In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Child Welfare

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • Manuals and Guides
  • Journals
  • Firsthand Accounts
  • International Comparison

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Social Work Child Welfare
Jill Duerr Berrick, Colleen Henry
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0011


The field of child welfare encompasses a range of family challenges and service responses. Traditional child welfare services are typically enacted in response to concerns about child maltreatment and signal significant family problems relating to neglect, child physical abuse, child sexual abuse, or other related family issues. In the United States, almost one million children were identified as victims of child maltreatment in 2008 following more than three million child-maltreatment reports to social service agencies. Service responses include prevention-oriented services, in-home services, or out-of-home care (e.g., foster care, kinship care, group care, etc.). For children separated from their parents, federal mandates require child welfare workers and the courts to identify permanency options so that the child can be raised in a healthy, committed family. Reunification with parents is the preferred permanency option, but other permanency opportunities may be pursued such as adoption or legal guardianship. For older youth, exits from care may eventuate in “independent living” following emancipation from care. Post-permanency services are growing in availability for many children and families. Although a large body of literature identifies the characteristics of children and families served by the child welfare system and system-level outputs, less is known about the outcomes associated with child welfare services, an area of inquiry ripe for significant research.

Introductory Works

The history of the child welfare system in the United States typically begins with a part-story part-legend of “Mary Ellen,” a little girl of New York City, saved from her savage parents in 1874 by a “sweet faced missionary” and the Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals. These accounts, though fact based, are too simplistic, they mix fact with fantasy, and they have contributed to the decades-long debates in the field between “child saving’ and “family support.” Costin, et al. 1996, now growing dated in sections, offers an excellent examination of historical fact relating to the origins of the child welfare system, along with a thought-provoking analysis of the Mary Ellen story. The book offers important insights into the politics surrounding child welfare policy development over a century of history. Lindsey 2004, now in its second edition, provides an extremely thorough review of child welfare history and child welfare policy. This work stands out for its close assessment of the role of family poverty as a contributor to maltreatment. Finally, Meyers 2006 can be distinguished from other history books for its differentiation between types of maltreatment, including physical and sexual abuse.

  • Costin, L. B., H. J. Karger, and D. Stoesz. 1996. The politics of child abuse in America. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Offers a broad overview of the history of child welfare. The text relies upon original sources and includes a critical examination of the developments in the field up to the mid-1990s.

  • Lindsey, D. 2004. The welfare of children. 2d ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A historical text with an emphasis on the role of family poverty and its contribution to maltreatment. The book offers an alternative approach to child welfare services with an emphasis on poverty-reduction schemes for low-income families.

  • Meyers, J. E. B. 2006. Child protection in America: Past, present, and future. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Offers a glimpse into some of the influential individuals who helped to shape early child welfare services. The book emphasizes child physical and sexual abuse and also includes historical information pertaining to the juvenile justice system.

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