Shifting Our Frame in Child Welfare: A Focus on Child Well-Being

Shadi HoushyarShadi Houshyar, Vice President for Child Welfare Policy, FirstFocus

Summary: The author cautions that federal legislative and budget efforts must focus on addressing the unmet short and long term needs of foster children in order to foster resiliency and promote well-being.


Each year, child protective service agencies receive over 3 million reports of abuse, close to 1 million of which are substantiated—making child abuse a devastating social problem. Exposure to child abuse, specifically recurring experiences of abuse and neglect, can have a significant, cumulative and long-term impact on a child’s development. It’s not surprising then that children who have come in contact with the child welfare system often continue to experience emotional and behavioral difficulties long after permanency has been attained.

While admittedly we have a long way to go, the field has seen progress in recent years. Federal and state emphasis on permanency and safety has resulted in significant systems change. Improvements include a reduction in the number of children in foster care in recent years, an increase in the number of adoptions for children who cannot go home, and an increase in children who achieve permanence through the new route of subsidized guardianship with relatives.

Historically, child welfare systems have been responsible for ensuring the safety, permanence and well-being of children in care. But in practice, well-being has been more of an afterthought. In reality, it remains a relatively new concept in child welfare. There are several reasons for this. As a construct, child well-being has been difficult to define, challenging to measure and hard to impact. Moreover, the field has failed to reach consensus as to whether child well-being is truly a mandate of child welfare. Given these challenges, child welfare systems have more often emphasized safety and permanence, services have focused on short-term outcomes, and efforts have not been designed to promote child well-being.

In recent years, the field has started to attempt to capture child well-being in its assessments of state child welfare systems. Accountability provisions under the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 and federal regulation through the Child and Family Service Reviews (CFSR) have given states a push to pursue a greater, service-intensive focus on promoting child well-being. For instance, CFSR requires states to examine the physical, educational and mental health needs of children. The National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) also collects data on the functioning and well-being of children who come in contact with child protective services.

We have also seen a similar shift in recent policy discussions. In August 2011, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced the Promoting Accountability and Excellence in Child Welfare Act (S. 1509), which would establish a five-year grant program to give states and localities greater flexibility to implement comprehensive reforms to existing child welfare programs, provided they can demonstrate success in improving child well-being. Among other provisions, the bill establishes annual performance measures that must be achieved. It emphasizes implementing reforms and methods for achieving significant results that improve the well-being of all children in the child welfare system.

And the momentum is continuing to spread. Last April, Sen. Max Baucus, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and Sen. Ron Wyden, as members of the Senate Finance Committee, convened a roundtable discussion on: “Child well-being in foster care: Examining the relationship between data and efforts to effect positive outcomes for children.” At the roundtable, Bryan Samuels, commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, spoke about his efforts to shift emphasis in practice from merely looking at system outcomes to a greater focus on child and family outcomes, and importantly, the long-term trajectory of children who come in contact with the child welfare system.

His efforts are reflected in the FY2012 and FY2013 budgets. Both included a foster care legislative proposal providing an increase in funding of over $2.5 billion over 10 years. These mandatory funds would support a comprehensive child welfare reform proposal aimed at making improvements in the foster care system to prevent child abuse and neglect, and keep more children safely in their homes and out of long-term foster care. The proposal creates incentives for practices designed to improve child safety and permanence, and provides new funding that states can target specifically to improving child well-being.

Commissioner Samuels has made clear on a number of occasions that our work does not end when a child attains permanency. We need to utilize a trauma-informed approach to services for children who come into foster care, and continue these services long after they leave. His emphasis on (1) evidence-based and trauma-informed practice; (2) making structural changes in systems that care of these children; (3) involving all players in a child’s life in their care; and (4) ensuring a broad continuum of services and supports for children that continue after they leave the foster care system support a shifting framework in child welfare that reflects the importance of promoting child well-being for all children in care.

Despite pockets of progress, our work is not done. The current focus on permanency and safety is not sufficient and alone cannot help children heal from the corrosive effects of maltreatment or promote healthy development. Moving forward, we need to place more emphasis on how maltreated children fare, both in the near- and long-term. We must begin to focus on addressing the trauma experienced by and unmet needs of children in care, and in doing so, foster resiliency and promote child well-being.

Author biography:

Shadi Houshyar has extensive experience working with families involved in the child welfare system and is particularly interested in the translation of developmental research into effective child welfare and family policy, mental health policy, and government programs, interventions, and prevention practices targeting high-risk families.

Houshyar received her PhD in developmental psychology from Yale University, where she worked with children who were maltreated, and concentrated her research on identifying factors that foster resiliency in children exposed to trauma.

Houshyar has served as an AAAS/SRCD Congressional Fellowship in the Senate, working on education and health policy in the Office of Senator Jeff Bingaman (NM) and worked in policy communications and government relations for Burness Communications—a communications firm working exclusively with nonprofits and foundations in the health sector. 

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