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October 2018Vol. 19, No. 8The Need for a Primary Prevention-Focused Child Welfare System

Written by Jerry Milner.

Everyone that reads this article is likely aware that our foster care population is continuing to rise. We are up to over 437,000 children in foster care, and the number is increasing every year. It is not all due to the opioid crisis. The vast majority of children come into foster care due to neglect, and most of the neglect is poverty related. We are also seeing yearly increases in the number of reports of child abuse and neglect—we are up to 4 million reports per year.

These are not the trends or results that any of us would like to see. As a system, we are investing a considerable amount of money to achieve very poor results. In fact, our interventions often cause additional trauma when we separate children and families and perpetuate harmful cycles within families over generations. We have to call on ourselves as a nation to answer one very simple question: Why continue operating in a manner that is largely ineffective, expensive, and does not effectively strengthen the resilience of parents?

We think there is an opportunity in child welfare to use our funding and our interventions to help families become more self-sufficient and to enhance parental protective factors so that parents have the capacity to care for their children in safe and healthy ways—without government interventions.

The Family First Prevention and Services Act (FFPSA) helps highlight the need to focus on prevention by opening the door for states to receive federal support for certain prevention services for children who are identified as at imminent risk of entering foster care. This would typically mean that something has already happened, that a child has been injured in some way, and that some trauma has already occurred. While the new tool of FFPSA will be helpful in preventing some foster care placement, shouldn't we be most concerned and invested in doing all that we can to prevent the imminent risk—the injury and trauma—from ever happening in the first place?

While FFPSA allows states to buy evidence-based clinical services for limited time periods, filling an important gap in the prevention continuum, many families need basic concrete supports (rent assistance, legal assistance, housing, food, etc.) and relational supports (mentoring, peer support, etc.) in order to avoid formal child welfare involvement. Also, all families in the child welfare system do not suffer from substance use or mental health problems but are in the child welfare system due to homelessness or housing insecurity, domestic violence, parents transitioning from incarceration, unresolved trauma from their own childhoods, and social isolation.

Many states that have operated under a title IV-E waiver have taken important steps to focus on primary prevention to strengthen families and help avoid children and families from ever becoming at imminent risk of separation. Such upfront investments in families and communities are showing very promising results. We encourage all jurisdictions to consider what you may be able to do with your system partners (both traditional and nontraditional) to strengthen families and reduce the likelihood that maltreatment ever occurs. There are great examples happening all around the country. In addition to this edition of CBX, please stay tuned for an information memorandum from the Children's Bureau that will highlight some of the great primary prevention work I've seen around the country over the past year. We would like to do everything we can to support such efforts.