The last century has seen the development of an extensive (and expensive) child welfare system in this country -- a system dominated by government (mostly state and local governments), and a service delivery system dominated by private social service agencies. The system's primary focus is on abuse and neglect of children, having been given responsibility for society's response to child maltreatment. In the last fifty years, in addition to permanency, three other concepts have dominated thinking about child welfare: the best interests of the child, reasonable efforts, and least restrictive alternative. Of these, perhaps the most central is best interests. That we should act in the best interests of children seems unassailable. The question is what constitutes the best interest of an individual child.
The answer to that question has depended on shifting views as to the origins of abuse and neglect and on the importance of the natural family in a child's development. It is generally recognized that many factors enter into child maltreatment, including parental pathology, ignorance, and other failings; disorders of relationships within the family; the social condition of the family, most notably poverty and poor housing; and broader social conditions. The extent to which maltreatment is attributed to something inside the parents, and the extent to which that something is seen as moral failing, has been one of the most significant influences on responses to child maltreatment. Joined to that issue are beliefs about the extent to which people can change and whether some external intervention can bring about that change. On the one hand, some people believe that child maltreatment arises out of personal failings that are quite unlikely to change. Others believe blaming parents is inappropriate and ineffective because in most maltreatment there is a substantial component of cause that is not the "fault" of the parents, and that people, families, and relationships can change.
Views on the importance of the birth family to the child are also central. Early in the last century, those concerned with abused and neglected children recognized the importance of the child's own family. The White House Conference on Children in 1909 said that "home life is the highest and finest product of civilization" and children should not be deprived of home life "except for urgent and compelling reasons" (Proceedings of the Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, 1909). This notion was strengthened by the idea of the parent-child bond, developed in detail by Bowlby (1952, 1969-73, 1988). It is believed that there is a special bond between child and mother that comes out of their biological relationship and is unlike other human relationships. Beyond the special bond, many advocates in child welfare believe that families inherently want to do right by their children.
But the special bond is sometimes violated and sometimes children are harmed by their parents. So are the child's best interests served by removing the child from the parents or by leaving him or her with them? The decision must balance interests in the child's safety with interests in maintaining familial bonds (Goldstein et al., 1996). If a child is removed, it is hoped that the removal will be temporary, that the problems in the family can be relieved enough to return the child home soon (or later). The reunification decision invokes the same balancing: the interest in restoring familial bonds with that of avoiding future harm to the child.1 In deciding on whether or not to return a child home, the crucial issues are how much must the parents change and how long do we wait for that change to take place before considering other alternatives?
The history of the child welfare system has been characterized by cycles in which emphasis on these two values, maintenance of the family and safety of the child has shifted back and forth. Neither of these values are ever totally repudiated, but at any one time one appears to be dominant. And each value has advocates at any one time. Shifts in the balancing of these values are precipitated by events, changes in the political landscape, and sometimes by changes in expert opinion.
Following Bowlby's work in the early 1950s, concern with the effects of the child welfare system on children began to build. In the late 50s, the publication of Maas and Engler's Children in Need of Parents (1959) had a considerable impact on the field. This study of the situation of children in foster care in several communities showed that children often stayed in care for long periods of time, often did not visit with their natural parents, and often developed behavioral problems. The findings suggested that these children had been abandoned by their parents and neglected by the system. The results could be taken as evidence of the need for reform of the foster care system, or as evidence for the desirability of limiting foster care placement, or both.
The 1960s saw a rediscovery of child abuse with the discovery of the "battered child syndrome." Advances in xerography led to identification of injuries that were unlikely to have had accidental origin (Kempe et al., 1962; Nelson, 1984). States established child welfare agencies to investigate reports of maltreatment and take action when needed. States also enacted laws requiring professionals to report to the state agencies suspicions of abuse or neglect. The dominant concern of the child welfare system with maltreatment was established.
Due largely to increased public awareness, the number of reports of maltreatment and the number of children in substitute care grew enormously during the 1970s and 80s. The number of staff and the budgets of child welfare departments also grew, leading to concerns about costs on the part of state legislatures and the federal government. Worries about increased costs of foster care, the effects of foster care on children, and beliefs that at least some foster care placements were unnecessary led to a swinging back of the pendulum of public concern.2 Thus was born, in the late 1970s, the "family preservation" movement, the development of policies and programs intended to prevent the placement of children in foster care. Programs designed to work with parents to avoid placement or facilitate the return home of children in foster care had been around for a long time,3 but a new model for such work, developed by David Haapala and Jill Kinney in the early 1970s, was thought to be particularly promising (Kinney et al., 1991). Called "Homebuilders," the model called for very short term, intensive, crisis-oriented work based on cognitive-behavioral principles. Other models for family preservation were also promulgated. Early evaluations of family preservation programs, particularly Homebuilders, seemed to indicate remarkable success. Few of the families receiving such services experienced the placement of a child. As a result of such evaluations and the skilled work of advocates, led by foundations such as the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, many states began to develop family preservation programs by the late 1980s. By the early 90s, most states were experimenting with family preservation and both the programs and philosophy of family preservation were well established as cornerstones of reform of the child welfare system.
But the early 1990s also saw the beginnings of a backlash against family preservation. Despite efforts to keep children from entering foster care, between 1987 and 1996 the number of children in the child welfare system placed in out-of-home care increased by 89.5 percent.4 Deaths or serious harm to children living at home, whose families had previously been involved with the child welfare system were prominently displayed in the media of a number of cities. These incidents were attributed to the policy of family preservation and critics suggested that the interests of families were being allowed to supercede the best interests of children. Legislatures began to write laws affirming that safety of children must come first in making child welfare decisions. A new round of evaluations, this time more carefully designed than earlier ones, began to cast doubt on the effectiveness of family preservation in maintaining families. The research was used by critics, often inappropriately, to bolster their attacks.
By the mid-1990s interest also began to be focused on the "back end" of the system. Lengths of time in foster care had been rising and children were often moved from one placement to another, with consequent disruption of relationships critical to their development. Thus, it was thought that more work should be done with families so that more children could be returned home more quickly. The contrary view was that families should not be given unlimited opportunities to prove themselves capable of safe parenting, the child's sense of time should take precedence. Interest in alternatives such as adoption and relative guardianship grew.
At present the pendulum has swung back. Public understanding of the meaning of best interests of the child again places emphasis on the safety of the child, rather than maintenance of the birth parent and child as a family unit, both in decisions about what should be done in newly discovered cases of maltreatment and in decisions about how to proceed once a child has been placed in substitute care. Alternatives such as adoption, guardianship, and placement with relatives and non-relatives are given more weight and lengths of time before deciding on permanent plans have been reduced. More children are being adopted and fewer are returning home.5
1. The motivation for keeping a child in his or her home and returning a removed child is sometimes put in terms of maintenance of family integrity. This view stresses the value our culture places on the privacy of the family and the right of families to determine how they want to raise their children.
2. There was also concern at the time that the financing of the child welfare system contributed to the increase in foster care. The federal government, through provisions of the Social Security act, provides open-ended partial financing of foster care costs of the states. At the time, federal support for prevention of maltreatment or for services to avoid placement was much less available.
3. For example, the St. Paul Family Centered project of the 1950s (Wood and Geismar, 1989).
4. Child Welfare League of America Stat Book (1999) CWLA Press, Washington, D.C. citing American Public Welfare Association's,Characteristics of Children in Substitute and Adoptive Care: (1993). A Statistical Summary of the VCIS National Child Welfare Data Base. (1998) Washington, D.C., Child Welfare League of America.
5. See Reunification From Foster Care in Nine States: 1990-1997, Description and Interpretation, in this reunification series.