Early Care and Education: A Missing Piece of the Child Welfare Puzzle

Photo: Texas Tech University


Over the past two decades, the emphasis in child welfare policy has been on  keeping children at home with their families instead of placing them in foster care. Starting in the 1990’s, states began obtaining federal waivers to use Title IV-E foster care funds for services designed to prevent children being placed in foster care. The use of these funds to prevent foster care placement has now entered permanent law through the Family First and Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which became law as part of the Continuing Resolution signed by Donald Trump on February 9, 2018. FFPSA allows states to use Title IV-E funds to pay for mental health services, drug treatment, and parenting training for parents whose children would otherwise be placed in foster care.

But there is something missing in this list of allowed services, and that is services to the children themselves. Most notably, quality early care and education (ECE) holds great promise as a way both to keep at-risk children safe at home and to compensate for the developmental effects of past and ongoing neglect.

Providing ECE for infants, toddlers and preschool aged children involved with child welfare was supported in an excellent issue brief by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which received too little attention when it was published in November 2016. This brief explained how high-quality ECE can help promote both the safety and the well-being of children involved with the child welfare system.

Promoting Safety: For a parent to receive services under Title IV-E under FFPSA, the child must be a “candidate for foster care,” which means that the child is at imminent risk of being placed in foster care but who can remain safely at home provided that the parents receive the parenting, mental health, or drug treatment services. Obviously, there is always an element of guesswork in deciding if children can indeed remain safely at home. Many  children have been injured or killed after a social worker decides they are safe at home with services.1 Others end up being placed in foster care later because the abuse or neglect continues.

As described in the HHS issue brief, enrolling young children who are candidates for foster care in high-quality ECE provides an extra layer of protection against further abuse or neglect. There are several pathways that link ECE and child safety.

  • Participation in an ECE program with staff trained in detection of abuse and neglect ensures that more adults will be seeing the child and able to report on any warning signs of maltreatment.
  • Taking young children away from home for the day provides respite to the parent, gives them time to engage in services, and may reduce their stress, which contributes to child maltreatment.
  • Attending quality ECE all day improves child safety by reducing the amount of time the children spend with the parents.
  • Quality ECE programs that involve the parents can also improve child safety by teaching parents about child development, appropriate expectations, and good disciplinary practices. They may also connect parents with needed resources in the community and help them feel less isolated.

As documented in the HHS issue brief, multiple studies link ECE to reduced child maltreatment. The most striking findings were from Chicago’s Parent Child Centers: participants were half as likely as a similar population to be confirmed as a victim of maltreatment by age 18.

Promoting Emotional and Cognitive Development: Enrollment in high quality ECE would promote healthy brain development for children involved with child welfare. A large body of research demonstrates that ECE has positive effects on the early cognitive and socio-emotional development, school readiness and early academic success of children in the general population. And these effects are greater and long-lasting for children who are socioeconomically “at risk,” like most children involved in child welfare.

Many children involved with child welfare are victims of “chronic neglect,” which has been defined as “a parent or caregiver’s ongoing, serious pattern of deprivation of a child’s basic physical, developmental and/or emotional needs for healthy growth and development.” There is increasing evidence that chronic neglect has adverse impacts on children’s brain development, which may lead to lifetime cognitive, academic and emotional deficits.

High-quality ECE can be viewed as a “compensatory” service to make up for emotional and developmental neglect, as Doug Besharov, the first Director of the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, suggested back in 1988.

Unfortunately, there is already a national shortage of high quality ECE, and children involved with child welfare cannot simply be inserted into existing slots without displacing other children who may be equally at risk. The lack of high quality ECE is a problem that is far broader than the child welfare system.

The federal spending bill recently passed by Congress and signed by President Trump provides some new money for child care subsidies for low-income parents, but it is only $29 billion for a two-year-period. Child welfare advocates should ally with advocates of expanded ECE to support voter initiatives, such as those that have passed in various Colorado jurisdictions, to use public money to expand the number and quality of ECE slots. All at-risk children can benefit from quality ECE. And maltreated children need it perhaps most of all.




  1.  The Associated Press found 768 children who died of abuse or neglect over a six-year period while their families were being investigated or receiving services to prevent further maltreatment. According to the latest federal data compiled from 35 states, nearly 30% of the children who died had at least one prior contact with CPS in the previous three years. 

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