Working with the Child Welfare System

Work With Dads

Working with the Child Welfare System

“Nonresident fathers of children in foster care are rarely involved in case planning for their children … nearly half had not been contacted by the child welfare agency. By not reaching out to fathers, caseworkers may overlook potential social connections and resources that could help to achieve permanency for the child.”[1]


Although the child welfare system has not always focused attention on father involvement, some changes have come about in recent years. As a result, responsible fatherhood programs have opportunities to work with child welfare agencies and related professionals about ways to engage fathers and promote responsible fatherhood.

A fatherhood program might work, or establish a partnership, with a local child welfare agency to:

  • Help fathers better understand how the child welfare system works.
  • Help child welfare staff identify, engage, and provide appropriate services for fathers and families of children involved in the child welfare system.
  • Ensure child welfare staff are aware of the fatherhood program’s services.
  • Encourage child welfare staff to refer fathers to the fatherhood program.

For a partnership to be productive, all fatherhood program staff, particularly those working directly with potential or active partners, should understand the role and perspective of child welfare workers as well as the mutual goals and benefits involved in working together.

Role of the Child Welfare System

The mission of the child welfare system is to promote the well-being of children by ensuring safety, providing services to families that need assistance in protecting and caring for their children, and helping to arrange permanent family connections for children who are placed in foster care.[2] When a report of suspected child abuse or neglect is received, an initial assessment and/or investigation is conducted to determine if protective services are needed. Depending on the situation, this may lead to a plan to provide services and support the family in the home, or it might result in temporary placement of the child outside the home with relatives or a foster family. If a child is placed out of the home, the goal is generally to reunify the family in approximately 12 months, depending on the severity of the situation.

This flowchart from the Child Welfare Information Gateway illustrates how the child welfare system works: The Child Welfare System (flowchart) (PDF 393 KB)

Engaging non-resident fathers has potential benefits to the child. From providing a connection to the child’s history and family to other social and economic benefits. Recent studies have highlighted the potential benefits of father involvement for children’s safety and well-being. Urban Institute studies of child welfare agency efforts to increase father involvement show:[3]

  • Non-resident fathers’ involvement with their children is associated with a higher likelihood of a reunification outcome and a lower likelihood of an adoption outcome.
  • Children with highly involved non-resident fathers are discharged from foster care more quickly than those whose fathers have less or no involvement.
  • For children who are reunited with a parent, usually their mother, higher levels of non-resident father involvement are associated with a substantially lower likelihood of subsequent maltreatment allegations.

Similarly, other studies have shown:

  • The non-residential father may play a role in ameliorating the circumstances that led to the abuse.
  • Resident fathers who caused or contributed to harm are likely to remain involved with their children. They may also have more children. Effective engagement can be a protective factor for those children.[4]

If the father is not living in the home with the mother and children, which is often the case, he and his extended family still are potential resources. However, fathers are not always identified or located and often they are unaware of the child welfare system and its processes. Traditionally, child welfare workers focused on reunification with the parent from whom the child was removed, and tended to only engage that parent’s relatives as temporary or permanent supports. While approaches vary by state and local policies, many child welfare system leaders have begun to change this situation.

Legislative Background on the Child Welfare System

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), originally passed in 1974, laid the foundation for the child welfare system. CAPTA has been amended and reauthorized several times, most recently in 2010. Specific approaches vary from state to state, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau plays a major role in supporting service delivery through program funding and legislative initiatives.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 included provisions that can serve as an impetus to locate and include non-residential fathers in the child welfare process. For instance, ASFA pushed for acceleration of permanent placements for children, either reunification with biological parents, placement with other family members, or adoption, and generally reinforced ''safety of the child'' at every step of the case plan and review process.

"Certain provisions of ASFA … can invigorate child welfare systems to involve fathers and their families in achieving the federal goals of child safety, permanency, and well-being. For example, concurrent case planning can provide an impetus for agencies, earlier in the process, to find and explore non-custodial fathers and their families as potential placement resources. In addition—to achieve the goal of adoption—agencies’ identification of non-custodial parents can facilitate the termination of parental rights and access to medical records.” [5]