing and created smaller, home-like settings to house children in their care. Boy’s Town, founded in 1917 on more than 1,300 acres outside of Omaha, Nebraska, became a prime example of this residential social-preparation model.

Over the 20th century, the kinds of children served by the child welfare system evolved from orphans to those identified as having specific challenges. The system of care adjusted, as well, and began to specialize in specific services, developing competencies in special education, counseling, and vocational training. This approach was rooted in developing a surrogate community that could offer an alternative to a child’s family or community of origin; for many young people in the child welfare system, however, unresolved issues related to belonging and attachment lingered, eroding self-esteem as they transitioned into adulthood.


Joseph M Costa, MSW, is the CEO and president emeritus of Hillsides (www.hillsides. org), a multi-service child welfare and behavioral health agency based in Los Angeles, California. His 30-year career represents experience leading child welfare organizations not only in Los Angeles but also in the San Francisco Bay Area and in southeastern Massachusetts. In addition to being a veteran executive in the field he has held Sociological Autobiographies 64 leadership positions on local, state, and national child welfare boards, having served as the chair of the CWLA Board of Directors from 2011 to 2014. He earned his graduate degree from Boston College.