Building Capacity and Addressing Equity: Challenges and Opportunities in Child Welfare Systems Change

Child welfare systems in the United States are intended to ensure that children are safe, cared for within stable and loving forever families, and able to thrive in childhood and beyond. This work is both complex and critical, and these systems face a number of ongoing challenges. There are persistent inequities and patterns of racial and ethnic disparities, including the overrepresentation of children of color in the child welfare system. Systems are overburdened with the need to respond to unsubstantiated reports of child abuse and neglect that stem from the conflation of neglect and poverty. The child welfare workforce experiences significant burnout and turnover 

Collectively, these challenges affect the child welfare systems’ ability to meet the needs of children and families proactively and equitably, as well as be family centered in decision-making. But emerging evidence about effective practices, a growing focus on prevention efforts, and increased readiness to collaborate and work across systems are encouraging signs that these challenges can be addressed.

New Resource to Help Child-Serving Systems Consider Social Determinants of Health

Moving from Theory to Action: Supporting the Conditions for Equity and Thriving Children is a multimodule training developed by AIR. It provides foundational knowledge about social determinants of health, the history behind inequitable access to opportunity, frameworks and data, and exemplary communities for learners interested in understanding and implementing social determinants of health approaches to child well-being.

Here are four recommendations to help build the capacity of child welfare systems, address current challenges and opportunities, and ultimately help all children and families thrive.

  1. Continue to support and build capacity for a multisystem, preventive approach. AIR’s public health experts apply a social determinants of health framework to child- and family-serving systems; in this framework, every system and individual has a role to play in prevention, by understanding and addressing root causes such as poverty, mental health, and substance use disorder. A single system—the child welfare system included—is not designed to address these complex and multifaceted issues, and this work must occur in partnership with other systems that support and connect to children and families. For example, research suggests that attending to poverty through a constellation of programs and policies can reduce involvement with child protective services. 

    In addition, systems’ support for parents and caregivers with substance use disorder has the potential to shape child welfare outcomes. Recent legislation, the Family First Prevention Services Act, has codified this emphasis on upstream solutions by increasing access to funding for a range of preventive supports. Building capacity to integrate systems will also help address the complex needs of youth and families who have lengthy involvement with child welfare systems. 

  2. Strengthen and support the workforce. High turnover of child welfare practitioners adds to already high caseloads for staff and can lead to more disruptions in out-of-home placements, as well as reducing the proactive and tailored support provided to children and families. Turnover and burnout require agencies to continually hire and retrain staff, which is a burden on resources. 

    Taking a prevention and cross-systems approach, anchored in a social determinants of health framework, can help ameliorate many factors that lead to burnout by addressing the root causes that lead families to need support. In addition, systems can invest in strategies to recruit, prepare, and coach new practitioners to support their well-being and professional learning. Supporting practitioners in addressing personal bias and implementing trauma-sensitive, culturally responsive practices can potentially reduce disparities and make child welfare systems more equitable and responsive.  

  3. Engage those with lived and living expertise in developing and implementing solutions. Lived and living experts are people with direct personal experience with child welfare, including youth, families, and community partners. In recent years, there’s been a movement toward engagement with lived experts, through initiatives like youth advisory boards, credible messengers, and cultural brokers. But it’s also important to ensure we’re engaging with people who’ve been through the specific system in question. Sometimes people discuss “the child welfare system” as though it’s a one large system. 

    However, policies, practices, and outcomes vary across systems, meaning that lessons learned about successes and needed improvements will also vary. Working with those who have this specific knowledge, who can speak to their needs and the experience of receiving these services, can help us identify less-obvious equity issues and solutions. 

  4. Leverage data and evidence. With technology and rigorous research driving innovations and learning, child welfare systems have access to new data and evidence to make decisions and improve systems. Some systems now use performance management data systems to support continuous improvement. New applications of machine learning and automation can help highlight new innovations and insights from research evidence. 

    In addition, the Family First Prevention Services Act’s research and evaluation provisions can build and elevate evidence about what works in which contexts so communities can be reimbursed for evidence-based strategies. For example, AIR is currently collaborating with Los Angeles County to understand the effectiveness of its cultural broker program.  

There are reasons for hope—increased understanding and attention to equity, growing consensus on shifting resources and attention upstream, and evidence of declines in physical abuse attributed to parent programs and social norms campaigns. Sustaining and advancing this progress requires additional capacity to identify, replicate, and spread what’s working, while developing new strategies through innovation and partnership.    

This blog post was informed by insights from AIR experts, including Matthew Claps, Flora Harmon, and Katie Ports.