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When parents are unable, unwilling, or unfit1 to care for their children, the state can step in to help. Every state has a child welfare system that provides services to children and families—sometimes in their own homes, and sometimes services are provided to the parents or children where the child has been removed and placed in foster care or other residential placement outside their home. At its core, the child welfare system strives to preserve family unity whenever possible and favors separation of children and parents only when clearly necessary. The child welfare system is primarily concerned with children who have been abused or neglected; some states also include truant, runaway or otherwise ungovernable children within the jurisdiction of their child welfare system. Funding to pay for services to children and families comes from a combination of both state and federal sources.
The child welfare system is regulated by federal and state law. Foster care—placement out of the home—is intended to be a temporary safety net. Since 1980, federal and state law require that non-emergency removal of a child from the home be reviewed by a court. Courts must also regularly review the cases of every child who is in out-of-home care. These laws require child protection agencies—also known as child welfare agencies—to preserve families if it is reasonable to do so, given the risk to the child; to reunite children with parents, if it can be reasonably done, given the risks; or find a permanent home for the child.
All of these decisions are subject to the review of a juvenile or family court. In many cases, the court will determine that a child may be reunited with his or her family if the parents have complied with court-imposed requirements, such as parenting classes, mental health care, or drug and alcohol treatment. Family members may also be required to provide adequate housing or otherwise demonstrate their ability to care for their children upon the child’s return.
For cases in which returning home safely isn’t viable, the child welfare agency will often move to have parental rights terminated and seek a new permanent home for the child. Placement options might include an adoptive family or long-term residence with relatives or other adults with whom the child has, or can form, a longstanding relationship.
Legally, the child welfare system acts as a substitute parent for children in foster care or other out of home placements and must provide sufficient protection and support. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t always fulfill its obligations. Many foster children bounce from one placement to the next (and from one school to the next), and fail to receive adequate services. Many foster youth are barred from school. Often, a child welfare agency will fail to locate a permanent home and children will remain in foster care until they “age out” at 18 or older (depending on the laws of the respective state). Individuals who age out of the system are frequently ill-prepared to function as self-sufficient adults. Research shows that they’re more likely to face homelessness or incarceration and less likely to obtain a high school diploma or GED, attend college, or secure employment.
Since 1975, Juvenile Law Center has identified and promoted policies and practices that ensure that the child welfare system preserve families, protect children, and respond timely and appropriately to the spectrum of children’s needs. While Juvenile Law Center once advanced policy and practice reforms for children aged 0 to 21, in recent years we have focused on improving the life chances of teenagers 10-21.