As a former director of a state child welfare agency, one of the things that has always struck me about our current child welfare system is that it is predicated on intervening with children after harm has occurred. It relies on a single agency to provide services to families who face a myriad of complex problems and too often, results in greater trauma for the children it seeks to protect.

We have a very small window of immense opportunity in our country and I am afraid it might close on us soon if we don’t take action now.   My current organization, The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, is a strong proponent of passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016 that represents a once-in-a-career opportunity to see our nation’s child welfare system become more preventative and family focused -- something we have all long dreamed of.

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The  federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF), on which I was honored to serve as Commissioner, released a report earlier this year calling for a public health-based, 21st century approach to child welfare.

Our national strategy was informed by two years of comprehensive study and testimony from more than 150 experts and stakeholders, including child welfare commissioners, pediatricians, law enforcement officials, parents and youth served by child protection agencies.  The Commission’s findings and recommendation provide a road map for a public health approach that places emphasis on preventing these tragedies before they occur.

But no road map will  help you get from point A to point B without the infrastructure that is necessary. Now Congress has drafted legislation that will provide that infrastructure by putting some of the policies at the heart of our report into practice.  These policies are designed to rethink the child welfare system of the 21st century with a larger emphasis on a cross-agency approach that emphasizes both prevention and early intervention.

The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016, which passed the House last month and could be taken up before the Senate adjourns for its recess, is designed to strengthen families by providing financing for early intervention services proven to be effective. The bill holds the promise of keeping children out of foster care and increasing the use of family settings when out of home care is necessary.

Many of its provisions reflect the Commission’s findings and recommendations and could lead to greater reform of the child welfare system in some important areas:

  • The delivery of more upstream prevention and early intervention services for children at risk and their parents, including mental health and substance abuse services and in-home parent skill-based programs.
  • Ensuring that pregnant and parenting youth in foster care are one of the target populations for prevention services and programs.
  • Data integration across multiple agencies including child welfare and local and federal law enforcement to better serve and protect children.
  • The development of child abuse and neglect fatalities prevention plans through a process that includes gathering relevant data on deaths and using that data to inform a comprehensive, statewide prevention plans shared with the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • The delivery of enhanced training and technical assistance to states and tribes on the provision of services and programs.
  • Identification and replication of best practices including mental health and substance abuse treatment and in-home parent-skill programs.
  • Flexible funding to provide greater resources for prevention and early intervention.

While the bill is cost neutral to the federal budget, there are costs that impact states, however, the bill’s intent is to increase the use of upfront prevention services to strengthen families and have more children and youth placed in quality family-based foster care. A state’s use of group and residential settings would be for purposes of stabilization and treatment, not long term placement.

Based on a 2012 study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which found that the total lifetime cost for just one year of confirmed cases of child maltreatment is approximately $124 billion, the Commission’s findings agree that, over the long term, providing evidence-based prevention services will reduce long term costs and improve outcomes for children and families.

Removing a child from their family  is almost always a traumatic experience, even when necessary. What the Family First Prevention Services Act will do is ensure that other options exist, such as intervening earlier with vital family supports so we can keep children at home while their parents receive quality services from trained caseworkers and service providers and stronger, evidence-based home visiting alternatives. And for children where removal is necessary, the bill makes sure they are able to live within a normal family setting and only in group care for purposes of stabilization and necessary treatment.

This is what the Commission envisioned when it outlined its national strategy and challenge to our nation to build a comprehensive 21stcentury child welfare system. With this approach, valuable foster care resources will be available to support those children for whom there is no other alternative; more families will be strengthened; and most importantly, more children will grow up safely in their homes. Isn’t that what we want for our own children and our nation’s children?


Susan N. Dreyfus is president and chief executive officer of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. She served previously as a Commissioner to the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities; as secretary for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and as administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Children and Family Services.