Updated February 3, 2020
Child Welfare: Purposes, Federal Programs, and Funding
What Is the Work of Child Welfare
Who Bears Public Responsibility for This Work?
As the U.S. Constitution has been understood, states are
Children depend on adults—usually their parents—to protect
considered to bear the primary public responsibility for
and support them. The broadest mission of child welfare
ensuring the well-being of children and their families. Public
agencies is to strengthen families so that children can depend
child welfare agencies at the state and local levels work with
on their parents to nurture them, keep them safe, and provide
an array of private and public entities—including the courts
them with a permanent, stable home. More specifically, child
and social service, health, mental health, education, and law
welfare agencies are expected to act to prevent abuse or
enforcement agencies—to carry out child welfare activities.
neglect of children by their parents/caregivers. If abuse or
This work is done consistent with state laws and policies. At
neglect has already happened, the agencies are expected to
the same time, the federal government has long provided
provide assistance, services, or referrals as needed to ensure
technical support and funding intended to improve state child
children do not re-experience maltreatment. For some children,
welfare work. Further, by providing funding for this work, the
this means placement in foster care.
federal government compels states to meet program rules, such
as requiring permanency planning protections for all children
in foster care. Compliance with these requirements is
Federal child welfare policy has three primary goals:
monitored via federal plan approvals, audits, and reviews.
ensuring children’s safety, enabling permanency for
children, and promoting the well-being of children
At the federal level, child welfare programs are administered
and their families.
by the Children’s Bureau within the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services (HHS). At the state level, federal
Foster care is understood as a temporary living situation, and a
child welfare programs are often administered within the state
primary task of a child welfare agency is to find children in
human services department, or by an independent, state-level
foster care a permanent home. Most often this is done by
child and family services agency. However, some states have
offering services that enable children to safely reunite with
county-administered programs supervised by the state agency.
their parents or relatives. If that is not possible, then the child
Child Welfare Spending and Programs
welfare agency works to find a new permanent family for the
child via adoption or legal guardianship. Foster youth who are
State child welfare agencies spent about $30 billion on child
not reunited or placed with a new permanent family are usually
welfare purposes during state FY2016, according to a survey
“emancipated” when they reach their state’s legal age of
by the research group Child Trends. Most of that spending
majority. These youth are said to have “aged out” of care.
drew from state and local coffers (56%). Of the remainder,
27% was supplied by federal programs solely dedicated to
child welfare—including those authorized in Title IV-E and
During FY2018, public child protection agencies screened
Title IV-B of the Social Security Act (SSA) and the Child
allegations of abuse or neglect involving some 7.8 million
Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA)—and 17%
children, carried out investigations or other protective
from other federal programs not solely child welfare-focused
responses involving 3.5 million of those children, and
(principally, these are Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) and
provided services following that investigation or response
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)).
in the homes of some 1.1 million of those children.
Federal child welfare policy requirements are linked only to
Also during FY2018, some 263,000 children entered foster
programs that are dedicated solely to child welfare purposes.
care. The circumstances most often associated with a
For FY2020, Congress provided funding for such programs of
child’s entry to foster care were neglect and/or parental
about $10.2 billion (mostly in Div. A of P.L. 116-94) and as
drug abuse. Among the 437,000 children who were in foster
part of the Family First Transition Act (FFTA, Sec. 602, Div. N
care on the last day of FY2018 (including those who
of P.L. 116-94). FFTA provides one-time funds and temporary
entered in any year), the median length of stay was just over
policy changes to help implement the Family First Prevention
13 months. The majority (81%) lived in family homes (non-
Services Act (FFPSA, Title VII, Div. E of P.L. 115-123).
relative or relative foster family homes and pre-adoptive
homes), while close to 11% lived in a group home or
institution, about 7% were on trial home visits, or in
Title IV-E of the SSA primarily supports provision of foster
supervised independent living; close to 1% had run away.
care, adoption assistance, and (at state option) guardianship
assistance to children who meet federal IV-E eligibility
Among the 250,100 children who formally exited foster
criteria. Under Title IV-E, states are required to provide foster
care during FY2018, more than half returned to their
care and certain adoption aid to eligible children, and the
parents or went to live informally with a relative (55%),
federal government is committed to paying a part of the cost of
while 35% left care for a new permanent family via
that aid (50% to 83%, depending on the state), as well as a part
adoption or legal guardianship (including with kin). At the
of the cost of administering the program (50% in all states) and
same time, 7% aged out of care while most of the remainder
for training (75% in all states). States may opt to provide Title
(1%) were transferred to the care of another agency.
Child Welfare: Purposes, Federal Programs, and Funding
IV-E guardianship assistance under this same cost sharing
expects to distribute this formula funding in summer 2020 (and
structure. Definite budget authority for these Title IV-E costs
it may be used for multiple years). Separately, FFTA
was provided at $8.4 billion in P.L. 116-94.
authorized temporary Title IV-E support to provide foster care
“funding certainty” (in FY2020 and FY2021) for jurisdictions
HHS estimates 667,000 children received Title IV-E support in
an average month during FY2018. Most received adoption
with a recently ended Title IV-E waiver project. The law also
assistance (466,000); smaller numbers received foster care
temporarily eases access to Title IV-E prevention funding for
payments (168,000) or guardianship assistance (33,000). In
states implementing that option in FY2020-FY2023. The
general, a state must only spend Title IV-E dollars (federal
Congressional Budget Office estimates those temporary
and state) on children who meet federal eligibility criteria.
changes in Title IV-E funding authority will cost the federal
For foster care assistance, this includes an income test
Treasury about $305 million (FY2020-FY2029).
(applied to the home the child is removed from), removal
Figure 1. Federal Child Welfare Funding by Purpose
requirements (these typically must include judicial findings
(FY2020 total: $10.2 billion) Dollars shown in millions
that the home is “contrary to the welfare” of the child and
that “reasonable efforts” to prevent foster care were made),
and placement in a licensed foster family home or other
eligible facility. Nationally, less than 50% of children in
care meet those criteria, although the share varies by state.
Beginning with FY2020, states may choose to fund selected
Title IV-E foster care prevention services and, as of FY2019,
they may use IV-E to fund kinship navigators. In both cases,
the services or programs must meet evidence-based criteria
and other program rules in order to be eligible for 50% federal
cost sharing. Title IV-E funding is authorized on a permanent
and mandatory basis.
Source: Prepared by CRS using funding levels provided in P.L. 116-
69 and P.L. 116-94 or otherwise provided for FY2020. Amounts
Title IV-B includes the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Child Welfare
shown for foster care, adoption, and guardianship assistance are
Services (CWS) and the MaryLee Allen Promoting Safe and
based on definite budget authority provided under Title IV-E in P.L.
Stable Families (PSSF) programs. They authorize formula
116-94. For a variety of reasons, including the temporary
grants to states and tribes for child and family services. Total
authorization of Title IV-E spending provided in FFTA, actual spending
FY2020 funding for CWS, PSSF and for related research or
other activities authorized in IV-B is $703 million. Annual
* Includes only funding appropriated by FFTA outside of Title IV-E.
CWS and PSSF funding is authorized through FY2023.
There are no federal eligibility criteria for receipt of Title IV-B
Under the Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful
services. Funds are used to protect children (CWS); support,
Transition to Adulthood states receive formula grants for
preserve, and reunite families (CWS and PSSF); and promote
services to assist children who experience foster care at age
and support adoption (CWS and PSSF). Children served may
14 or older, including former foster youth up to age 21 (or
be living at home or in foster care. States must provide no less
23 in states that offer foster care support to age 21).
than $1 in nonfederal funds for every $3 they receive in federal
Funding is separately authorized for Educational and
Title IV-B formula funding. Funding is authorized on a
Training Vouchers (ETVs), which may provide up to
discretionary basis for CWS and on a discretionary and a
$5,000 per year (max of five years or up to age 26) to allow
capped mandatory basis for PSSF.
Chafee-eligible youth to attend college or post-secondary
Some PSSF program funding is reserved each year for specific
training. Funding for Chafee basic grants is authorized as a
programs, including the Court Improvement Program ($30
capped mandatory entitlement; ETV funding is authorized on a
million), grants to improve monthly caseworker visits with
discretionary basis. Both funding authorizations are permanent
foster children ($20 million), Regional Partnership Grants
(no expiration date). States are required to provide no less than
(RPGs) to improve outcomes for children affected by parental
$1 for every $4 in federal funding they receive under this
substance use disorder ($20 million) and for child and family
program. Combined FY2020 funding is $186 million.
services-related research, evaluation and technical assistance
Child Abuse Prevent and Treatment Act (CAPTA)
activities (circa $8 million). For FY2020, P.L. 116-94 directed
additional PSSF funds to be used for RPGs ($9.5 million) and
CAPTA authorizes grants to states to improve child protective
services, and, separately, for support of community-based
for research and evaluation ($1.6 million). Separately, $2.6
efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect. It also funds related
million was tagged to support the Title IV-E prevention
services clearinghouse and $19 million to allow states and
research and technical assistance. CAPTA’s discretionary
funding authorities expired with FY2015, but support has
tribes to develop kinship navigator programs that meet the
continued. For FY2020, CAPTA funding totaled $181 million
evidence and other standards required for Title IV-E support.
($23 million above FY2019) and included $90 million for state
Family First Transition Act (FFTA)
grants, $56 million for community-based grants, and $35
FFTA provided a one-time FY2020 appropriation of $500
million for research and technical assistance.
million to be used by states and tribes for any of the child
welfare purposes authorized in Title IV-B, including work
Emilie Stoltzfus, Specialist in Social Policy
related to implementing FFPSA, or to continue support for
activities previously supported under a Title IV-E waiver. HHS
Child Welfare: Purposes, Federal Programs, and Funding
This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff to
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