Child Welfare System: Structure, Functions, and Best Practices

Theodore P. Cross*, Heather J. Risser

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


All US states created specialized state child welfare services (CWS) agencies in the 1960s and 1970s. CWS’ goals are protecting child safety, finding permanent homes if children must be removed from their home, maintaining placement stability of children in out-of-home care, and promoting children’s well-being. CWS’ response involves a series of steps: reporting, screening, investigation, and service delivery. A minority of maltreatment reports are substantiated. Many states offer an alternative response option for lower-risk families that provides a family assessment instead of an investigation. Caseworkers complete a comprehensive family assessment and work with the family to identify strategies to achieve families’ goals. Only a small proportion of children are removed from their homes, with the goal whenever possible of reunifying the children with birth parents. If children must be placed outside the home, caseworkers’ roles include preparing children for placement, supporting and monitoring foster caregivers, searching for alternative caregivers, working with birth parents and children toward reunification, and planning for a permanent home if children cannot be reunified. Most studies have found no impact of CWS services on outcomes such as maltreatment recurrence. Yet research has found effective empirically supported interventions (ESIs) for the CWS population, though implementation of ESIs is not yet widespread. We advocate for the necessity of CWS and the need to learn more about how to help people involved with CWS. We also argue for the view that child protection is a community responsibility requiring partnership between all professionals, the community, and CWS.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHandbook of Interpersonal Violence and Abuse Across the Lifespan
Subtitle of host publicationA Project of the National Partnership to End Interpersonal Violence Across the Lifespan (NPEIV)
PublisherSpringer International Publishing
Number of pages33
ISBN (Electronic)9783319899992
ISBN (Print)9783319899985
StatePublished - Jan 1 2021


  • Caseworkers
  • Child maltreatment
  • Child protection
  • Child welfare
  • Child welfare services
  • Out-of-home placement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology
  • General Medicine


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