Legislative Analyst's Office, January 1996

Child Abuse and Neglect in California
Part IV

Costs of Child Abuse/Neglect

It is difficult to measure the real costs and consequences of child abuse and neglect. The consequences can be quite varied and long-term in nature; and expenditure data understates the full costs because many incidents of child abuse/neglect go unreported or undetected.

With this caveat, we provide data on the direct costs to government. In 1995-96, California is estimated to spend about $1.7 billion, all funds (state, local, and federal), to provide foster care services to children and to fund the CWS Program.

Total Expenditures (In Millions)

1993-941994-951995-96 (est.)
Foster Care8749151,004


This does not include related costs such as expenditures for the juvenile courts, prevention, health care, and adoptions programs. Also excluded are government costs resulting from the potential indirect effects of child abuse and neglect, such as the costs to the criminal justice system due to increased criminal behavior.

What Are the Costs of Child Abuse and Neglect?

CWS Funding Has Increased
About 80 Percent Since 1988-89

In Millions

Family Preservation Funding Has Increased Significantly

In Millions

Foster Care Costs Increased 84 Percent Since 1988-89

In Millions

Group Homes Have the Highest Cost Per Child


Assessment of the Child Welfare
Services System

The purposes of the CWS Program are to (1) reduce unnecessary foster care placements, (2) safely reunify foster care children with their families, (3) increase the stability of foster care placements, and (4) place more foster care children into adoptions, when appropriate. Determining the extent to which the CWS system has achieved those goals is somewhat problematic. This is in part because much of the data that is collected in the CWS system relates to "inputs" (such as, the number of social worker visits with the child), rather than outcomes. While these inputs tend to be measurable, they do not provide a good assessment of the success of the program.

Data on outcomes are relatively difficult to develop. Nevertheless, state law requires the development of performance standards and outcome measures for determining the effectiveness and efficiency of the foster care program. The standards, however, do not have to be developed until the statewide CWS case management system is completed in October 1997.

While additional information to assess the performance of the CWS system should be forthcoming from the case management system, some outcome-related data are available currently and are summarized in the following charts.

Many Reports of Abuse Are
Responded To Within the First Day

January 1993

Percent of Children Previously
In the CWS Program Is Increasing


Little Improvement in Foster Care Recidivism

One-Third of Foster Care Children
Have Had Three or More Placements


Gap Between Family Reunifications and
New Foster Care Cases Remains Unchanged

In Thousands

Adoptions Peaked in 1991-92

In Thousands

CWS Program Performance and
Policy Implications

It is difficult to assess comprehensively the performance of the CWS Program because outcomes are often hard to measure and existing data are limited. Nevertheless, the data that we have presented in this report can be used to draw some conclusions about program performance and the major policy implications that stem from our findings.

Emergency Response

Investigating Cases of Abuse/Neglect

One of the functions of the CWS Program is to respond to reports of child abuse and neglect. Ideally, only those reports that do not constitute abuse or neglect are "screened out" in the initial response stage. As shown on page 21, there is significant variation among the counties in the percentage of reports that are "screened out" at the initial contact stage. Among the large counties, it ranges from 19 percent in Los Angeles County to 55 percent in Contra Costa County. One interpretation of the data is that some counties are screening out too many reports of abuse. On the other hand, one might conclude that some counties are not screening out enough reports (in other words, investigating cases where no abuse has occured). We believe this is an area that deserves further research.

Timely In-Person Response

Another outcome measure in the CWS Program is timely in-person response to reports of abuse and neglect. As shown on page 42, about 40 percent of in-person responses were made within the first day, indicating that a significant number of reports are addressed immediately. We note, however, that 13 percent of the responses were made after the statutory 10-day timeframe. In cases where the county is not responding in a timely manner, the Department of Social Services has the authority to require the county to develop a corrective action plan.

Family Maintenance and Reunification

Reducing Recidivism in the CWS Program

As shown on page 43, the percentage of children returning to the CWS Program has increased significantly over the years, from 29 percent in 1985 to 46 percent in 1993. These data suggest that the program has not been effective in preventing reabuse and neglect in a significant and growing number of cases. Currently, however, there is a lack of information identifying those factors which contribute to the success of family maintenance and reunification services, thereby reducing reabuse and neglect. We believe that collecting such performance data could ultimately improve the results of family maintenance and reunification efforts.

Increasing Family Reunifications

While family reunifications have increased, they have not increased relative to the growth in new foster care cases (see page 46). Although there are cases where it is not appropriate to return children to their families, there are many instances where reunification is in the children's best interests. As some child welfare professionals have indicated, more children in long term foster care (those children for whom family reunification had been attempted and failed) could return home if ongoing support services, such as counseling, were provided to the affected families.

Currently, very few families receive ongoing services when a child is returned home. It is likely that some children who are in long-term foster care could be reunified with their families if counties had more flexibility to use foster care funds to provide services to the families rather than to pay for foster care placements. Therefore, we recommend that counties be allowed to use state foster care funds to provide these services to children and their families after reunification.

We note that Chapter 105, Statutes of 1988 (AB 558, Hannigan) established a Family Preservation pilot program to provide intensive short-term family maintenance and family reunification services by giving counties more flexibility in the use of foster care funds. Specifically, counties are authorized to use up to 25 percent of the state's share of projected foster care costs to fund family preservation support services. Generally, these services are not targeted to children in long term foster care. Our proposal, however, would focus these services on such children.

Evaluating The Effectiveness of Prevention Programs

In 1982, the Legislature established the Child Abuse Prevention Program to provide prevention and intervention services to children at risk of abuse/neglect. Each year, about $9 million from the General Fund is allocated to counties to fund community-based public and private agencies that provide prevention and intervention services. However, no evaluation exists that can help determine whether these programs and services are effective. Consequently, we suggest that the Legislature require that a portion of the funds allocated to the programs be used to support independent evaluations to determine the effectiveness of these programs.

Foster Care

Minimizing the Use of Foster Care

One of the goals of the CWS Program is to minimize the use of foster care placements in serving abused children and instead maintain or reunify such children with their families when appropriate. The data, however, suggest that the program has not been successful in achieving this goal since: (1) foster care placement rates (relative to the population of children) have increased since 1988, (2) the proportion of children in the CWS system who are being placed in foster care (rather than receiving support services at home) has been increasing, and (3) family reunifications (returning foster care children to their parents) have not increased relative to the growth in foster care cases. (See pages 30, 23, and 46.) These trends are not likely to be reversed until the effectiveness of family maintenance and reunification services is improved.

Providing a Stable Living Environment for Those Children Who Are in Foster Care

Another measure of the success of the CWS Program is the extent to which multiple foster care placements for the same child are minimized. The data show that in 1993-94, about one-third of the children in foster care had experienced three or more different placements and 10 percent had five or more placements (see page 45). This trend has remained steady since 1988-89.

We note, with respect to this issue, that Chapter 1294, Statutes of 1989 (SB 370, Presley) requires the Department of Social Services to develop a Level of Care Assessment tool. The purpose of this tool is to facilitate the assignment of a foster care child to the most appropriate placement, thereby reducing the chances of multiple foster care placements. Although there is no statutory completion date, the department has not provided the Legislature with a project status report which was due in January 1995. We find no justification for the delay in completing this project.

Increasing the Use of Foster Family Homes, In Lieu of Group Homes

When placing a child in foster care, current law gives priority to more family-like foster care settings and requires placement in foster family homes instead of group homes, when appropriate. As shown on page 26, however, the proportion of children placed in foster family homes has actually decreased slightly over the years, from 88 percent in 1984 to 86 percent in 1995. Although group homes may be the most appropriate placement for some children, some child welfare professionals believe that there are children in group homes who could be placed in foster family homes if support services were provided to the foster parent. This could result in substantial savings to the government because the costs for a group home placement are almost five times the costs for a foster family home placement. We also note that the occupancy rates for foster family agency homes are much lower than for group homes, suggesting that foster parent availability may not be a major obstacle in efforts to move more children out of group homes and into foster family homes. (See pages 40 and 25.)

We note, in this respect, that there is a pilot program designed to accomplish the movement of children from group homes to foster family homes. The program allows certain foster family agencies (FFAs) to receive higher foster care grants than other FFAs in order to provide a higher level of care to children. Evaluations of the pilot program have shown positive results, and Chapter 832, Statutes of 1995 (SB 969, Watson) provides for statewide expansion of the program, at the option of the counties.

Assessing the Need for Independent Living Program Services

Children who are emancipated from the foster care system (generally at age 18) must have a service plan to help them transition to independent living. As the figure on page 34 shows, however, less than half of the eligible children receive services through the state's Independent Living Program (ILP).

In our field visits, child welfare professionals have indicated that additional funds are needed to expand the ILP. We note, however, that data are not sufficient to determine whether the program is effective. Current law requires the Department of Social Services to complete an evaluation of the ILP and develop recommendations on how independent living services could better prepare foster youth for independence. The evaluation was due in January 1995 but has not been completed. This evaluation is important in order to help the Legislature determine the appropriate funding level for the program. We find no justification for the department's delay in providing the report.


Maximizing the Use of Adoptions

Another goal of the CWS Program is to increase adoptions for children who cannot be reunified with their families. The data suggest that the program has been successful in increasing adoptions since 1988-89. However, the number of new cases with adoption as the goal has decreased significantly since 1988-89 (page 47), even though foster care caseloads have continued to increase. In response, some counties have increased their efforts to review the case plans of children who were categorized as not being adoptable, in order to explore possibilities of adoption. As a result, some of these children have been recommended, and subsequently placed, for adoption. We believe that such reviews should be encouraged as a way to help increase adoptions where appropriate.


How Well Is the CWS Program Performing?

Our review indicates that the preponderance of available performance-related measures suggest the need for improvement in the state's CWS Program. To summarize:

Reversing these trends will not be an easy task. The provision of additional resources could help; but given the competing demands for such resources it is important that available funding -- whether new or existing -- be used effectively. In this respect, there have been some positive developments recently -- the new statewide automation system and the expansion of the FFA pilot program, for example. We believe, however, that additional efforts are needed, such as the development of better placement mechanisms, more intensive reviews of case plans to determine if foster children can be adopted, and giving counties more flexibility to use foster care funds for CWS support services in order to prevent the need for foster care placements. Finally, we believe that it is important to evaluate child abuse prevention programs, particularly those efforts designed to address the causal factors related to child abuse and neglect, such as drug abuse.

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