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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Family and Child Well-Being: An Urgent Call to Action

Written by Bryan Samuels, M.P.P., executive director, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago

We are living in an unprecedented time: grave challenges and monumental opportunities call upon us to reexamine, rethink, and redesign our public systems. Widespread outrage in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others has generated a groundswell of activism and a demand for change. Mobilizing this momentum and directing it toward system change will require a departure from the past as we look toward the future, leveraging the lessons of our shared history to transform the way we support families. The current unrest shines a light on inequities that have simmered for centuries. Widespread disparities and a legacy of discriminatory practices have resulted in institutionalized racism not only in child welfare but also criminal and juvenile justice, health care, education, and financial systems. Disparate rates of COVID-19 infection and unchecked police brutality are symptoms of deeper wounds, inflicted by centuries of imbalanced access to resources and fair treatment.

We now have the opportunity to change the way we structure and implement our public systems. As we consider changes to the allocation of police funding, so should we demand wiser use for over $30 billion spent annually on a child welfare system now predominantly focused on investigating reports of child maltreatment and maintaining out-of-home placements (Rosinsky & Williams, 2018). During the COVID-19 pandemic, reduced reports of maltreatment, which may be related to school closures, have raised alarms regarding potentially unseen abuse, although most reports submitted by educators (85-89 percent) are unsubstantiated (Children's Bureau, 2020b). This highlights a key choice for resourcing "child protective" services going forward. Redirecting resources to promote well-being by meeting the needs of children, families, and communities through prevention—rather than intrusive and punitive intervention—can build trust and fortify the capacity of families to provide safety and stability for their children.

Just as we are overdue in revamping our criminal justice system, we have been delinquent in acknowledging and addressing the institutionalized racism and bias that pervades our child welfare system. The systematic separation of children of color from their parents, without regard for the lasting trauma it entails, is a thread that runs through our nation's history, from slavery and Native American boarding schools to present-day child welfare practice. This has been perpetuated by the misconception we are nobly "rescuing" children from dangerous situations to their benefit, even with research suggesting that many children who spend time in foster care are more likely to experience negative outcomes than their counterparts who were not removed from their families (Doyle, 2007).

Currently, more than half (53 percent) of all Black children and their parents will experience a child abuse or neglect investigation before the child's 18th birthday (Kim et al., 2017). Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children are disproportionately represented at all stages of the child welfare system. Once in foster care, children of color experience higher rates of placement disruptions, longer times to permanency, and more frequent reentry than their White counterparts (Martin, 2015). Yet the most common allegation among their cases is neglect, which is inextricably linked to poverty.

While poverty does not cause neglect, it challenges a family's ability to care for children by restricting access to housing, health care, food, and child care. Families of color are overrepresented among poor families due to systemic conditions that have persisted for generations. Instead of investing resources in fortifying communities and reducing familial stress to prevent child maltreatment, we have built a foster care infrastructure that spends billions on removals and placements. Even our most robust policy to support families and reduce entry into foster care still requires heightened surveillance by the very system empowered to remove children from their families.

Over 260,000 children are taken each year from their families (Children's Bureau, 2019). Most will return home, but removed children are likely to spend over a year in foster care. Given the profound physical and psychological impact of separation, the return home is not itself a reasonable marker of success (Children' Bureau, 2019). Each child welfare system interaction brings an explicit or implicit threat of removal (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014), and child welfare systems struggle to accurately identify service needs and connect children and families to the supports they need to stay safe and promote well-being (Children's Bureau, 2020a).

The disproportionate involvement and disparate treatment of Black families and people of color by child welfare and other systems is compounded by heightened exposure to chronic intergenerational trauma due to structural racism. To define and implement a well-being framework that aims to free children and families from adversity and encourage families to thrive, we must radically reconsider if and how we call the child welfare system into action (Wulczyn et al., 2018).

Our evolving understanding of the inequities and harms created by the current policy context creates an imperative for child welfare redesign that supports child and family well-being. Bold policy and legislation are needed to create and sustain a vastly different system that coordinates among multiple agencies to prevent trauma rather than create it, promote equity and social justice, and strengthen family and community capacity to ensure children are safe and thriving. To do this will require that we descale existing infrastructure and dismantle racist practices in favor of a new way to work. Some child welfare systems have dramatically reduced the number of children in foster care in favor of community-based services and transitioned to kinship rather than nonrelative placements. These are important first steps, but the task is far from complete.

Comprehensive strategies are needed to link families with financial and concrete supports before insurmountable challenges arise. Even modest financial supports have been shown to reduce child abuse and neglect (Berger et al., 2017; Raissian & Bullinger, 2017). Well-resourced community- and family-driven solutions can alleviate the need for families to fall into a patchwork of bureaucratic safety nets in order to receive supports regardless of race.

New partnerships with communities, parents, kin, and youth with lived experience will be necessary to rebalance the power dynamic and build a system that reflects the priorities and meets the needs of its constituents. We must prioritize community-based, networked, and grassroots strategies alongside evidence-informed practice and develop alternatives to traditional approaches to building evidence. Understanding the effectiveness of these interventions will be fundamental to achieving well-being outcomes for children and families and will reduce the risk that we create a new system in the image of the old.

We have seen how a 4-month pandemic can jeopardize a family's well-being by threatening not only their health but also employment, housing, wealth, and food security. For many families of color, resource deprivation has spanned generations due to structural racism. The same pandemic, however, has demonstrated how swiftly we can change when necessary. We can be unified to achieve what would have seemed lofty just weeks ago. Through this lens, our former goals, such as reducing disproportionality in child welfare, now seem insufficient without structural change. We must seize this moment as an urgent call to action. Solutions at every level are possible to shape a just and equitable society where the well-being of our children, our families, and our communities is the priority.


Berger, L. M., Font, S. A., Slack, K. S., & Waldfogel, J. (2017). Income and child maltreatment in unmarried families: Evidence from the earned income tax credit. Review of Economics of the Household, 15, 1345-1372.

Children's Bureau. (2019). The AFCARS report: Preliminary FY 2018 estimates as of August 22, 2019 (No. 26). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families.  

Children's Bureau (2020a). Child and Family Services Reviews aggregate report: Round 3: Fiscal years 2015-2018. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. 

Children's Bureau (2020b). Child maltreatment 2018. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. 

Doyle, J. J. (2007). Child protection and child outcomes: Measuring the effects of foster care. The American Economic Review, 97, 1583-1610.

Kim, H., Wildeman, C., Jonson-Reid, M., & Drake, B. (2017). Lifetime prevalence of investigating child maltreatment among US children. American Journal of Public Health, 107, 274-280.

Martin, M., & Connelly, D. D. (2015). Achieving racial equity: Child welfare policy strategies to improve outcomes for children of color. Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Raissian, K. M., & Bullinger, L. R. (2017). Money matters: Does the minimum wage affect child maltreatment rates? Children and Youth Services Review, 72, 60-70.

Rosinsky, K., & Williams, S. C. (2017). Child welfare financing SFY 2016: A survey of federal, state, and local expenditures. Child Trends.  

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative. (2014). SAMHSA's concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Wulczyn, F., Parolini, A., & Huhr, S. (2018). Human capital, child well-being, and child protection. Center for State Child Welfare Data.