Successful Alternatives to Taking Children from their Parents

(source: National Coalition for Child Protection Reform)

At the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, they are often asked what can be done to prevent the trauma of foster care by safely keeping children with their own families.

There are many options, and some are listed below.

None of the alternatives described below will work in every case or should be tried in every case.

Contrary to the way advocates of placement prevention often are stereotyped, the NCCPR do not believe in “family preservation at all costs” or that “every family can be saved.”

But these alternatives can keep many children now needlessly taken from their parents safely in their own homes.

Similarly, even communities that have turned their child welfare systems into national models still have serious problems, and often much progress still needs to be made.

All of the things that go wrong in the worst child welfare systems also go wrong in the best – but they go wrong less often.

Alternatives to Taking Children

from their Parents

Doing nothing. There are, in fact, cases in which the investigated family is entirely innocent and perfectly capable of taking good care of their children without any “help” from a child welfare agency.  In such cases, the best thing the child protective services worker can do is apologize, shut the door, and go away.

Basic, concrete help. Sometimes it may take something as simple as emergency cash for a security deposit, a rent subsidy, or a place in a day care center (to avoid a “lack of supervision” charge) to keep a family together.

Intensive Family Preservation Services programs. The first such program, Homebuilders, in Washington State, was established in the mid-1970s.  The largest replication is in Michigan, where the program is called Families First. The very term “family preservation” was invented specifically to apply to this type of program, which has a better track record for safety than foster care.  The basics concerning how these programs work – and what must be included for a program to be a real “family preservation” program — are in NCCPR Issue Papers 10 and 11.  Issue Paper 11 lists studies proving the programs’ effectiveness.


  • Susan Kelly, former director, Families First (734) 547-9164, susan.kelly

The Alabama “System of Care.” This is one of the most successful child welfare reforms in the country. The reforms are the result of a consent decree growing out of a lawsuit brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. The consent decree requires the state to rebuild its entire system from the bottom up, with an emphasis on keeping families together. The rate at which children are taken from their homes is among the lowest in the country, and re-abuse of children left in their own homes has been cut sharply.  An independent monitor appointed by the court has found that children are safer now than before the changes.


  • Ira Burnim, Legal Director, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (202) 467-5730, ext. 129. Mr. Burnim also is a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors. The Bazelon Center also has published a book about the Alabama reforms.

  • Paul Vincent, Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, Montgomery, Ala. (334) 264-8300.  Mr. Vincent ran the child protection system in Alabama when the lawsuit was filed.  He worked closely with the plaintiffs to develop and implement the reform plan.

  • Ivor Groves, independent, court-appointed monitor, (850) 422-8900.

Family to Family. This is a multi-faceted program developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (which also helps to fund NCCPR).  One element of the program, Team Decisionmaking often is confused with the entire program, which has many more elements.  The program is described at the Casey website .

A comprehensive outside evaluation of the program, found that it led to fewer placements, shorter placements, and less bouncing of children from foster home to foster home – with no compromise of safety.


  • Gretchen Test, Annie E. Casey Foundation (410) 547-6600.

Community/Neighborhood Partnerships for Child Protection. These partnerships, overseen by the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, are similar to the Family to Family projects. They mobilize formal and informal networks of helpers to prevent maltreatment and avoid needless foster care placement.  Partnerships in Florida’s Duval County, St. Louis, Mo. and Georgia  have reduced placements and improved safety.


The turnaround in Pittsburgh. In the mid-1990s, the child welfare system in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, Pa. was typically mediocre, or worse.  Foster care placements were soaring and those in charge insisted every one of those placements was necessary.  New leadership changed all that.  Since 1997, the foster care population has been cut dramatically.  When children must be placed, nearly half of all placements are with relatives and siblings are kept together 82 percent of the time.

They’ve done it by tripling the budget for primary prevention, more than doubling the budget for family preservation, embracing innovations like Family to Family and adding elements of their own, such as housing counselors in every child welfare office so families aren’t destroyed because of housing problems.  And children are safer.  Reabuse of children left in their own homes has declined and there has been a significant and sustained decline in child abuse fatalities.


  • Karen Blumen, Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Office of Community Relations (412) 350-5707.

Reform in El Paso County, Colorado. By recognizing the crucial role of poverty in child maltreatment, El Paso County reversed steady increases in its foster care population.  The number of children in foster care declined significantly – and the rate of reabuse of children left in their own homes is below the state and national averages, according to an independent evaluation by the Center for Law and Social Policy.


  • Barbara Drake, El Paso County Department of Human Services, (719) 444-5532.

The Bridge Builders, Bronx, New York. Combine the giving and guidance of ten foundations with the knowledge and enthusiasm of eight community-based agencies, then partner with the child protective services agency and what do you get?  A significant reduction in the number of children taken from their homes, with no compromise of safety, in a neighborhood that is among those losing more children to foster care than any others in New York City.  That’s the record of the Bridge Builders Initiative in the Highbridge section of The Bronx.  (NCCPR has received a grant to assist the Bridge Builders with media work).


  • Mike Arsham, executive director, Child Welfare Organizing Project, co-chair Bridge Builders Executive Committee,, 212-348-3000.

Throughout the City, the Administration for Children’s Services has made significant progress in safely keeping children in their own homes.  Since 1998, even with backsliding since 2006 in the wake of highly-publicized deaths of children “known to the system,” the number of children taken from their parents over the course of a year has been cut significantly, with no compromise of safety. Though child abuse fatalities garnered extensive media attention in 2006, such fatalities have declined during the reforms, only to increase in the wake of the backsliding.  Overall re-abuse of children left in their own homes declined significantly when entries into foster care were reduced.


  • Sharman Stein, Administration for Children’s Services 212-341-0999

The transformation in Maine. After a little girl named Logan Marr was taken needlessly from her mother only to be killed by a foster mother who formerly worked for the child welfare agency, the people of Maine refused to settle for pat answers about background checks and licensing standards.  They zeroed in on the fact that Maine had one of the highest proportions of children in the country trapped in foster care.  The combination of grassroots demands for change from below and new leadership at the top led to a dramatic reduction in the number of children taken away over the course of a year.  And while the state still has a long way to go in using kinship care, the proportion of children placed with relatives has more than doubled.  It’s all been done without compromising safety, earning the support of the state’s independent child welfare ombudsman.


  • Dean Crocker,Vice President for Programs,Maine Children’s Alliance,  (207) 623-1868 ext. 212,;

  • Mary Callahan, founder Maine Alliance for DHS Accountability and Reform, (207) 353-4223,

Changing financial incentives. While not a program per se, making this change spurs private child welfare agencies to come up with all sorts of innovations. This is clear from the experience in Illinois. Until the late 1990s, Illinois reimbursed private child welfare agencies the way other states typically do: They were paid for each day they kept a child in foster care.  Thus, agencies were rewarded for letting children languish in foster care and punished for achieving permanence.

Now those incentives have been reversed, in part because of pressure from the Illinois Branch of the ACLU, which won a lawsuit against the child welfare system. Today, private agencies in Illinois are rewarded both for adoptions (which often are conversions of kinship placements to subsidized guardianships) and for returning children safely to their own homes.  They are penalized for prolonged stays in foster care.  As soon as the incentives changed, the “intractable” became tractable, the “dysfunctional” became functional, and the foster care population plummeted.  And children are safer.

Today, Illinois takes away children at one of the lowest rates in the country. Independent, court-appointed monitors have found that child safety has improved.


Due process of law. Even the best programs are no substitute for due process.  That means court hearings in child welfare cases should be open.  But that also means  it’s urgent for accused parents to have meaningful legal representation from well-trained attorneys with low caseloads and solid support staff.  It’s not a matter of getting “bad” parents off, it’s a matter of challenging case records that often are rife with error, countering cookie-cutter “service plans” that provide no services and ensuring that families get the help they need.  A pilot project to provide such representation in some counties in Washington State has had such success in safely keeping families together that even the Attorney General’s office, which represents the child welfare agency in these cases, favors expanding it.

FURTHER INFORMATION AND CONTACTS are available from the Washington State Office of Public Defense at this website.






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