Child welfare is a broad term that is used to describe the process of protecting children from abuse and neglect. A comprehensive child welfare system usually has multiple components and may involve numerous social service agencies working together in a community to provide a safety net for vulnerable children. In most communities, a child welfare services include investigations of child maltreatment, foster care, protective living arrangements for children, counseling, financial assistance, and adoption programs. The scope and quality of child welfare services varies a great deal from one community to another.
The purpose of the investigative programs is to inquire into allegations of abuse and neglect. Many of these referrals are screened out, meaning that the investigation did not find any evidence of abuse or neglect. However, when the children are in imminent danger of harm from further abuse or neglect, the child welfare investigators will turn the children’s cases over to placement. Most child welfare programs also provide foster care. Foster care can consist of emergency shelters where children are housed for a few hours or days, foster care parents who open their homes to children who need a safe haven for a few weeks or months, or long-term foster care homes where children may live for years. Some child welfare services programs also operate residential programs where children may live in a group setting, with a home like environment. Some of the residential programs are specialized to provide care for children who may suffer from extreme emotional and behavioral problems.
However, as there are more children in need of foster care than there are foster homes and group homes in which to place them, child welfare agencies typically have programs for what is known as family preservation. The purpose of these family preservation programs is to provide intensive counseling and support for a multitude of family problems. The families involved in these programs may have any combination of problems that range from substance abuse, domestic violence, emotional problems, severe mental illness, financial difficulties, and a lack of appropriate parenting skills. The family preservation programs provided through the child welfare system help to keep children in their homes when the abuse or neglect is relatively mild. When parents receive the proper kinds of support and intervention, many of them are able to continue to provide care for their children and keep them free of abuse or neglect in the home environment.
Many child welfare programs also incorporate eligibility programs that provide welfare benefits to enable parents who live in poverty to apply for food stamps, Medicaid, childcare subsidies, housing subsidies, and other assistance to help these parents provide basic needs for their children. The ability to access these services allows many families to feel less stress in taking care of their children, and helps keep children from having their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter go unmet.
In addition, most child welfare services also have a program that arranges for adoptions. Adoption is necessary for child welfare programs so that permanent homes can be found for those children whose parents are unable to raise them in a safe and healthy environment. The termination of parental rights is the last resort for families who are not able to keep their children safe, but this process occurs after all the alternatives that child welfare programs have to offer, have been tried, and have not worked.
At their best, child welfare services are able to protect children from hunger, homelessness, abuse, and neglect, and give their parents the tools they need to provide for their children’s physical and emotional needs.