In Funding Child Welfare Services, Children’s Interests Aren’t Always First

January 19, 2016 

New survey reveals other influences, challenges

Bethesda, Md.— Child welfare agencies are charged with ensuring the safety and well-being of children who have been abused or neglected, or who are at risk of experiencing maltreatment. In a new survey by Child Trends, fiscal officers in 10 states identified federal funding regulations and other factors that constrained the ability of child welfare agencies to fulfill their mandate.

Child welfare agencies received 3.4 million referrals of alleged child maltreatment between October 2011 and September 2012, involving 6.3 million children. To fund services to prevent abuse and neglect, preserve families, and protect children, agencies spent $28.2 billion in state fiscal year 2012, of which $12.7 billion was federal funding.

Researchers from Child Trends spoke with child welfare officials in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin. These states represent a significant proportion (29 percent) of total national child welfare expenditures.

What influences funding decisions

Agency leaders report they want children and families’ needs to guide decisions about which services and supports to fund, and with what funding source. However, they report other factors are also at play in making funding decisions, including:

  • the eligibility requirements and funding limitations of specific grants or other funding sources;
  • the state of the local economy, which can shift service and funding priorities;
  • media attention, which can lead agencies to prioritize and increase services to certain populations;
  • class action lawsuits on behalf of a group of children, which can lead to court-ordered changes in services or staffing;
  • strong vision and leadership from agency leaders, the governor, and the legislature, which can propel shifts in funding at a policy level; and
  • alignment of goals and priorities with partnering agencies, which can facilitate easier coordination of funds and services.

State leaders also said accessing federal funds can be difficult; they said they lack control over how to spend the money, that funds do not cover a wide enough variety of services, and that eligibility requirements for funding are burdensome.

How states use funding for innovation

An exception has come in the form of Title IV-E Child Welfare Waiver Demonstrations, or waivers. With waivers, states can forego certain requirements of Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, which accounts for around half of all federal funding for child welfare.

Title IV-E supports foster care, adoption assistance, and guardianship assistance programs, and preparing youth in foster care for self-sufficiency. States are limited in how they can spend the funds and who they can spend them on, though. For example, states generally cannot be reimbursed for services for children who remain in their homes. This means that prevention and family preservation services are usually not covered by this major source.

“The leaders we spoke with said Title IV-E waivers provide the flexibility they need to innovate, by allowing them to use Title IV-E funds for an expanded array of services,” said Beth Jordan, a research scientist at Child Trends and lead author of the study. “They’re using waivers to be able to stabilize families at risk of child abuse or neglect, and to pursue other initiatives that may not fall within the strict guidelines of traditional IV-E.”

Title IV-E waivers—currently being implemented by 28 states, the District of Columbia, and one tribe—are generally valid for five years with the possibility of extension. Waiver-funded activities are required to be evaluated in this way building knowledge of more (and less) effective approaches to improving outcomes for children in the child welfare system. This knowledge, in turn, can inform future policies and practices.

According to state leaders, partnering with other public agencies and with foundations is another good strategy for testing and evaluating new approaches.

This study was commissioned by Casey Family Programs. State-specific data about child welfare financing and other child welfare topics is available on the State Child Welfare Policy Database—a partnership of Child Trends and Casey Family Programs—at


Child Trends is the nation’s leading nonprofit research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives and prospects of children, youth, and their families. For 37 years, decision makers have relied on our rigorous research, unbiased analyses, and clear communications to improve public policies and interventions that serve children and families. We have more than 120 staff in three offices and multiple locations around the country, including our headquarters in Bethesda, Md. We are multi-disciplinary, and our workforce reflects the diversity of children and families in the United States. Our work is supported by many of the nation’s largest foundations; by federal, state and local government agencies; and by leading nonprofit organizations.