Policy Priorities

Policy Priorities image of kids

About Child Welfare

The Problem:


Without safe, permanent and nurturing families, children too often end up coming to the attention of state and local child protection systems. Many are abused or neglected or at risk of maltreatment because they lack basic supports, such as adequate income, housing and education and special education services, but many also face multiple risks, including substance abuse, unmet mental health needs, and domestic violence or other trauma.

More than 670,000 children in America are abused or neglected - one every 47 seconds. Almost 80 percent of maltreatment cases are for neglect, and infants are the most likely to suffer from maltreatment. Nearly 40 percent of children reported for maltreatment get no services at all after the initial investigation. The other 60 percent get some services but not necessarily the right services.

Although the vast majority of abused and neglected children remain at home, each year 638,000 children spend time in foster care; on average children spend nearly two years in foster care. Black children are overrepresented in the system: 26 percent of children in foster care were Black in FY2012, nearly double the percent of the Black child population.

Child welfare agencies often cannot appropriately meet children's needs because the quality of the child welfare workforce is lacking. It is burdened by high caseloads and rapid turnover. The average tenure of a child welfare caseworker is less than two years.

Why it Matters:

The annual total direct and indirect costs of child maltreatment are estimated to be more than $80 billion. Additionally, children who face multiple risks carry the consequences with them as they get older and children left without permanent family connections have no one to whom they can turn for social, emotional or financial support and face numerous barriers as they struggle to become self-sufficient adults and productive members of our communities.

The Solution:

Our goal must be to keep children safely with their families and to decrease the numbers of children coming to the attention of the child welfare system. More appropriate supports for children, their birth families and extended families, can help to keep children safely together and out of foster care. They can also promote timely reunification, adoption, and other permanent family connections for children in foster care and prevent large numbers of youth from having to age out of foster care each year without permanent families. We must support:

  • more effective child welfare financing strategies
  • prevention and early intervention services
  • specialized treatment for children and their parents challenged by substance abuse, mental health problems and domestic violence
  • expanded permanency options and essential post-permanency services
  • improve the quality of the child welfare workforce
  • enhance accountability for results for children


Additionally, keeping children safe must be everybody's business. It is critically important that families and friends reach out to parents and children when a helping hand or other respite could make a big difference. Faith and other community-based organizations also can provide important supports for families, as can the array of early childhood and health programs that often touch young children.

What CDF Does:

CDF works to give every child a Safe Start in a permanent nurturing family and community. We work in collaboration with other national, state and local advocates and organizations to promote policies and promising systemic and programmatic approaches that strengthen and support children and families, prevent crises from occurring, and help ensure children safe, permanent families.