Child Welfare

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Child welfare policies and initiatives target the care, health, and well-being of children, with the goal of improving child health with the public health sector. These policies and initiatives aim to protect children from the harmful effects of poverty, family and parenting problems, child abuse and neglect, and inadequate resources.

Reducing poverty among children has been a major concern of child welfare. According to the Children's Defense Fund, one in five American children lived in poverty in 2000. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 changed the emphasis of American welfare policy from subsidizing poor families with children to promoting the employment of adult family members through a variety of programs. The possible long-term impact of this legislation on American children has raised concerns among child advocates, who have recommended a "safety net" of special services for children. The availability of food stamps, Medicaid, health insurance, housing, transportation, and child care through state and federal programs has been viewed as essential to the support of poor families with children.

Child welfare policies and initiatives have also addressed the prevention, identification, and treatment of child abuse and neglect. In 1997, almost 3 million American children were reported to have been abused or neglected. Of those cases reported, almost 1 million were substantiated. Child protective services are available in most American communities for investigating reports of child abuse and neglect and developing plans to address these concerns. Home visitor programs, parenting programs, community counseling and social services, and other forms of family support are intended to prevent or reduce the potential for abuse and neglect of children. However, many children (over 520,000 in 1998) end up being placed outside their homes in foster care, kinship care, or residential care, each year. Tragically, many children suffer severe emotional and physical trauma as a result of child abuse and neglect, and several children die each day from abuse or neglect.

Child advocates stress the need to improve child welfare policies and the welfare system. Improving the welfare of children requires a concerted effort from parents, extended family, neighbors, community services, health professionals and educators, and the faith community, as well as local, state, and federal government.

Deborah G. Goulish

(see also: Child Care, Daycare; Child Health Services; Domestic Violence; Women, Infants, and Children Program [WIC] )


Childrens Defense Fund (2000). Families Struggling to Make It in the Workforce: A Post Welfare Report. Available at

(2000). The State of America's Children Yearbook 2000. Washington, DC: CDF.

Child Welfare League of America (2000). Children 2000: Faces of the Future National Fact Sheet. Available at

Hutchidson. E. D., and Charlesworth, L. (2000). "Securing the Welfare of Children: Policies Past, Present, and Future." Families in Society: the Journal of Contemporary Human Services 81:576585.

Smith, L. A.; Wise, B.; Chavkin, W.; Romero, D.; and Zuckerman, B. (2000). "Implications of Welfare Reform for Child Health: Emerging Challenges for Clinical Practice and Policy." Pediatrics 11171125.

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child welfare, services provided for the care of disadvantaged children. Foundling institutions for orphans and abandoned children were the earliest attempts at child care, usually under religious auspices. At first the goal was to provide minimum physical subsistence, but services have been expanded to include social and psychological help. In the late 18th cent., a movement developed around the idea that children should not simply be regarded as small adults, and such educators as Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel were discussing children's special needs at the same time that the Industrial Revolution intensified the nonagricultural exploitation of child labor. In the 19th cent. many religious and private institutions were organized to take care of children who were orphaned, destitute, or handicapped. In child-welfare legislation, the British Children's Charter Act of 1908 and the Ohio Children's Code Commission of 1911 marked a new era. The idea that it was the responsibility of the community to provide children with the advantages that their parents could not supply is a 20th-century development. In this category are free school lunches; medical, dental, and psychiatric services and child guidance clinics in schools; playgrounds; children's courts; special schools for handicapped children; and care in foster families for children of broken homes. Infant and child clinics are often provided by municipalities. Many social welfare agencies finance summer camps for both healthy and handicapped children. In the United States child welfare services are administered through the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. A series of new child welfare programs were passed by Congress in the 1960s. These included the Child Nutrition Act, the Head Start Program, and the Foster Grandparent Program. The International Union for Child Welfare (1920) organized relief for child victims of major international and national disasters. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF, 1946) targets malnutrition and helps reestablish children's services destroyed in war. Current child welfare concerns include child abuse and child care (see day nursery).

See J. Packman, Child Care Needs and Numbers (1968); D. Zietz, Child Welfare (2d ed. 1969); L. Costin, Child Welfare (new ed. 1972); A. Kahn and S. Kamerman, Social Services in International Perspective (1980), Helping America's Families (1982), and Child Support (1987); V. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child (1985); A. Kadushin and J. A. Martin, Child Welfare Services (4th ed. 1988).