Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

April 2020Vol. 21, No. 3The Need for a Prevention Throughline in Family Policy

Written by Melissa D. Carter, Emory Law School, Barton Child Law and Policy Center

Child maltreatment is preventable. Yet, according to the Children's Bureau, an estimated 4.3 million reports of suspected child abuse and neglect were made to state child protective services agencies across the United States in 2018, and more than 437,000 children are in foster care across the country. The Family First Prevention Services Act (Family First Act) attempts to change the child welfare narrative by inviting state governments to take a more robust prevention role, but that law alone will not guarantee different results. The Family First Act is celebrated for its targeted focus on some of the leading drivers for removal and entry into foster care—parental substance use, lack of parenting skills and child development knowledge, and child and parent mental health. The act does not, however, offer a strategy for combating poverty-related child neglect. Parents will still need financial support, child care, and affordable housing. So, as advocates for parents, children, and families, we cannot be content with the Family First Act. To improve outcomes for children and families, the overall strategic direction for preventing maltreatment must carry through all policies affecting vulnerable families, particularly those that address economic security.

Economic security policies positively impact the health and functioning of families by offsetting poverty and financial stress. This impact may be the greatest for young children, as demonstrated by the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study and work exploring the long-term effects of early adversity on lifelong health conducted by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and others. Put simply, increasing families' incomes helps them meet their basic needs and promotes child health and well-being into adulthood. Economic security policies can change the broad social conditions that affect the susceptibility of children and families to the stressors of poverty. And, when those environmental conditions improve, so too does the quality and health of relationships between parents and children.  Children's needs for basic necessities, supervision, and nurturance are better able to be met.

As it turns out, 62 percent of children in foster care were removed for neglect. That data point has remained relatively consistent over time. Because of the breadth and vagueness of the neglect category, we may not know how much of that neglect is related to poverty, but we do know, more often than not, that the inability of parents to meet the basic needs of their children has a financial dimension. Yet, while the Family First Act is opening up federal funding to support certain evidence-based strategies for prevention for children at imminent risk of entering the foster care system, family economic security programs are becoming more restricted. A leading example is the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program. 

In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Opportunity Reconciliation Act (popularly referred to as "welfare reform") replaced the former Aid to Families With Dependent Children with the TANF block grant. The aim of the program is to help families achieve self-sufficiency, and it provides direct benefits to families in financial need. Because of the program's design, states have significant control over certain implementation aspects, including work requirements, work waivers, eligibility criteria, and time limits.  Thus, state regulation affects the percentage of people who qualify and receive benefits, as well as the services available. As you might imagine, some states are more restrictive than others. Even accounting for those differences, benefits in every state are at or below 60 percent of the poverty line, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Over time, TANF's reach has declined, providing benefits to fewer families in poverty due to state-imposed restrictions and loss of purchasing power due to inflation.  And additional cuts and further programmatic restrictions have been proposed at the federal level. As this and other critical pieces of the economic safety net for families have been shrinking, more of the burden to support families falls to the child welfare system. 

In its formation, all public policy is ultimately about people, perspectives, and politics. It is about how evidence, data, reason, and values translate to the knowledge that informs expectations for behavioral and social norms. For stakeholders of the child welfare system, public policy sets the parameters for outcomes for families and children, the capacity and functionality of service-delivery systems, and the integrity of the court process. The present outcomes of the child welfare system are not inevitable, and the families served by the child welfare system are not loopholes to be closed. A growing body of evidence is available to inform strategies and practices to prevent child abuse and neglect, but our results will continue to be limited by our policy pathways without a consistent prevention throughline. 

Research points to particular characteristics of individuals and families and certain conditions of community and society that, when strengthened, reduce the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. These protective factors, as they are called, correspond to and counteract the individual, relational, community, and societal factors that are known to create risk of harm for children. Parents and children need supportive family environments and social connections that foster resilience, provide emotional and informational support, and help them manage stress and navigate adversity. Parents also need some understanding of child development and strategies for supporting their children to grow, communicate, and form healthy relationships. They also need concrete supports and access to services to help them meet the needs of their family. In a way, this growing body of research offers no new insight. We are all parents, partners, and members of families, and lived experience has taught us the same truths. Those truths are what power the prevention narrative, and to achieve the prevention goal, those truths must resound in all policies impacting families.