The Child Welfare System
Including Foster Care and Adoption Assistance
Each year concerned professionals and community members report nearly 500,000
instances in which they suspect that someone is abusing or neglecting a child in
California.1 California’s child welfare system is the principal intervention resource for
protecting these children, as well as children who are orphaned or abandoned. The
system consists of a conglomeration of public and private agencies, institutions, programs
and services. These entities and individuals respond to allegations of abuse and neglect,
provide services to children and families who are victims or potential victims of abuse or
neglect, and provide services to children in foster care who were temporarily or
permanently removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. In July, 2007,
approximately 85,000 children in California lived in out-of-home or foster care.2
Federal and state laws provide the framework for child welfare services which are funded
through a combination of federal, state and county sources. The California Department
of Social Services (DSS) is the principal entity responsible for the state’s child welfare
system, although each of the state’s 58 counties administers its own child welfare
program. In other words, counties are the primary source of direct government
interaction with children and families involved in the system. California is one of around
a dozen states with this state-supervised/county-administered governance system. The
Departments of Health Services, Mental Health, Alcohol and Drug Programs, and
Developmental Services, along with their county counterparts, and the Administrative
Office of the Courts and the Department of Education also provide services to children
and families involved in the child welfare system.
Components of the system
Child welfare services include a variety of interventions designed to protect children from
abuse and neglect. Major services include emergency response to reports of suspected
abuse and neglect; family maintenance (which provides time-limited protective services
to families in crisis); family reunification (which provides time-limited intervention and
support services to help create a safe environment to which a child who was removed
from home could return); and foster or out-of-home care. After a concerned individual
reports an allegation of abuse or neglect, a county social worker determines if an
investigation needs to occur and how quickly. An investigation may end the intervention,
or it may begin the family’s further involvement in the child welfare system.
1 Needell, B., et. al. (2008). Child Welfare Services Reports for California. Retrieved February 20, 2008, from University of
California at Berkeley Center for Social Services Research website. URL: <http://cssr.berkeley.edu/ucb_childwelfare.
Funding THIS FUNDING WAS APPROVED
The Governor's proposed budget for 2008-09 includes $4.179 billion in spending from all
funds for the child welfare system, of which $1.14 billion are from the General Fund.3
The primary sources of federal funding for the child welfare system include Titles IV-B
(child welfare services) and IV-E (foster care) of the Social Security Act, with additional
funding in Titles IV-A (TANF), XIX (Medicaid) and XX (block grants).
Most stakeholders agree that current federal funding mechanisms for child welfare place
a greater priority on supports to children while in foster care at the expense of prevention
efforts and supports to help at-risk families care for their children at home. The federal
Title IV-E program is an open-ended entitlement program that guarantees federal
reimbursement to states for maintaining an eligible child in foster care. This program
accounts for approximately 48% of federal child welfare spending in the states. The
federal Title IV-B program provides funds to states for family preservation and support
services, reunification services and adoption promotion. Unlike federal Title IV-E
funding, Title IV-B funding is a capped entitlement and considered discretionary funding,
which is subject to the annual appropriation process. Title IV-B is an important source of
funding for prevention and early intervention services, yet these funds account for only
approximately five percent of all federal funding on child welfare. Thus, federal
financing has historically been a barrier to the implementation of many strategies to
prevent children and their families from unnecessarily entering foster care.4
¾ Foster Care
Most of California's approximately 80,000 foster children entered foster care because of
Neglect (rather than abuse or abandonment). Three-quarters of these children were
minorities or children of color in 2006. African-American children in particular were
disproportionately represented.5 In 2006, foster children lived with foster parents
(approximately 36% of placements), kin (36%), group home providers (or congregate
care facilities, 8%), or in other living arrangements. Group care placements are the least
preferred and most expensive (ranging from $1,454 to $6,371 per child per month) of
these major placement categories.
Foster care is intended to provide children with temporary out-of-home placements until
they can safely return home or be permanently placed with relatives or other committed
adults. Yet in 2006, around 19,000 children for whom the state was responsible had been
in our care and custody for longer than 5 years. That same year, 42% of children in foster
care had been placed in at least 3 homes or institutions.
3 LAO, Analysis of the 2008-09 Budget Bill. URL: http://www.lao.ca.gov/laoapp/Analysis.aspx?year=2008&chap=0&toc=0
4 Two large counties, Los Angeles and Alameda, are currently participating in the federal Title IV–E Child Welfare Waiver
Demonstration Capped Allocation Project that allows more flexibility for IV-E fund usage.
5 Id. (The California Department of Finance estimates that African-American children represented 8% of California’s population in
2006; yet during that same year, 28% of children in foster care were African-American.)
Foster children are also highly at-risk as they transition to adulthood. Youth who "age
out" of or "emancipate" from foster care at 18 (or up until the age of 21 in some
circumstances) are especially vulnerable. When compared to children who were not in
foster care, foster children are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school.6
Former foster children also face unemployment and incarceration at rates far higher than
the general population.7 According to some studies, 24% to 50% of former foster
children become homeless within the first 18 months of emancipation.8
In recent years, the Legislature, media and other leaders have devoted important attention
to reforms of the overall child welfare system and foster care in particular. These efforts
have resulted in some very positive changes (see below for examples). However, some
changes have not been fully-implemented; and as the dire outcomes described above
indicate, further attention to improving the system is still urgently needed.
¾ Adoption & Guardianship
Adoption is a process that creates a new parent-child relationship under the law- after the
birth parents' rights are terminated and transferred. The majority of finalized adoptions in
California are overseen by public adoption agencies, including CDSS district offices, and
state-licensed county adoption agencies. The Adoption Assistance Program (AAP)
provides benefits or subsidies to promote permanent placement of children in need of
families who are difficult to place, including those who are older, members of sibling
groups, or who have disabilities. Eligibility for federal benefits is based on the child's
eligibility for federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children-Foster Care Program
(AFDC-FC). The amount of financial assistance is based on the child's needs and cannot
exceed the age-related, foster family home care rate for which the child would otherwise
be eligible. This amounted to monthly federal and non-federal average grants in 2006-07
of $761.16 and $806.23, respectively. Payments continue until the child attains the age
of 18 except in limited circumstances when it may continue until the child turns 21.
Guardianship is a legal arrangement whereby a court grants the responsibility to care for
a child to an adult or adults who then have the authority to make decisions a biological
parent would otherwise make. Guardianships last until the child reaches the age of 18 or
the court terminates the guardianship. Non-relative guardians for children in the foster
care system may receive AFDC-FC payments and other foster care services.
6 See, e.g., Mark Courtney & Amy Dworsky, Chapin Hall Center for Children, Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of
Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at Age 19 (2005); Advocates for Children’s Project Achieve: A Model Project Providing Education
Advocacy for Children in the Child Welfare System (2005); Retrieved October 12, 2007 from Advocates for Children of New
York, Inc., URL: http://www.advocatesforchildren.org/pubs/ProjectAchievefinal.doc.
7 The Northwest Foster Care Alumni Study, Retrieved 4/30/07. URL:
8 California Department of Social Services, All County Information Notice I-101-01 (November 21 ,2001).
Retrieved 11/16/07. URL: http://www.cdss.ca.gov/getinfo/acin01/pdf/I-101_01.pdf.
¾ Kin/Relative Care
Relative caregivers often serve as a primary if informal source of care for children whose
parents are absent. Once a child is in foster care, federal law requires the child welfare
agency to try and place the child with a relative before turning to placement in a
stranger's home or another facility. Long-term kinship care is especially valuable
because it provides greater stability for children. Children who are cared for by relatives
move less frequently and remain more connected to their culture, identities and
communities. By contrast to non-relative foster parents, relative caregivers tend to be
older, single and more frequently African-American.
To support kinship care and combat the financial disincentive that might otherwise
accompany relatives becoming guardians, California has enacted a series of legislative
reforms. The Kinship Guardianship Assistance Payment program (Kin-GAP) is a
voluntary program that provides financial assistance equal to the basic foster care rate
based on the child's age to relative caregivers who become legal guardians. These
relative guardians' homes must meet the same health and safety standards as licensed
Performance Measures and Recent Reform Efforts
In November 1997, with the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, Congress
mandated that state's child welfare programs be assessed on the basis of outcomes
achieved for children and families served by public agencies. In 1999 the federal Health
and Human Services (HHS) agency adopted seven outcome performance measures in the
areas of safety, permanence and well-being. HHS also established a review process for
determining whether states are in compliance with those outcome measures. The process
known as the Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) examines the delivery of child
welfare services and the outcomes for children and families served by child protective
services, foster care, adoption, and other related programs. In 2001 the Legislature
passed AB 636 (Steinberg), the California Child Welfare System Improvement and
Accountability Act, which provided the framework for measuring and monitoring the
performance of each county child welfare system.
The federal government last reviewed California's child welfare system and published
results in 2002. The state failed all seven of the outcome measures pertaining to child
safety, permanence and well-being. As a result the state developed a Performance
Improvement Plan (PIP) to avoid future funding penalties. According to the LAO,
actions taken on the PIP were expected to improve California’s performance to passing
some (but not all) measures in the next round of results.9 The new round of reviews
began in spring 2007, with California's taking place in February, 2008 (results pending).
9 See Analysis of the 2007-08 Budget Bill: Health and Social Services; Child Welfare Services. URL:
Assembly Select Committee on Foster Care
In October 2005 the Speaker appointed a Select Committee on Foster Care chaired by
Assembly Member Karen Bass. The Select Committee has held hearings throughout
California. The Committee also coordinated a 25-piece legislative package in 2006, as
well as numerous efforts in 2007. The Legislature and Governor acted upon many of the
proposed reforms in those years, including significant new funding. The Select
Committee will continue its work this legislative session.
Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care
In 2006 the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission on
Children in Foster Care chaired by Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno to provide
leadership and develop recommendations and strategies to reduce the number of children
in and entering foster care while ensuring they have safe, secure, and stable homes. The
Commission is expected to present a final report to the Judicial Council in 2008.
The California Child Welfare Council
Also in 2006, the Governor signed AB 2216 (Bass) which created the California Child
Welfare Council, an advisory body responsible for improving the collaboration and
processes of the multiple agencies and the courts that serve the children and youth in the
child welfare and foster care systems. The Council is co-chaired by the Secretary of the
Health and Human Services Agency and the Chief Justice of the California Supreme
Court. The first meeting was held late in 2007.
SB 84 (Committee on Budget & Fiscal Review), Chapter 177, Statutes of 2007
• 5% rate increase for group homes, county foster family homes, Kin-GAP, and
emergency assistance cases, effective January 1, 2008.
• 100% increase– from $5000 to $10,000– in maximum private adoption agencies
can be reimbursed for a completed adoption, beginning February 1, 2008.
• $35.7 million for Transitional Housing Plus- to provide housing and supportive
services to emancipated foster youth ages 18-24.
AB 1808 (Committee on Budget), Chapter 75, Statutes of 2006.
• Eliminated county share of cost for transitional housing for former foster youth.
• Enhanced AAP benefits for a pilot project to increase successful adoptions of
• Extended Kin-GAP assistance to wards of the juvenile court in addition to
dependent children of the juvenile court.
• Deleted requirement that county seeking to participate in KSSP must have 40% or
more dependent children in relative care placement.
• Provided specialized care and clothing allowance benefits to Kin-GAP children.
AB 408 (Steinberg), Chapter 862, Statutes of 2003 & AB 1412 (Leno), Chapter 640,
Statutes of 2005. Requires social workers to identify important people in the lives of
older foster youth and to support their continued relationships to enhance permanence for
youth. AB 408 also ensures that foster youth are allowed to participate in age appropriate
AB 899 (Liu), Chapter 683, Statutes of 2001. Created foster youth Bill of Rights,
codified in Calif. Welf. & Inst. Code Section 16001.9.
AB 636 (Steinberg), Chapter 678, Statutes of 2001. Child Welfare System Improvement
and Accountability Act of 2001. Created California's Child and Family Service Review
system and serves as a guide to the assessment process.
SB 2030 (Costa), Chapter 785, Statutes of 1998. Required DSS to commission a study to
evaluate child welfare services budget methodology, social worker caseload levels,
supportive services and prevention services for clients. The dialogue about the resulting
caseload standards and related funding needs continues today.
The Performance Indicators for Child Welfare Services in California/California
Children's Services Archive at the Center for Social Services Research, School of Social
Welfare, U.C. Berkeley, provides an ongoing analysis and reporting using statewide and
county-specific child welfare administrative data, along with data from other sources:
Understanding the Child Welfare System in California, California Center for Research on
Women and FamiliesCALIF. FOSTER CARE REPORT FOR 2008-09.docx
Foster Care Fundamentals: An Overview of California's Foster Care System: A Primer
for Service Providers and Policymakers, California State Library Research Bureau.
• Still in Our Hands: A Review of Efforts to Reform Foster Care in California
(February 2003). Little Hoover Commission.
CALIF. FOSTER CARE REPORT FOR 2008-09.docx
• Fostering the Future: Safety, Permanence and Well-Being for Children in Foster
Care (May 2004). Pew Commission.
CALIF. FOSTER CARE REPORT FOR 2008-09.docx
• Broken Promises: California's Inadequate and Unequal Treatment of its Abused
and Neglected Children (2006). National Center for Youth Law.
Assembly Committee on Human Services, State Capitol, Room 4206, (916) 319-2089
Updated: February 2008