If State and local child welfare systems were generally functioning well, most of those concerned might take the view that the approximately $5 billion in federal funds, and even more in State and local funds, was mostly well spent. In fact, however, knowledgeable observers are hard-pressed to name systems that are functioning well overall. Typically one aspect of an agency's efforts may be lauded, while serious weaknesses are acknowledged in other areas. Even so, good evidence of system performance has, until recently, been hard to come by.
After several years of development and pilot testing, the Children's Bureau in 2000 began conducting Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs) in each State. These reviews, which include a data-driven Statewide Assessment and an onsite review visit by federal and State staff, are intended to identify systematically the strengths and weaknesses in State child welfare system performance. Once areas of weakness are identified, States are required to develop and implement Program Improvement Plans (PIPs) designed to address shortcomings. During onsite
reviews, teams examine a sample of case files of children with open child welfare cases and interview families, caseworkers and others involved with these cases to determine whether federal standards have been met. System stakeholders such as child advocates and judges are also interviewed. In addition to examining practice in specific cases, the reviews also examine systemic factors such as whether the States' case review system, training, and service array are adequate to meet families' needs. Overall, 47 specific factors are rated and then aggregated to assess whether or not substantial conformity with federal requirements is achieved in seven child outcomes and seven systemic factors (shown in the text box below).
Outcomes and Systemic Factors Examined
As described above, there are 14 areas in which a State might be determined in or out of substantial compliance during its Child and Family Services Review. Figure 4 shows the distribution of State performance on initial reviews among all 50 States and the District of Columbia. Median State performance was to be in substantial compliance in 6 of 14 areas. States reviewed to date have ranged from meeting standards in 1 area to 9 areas. While simply counting the areas of compliance presents a very general, simplified and broad-brush approach to evaluating child welfare system quality, the purpose here is not to analyze system performance in any detailed fashion. It is simply to recognize that most States achieved substantial compliance in fewer than half of areas examined, and that all systems reviewed have been in need of significant improvement. Indeed, in the area of permanency and stability in their living situations, an area of crucial importance to children in foster care, no State has yet met federal standards in this area, although a few approach them. Clearly the current federal funding structure has not, to date, resulted in a child welfare system that achieves outcomes with which we may be satisfied.