Cuts to Child Welfare Force States to Spend Smarter

Several states are piloting programs to develop cost-effective strategies in helping disconnected youth.
October 14, 2014
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

At a glance, it appears we have something of an epidemic. Reports out of Florida, South Carolina and Texas, among others, suggest that several state children and family services systems are struggling. This naturally leads to the question of whether, in light of all these reports, we're headed for further (or chronic) crisis in the child welfare world?

Whenever bad stories start flowing from states, there are a few additional key questions that invariably come up: The first is, are we spending enough money on child welfare? The second is, are we spending money in as effective a fashion as possible? The former is a particularly relevant question right now in the wake of two recent reports.

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The first report by the Urban Institute found that total federal expenditures on children by the federal government in 2013 were up from 2012, but still below what it spent in 2010. The report further projects that outlays on children will drop as much as 10 percent through the next decade. The second report from the nonprofit research center Child Trends delivers figures indicating that total spending on child welfare between 2010 and 2012 actually went down, the first decline in 20 years.

According to the Child Trends report, between October 2011 and September 2012, child welfare agencies received an estimated 3.4 million referrals of alleged child abuse or neglect, involving around 6.3 million children. Nearly 680,000 children were determined to be victims of maltreatment that year, and an estimated 638,000 children were in foster care at the time. While some might expect a decrease in spending because there's been a decline in the number of children in foster care and the number of children who are victims of abuse or neglect, the study's authors have found in previous surveys that spending actually tended to increase in years when caseloads declined. Besides, said Kerry DeVooght, an author of the study, "the decline in caseloads was not large enough to account for the full decrease in spending. This tells us something else is going on."

The something else is pretty obvious: We're flat out cutting spending on child welfare. It could be argued that that is why we are seeing problems in Florida, South Carolina and Texas. It could also be argued -- which nods to the second question -- that we may not be spending the money in as effective a manner as possible.

To know if that is true or not, however, is harder to figure out. Several governments are going to try, though. Maryland has been awarded a five-year, $650 million federal grant to steer more children out of its foster care system, preserve families through community-based support programs, improve child safety and prevent abuse. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget is helping launch a major initiative to pilot various strategies aimed at disconnected youth. And Colorado, Connecticut, New York and Virginia are all in various stages of road-testing smart, data-driven strategies for honing in on the most effective policies and programs being deployed within their children and family services systems.

The key is to learn from all this, but elected legislatures at all levels tend to be driven more by anecdote than data. One hopes that will change, because in the face of clear and future reductions in what we as a country spend on child welfare, and as the problems facing and plaguing kids and families across the U.S. become more complex, it becomes that more important to figure out what works and to focus resources on that.