Family Policing In America – An Overview


The failings of America’s family policing system (a more accurate term than “child welfare” system) can be summed up by the very rationalization often used to justify the way it works today, an approach that can be boiled down to “take the child and  run.” You’ve probably heard it many times: Sure adults may suffer when their children are needlessly taken away, but, it is claimed, we have to “err on the side of the child.” In fact, there probably is no phrase in the child welfare lexicon that has done more harm to children than “err on the side of the child.” 

  • When a child is needlessly thrown into foster care, he loses not only mom and dad but often brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, friends and classmates. For a young enough child,  it can be an experience akin to a kidnapping. Other children feel they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished. One major study of foster care “alumni” found they had  twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder of Gulf War veterans and only 20 percent could be  said to be “doing well.” How can throwing children into a  system which churns out walking wounded four times out of five be “erring on the side of the child?” 

Five more studies, one of 15,000 cases, another of 23,000 cases, are even more devastating.  These studies found that even maltreated children left in their own homes with little or no help fared better, on average, than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. So whenever anyone tells you that rushing to tear children from their parents is “erring on the side of the child” please remember the more than 15,000 children who would gladly tell you otherwise if they could. 

  • All that harm can occur even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than in the general population. Study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. Switching to orphanages won’t help — the record of institutions is even worse.  
  • Even when children are not taken away, a child abuse investigation is itself a severe trauma, a trauma compounded when families are placed under onerous “supervision” and surveillance.
  • Furthermore, the more a family policing system is overwhelmed with children who don’t need to be there, the less safe it becomes, as agencies are tempted to overcrowd foster homes and lower standards for foster parents. If a child is taken from a perfectly safe home only to be beaten, raped or killed in foster care, how is that “erring on the side of the child”?  
  • But even that isn’t the worst of it. Everyone knows how badly caseworkers are overwhelmed.  They often make bad decisions in all directions – leaving some children in dangerous homes, even as many more children are taken from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help.  The more that workers are overwhelmed with children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find the few children in real danger. So they make even more mistakes in all directions.  That is almost always the real explanation for the horror-story cases that make headlines.  

Foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that must be used sparingly and in very small doses. But for decades, America’s child welfare systems have prescribed mega-doses of foster care. 


  • Thanks to a class-action lawsuit, Alabama rebuilt its entire child welfare system to emphasize keeping families together. Alabama takes away children at one of the lowest rates in the nation (though in recent years there has been backsliding).  But the state cut the rate of reabuse of children left in their own homes in half, and the independent, court-appointed monitor who oversaw the lawsuit found that children are safer now than they were before the changes. The New York Times featured the Alabama reforms on its front page
  • That’s also the lesson from Illinois. In the late 1990s, at any one time, more than 50,000  children were trapped in all forms of substitute care. In recent years the number has been under 17,000.  For awhile, Illinois took away children at an even lower rate than Alabama. And, as in Alabama, independent court-appointed monitors found that, as the number of children taken away declined, child safety has improved.   But memories are short, and recent horror stories set off another foster-care panic in that state.  As state leaders forgot their own past success, removals to foster care skyrocketed and the gains in safety were lost. 


Contrary to the common stereotype, most parents who lose their children to foster care are neither brutally abusive nor hopelessly addicted. Far more common are cases in which a family’s  poverty has been confused with child “neglect.” Several studies have found that 30 percent of  America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents just had decent housing.  Many more have found that even small infusions of cash dramatically reduce what family policing agencies call “neglect.” Single parents, desperate to keep their low-wage jobs when the sitter doesn’t show may have to choose between staying home and getting fired or going to work and having their children taken on “lack of supervision” charges. And, as The New York Times explained in a story about foster care as the new “Jane Crow” the class bias is compounded by racial bias

Other cases fall between the extremes.  What these cases have in common is the fact that there are a wide variety of proven programs that can keep these children in their own homes, and do it with a far better track record for safety than foster care.  

Some of those “in-between cases” involve drug use. And that raises another question: Why even bother with parents – usually mothers — in these cases?  For starters, drug use does not automatically make one a bad parent. If it did, rich parents wouldn’t do things like brag about their alcohol and marijuana use in Facebook groups.  But even where drug use does compromise parenting, the reason to “bother” is not for the sake of the parents, but for their children. 

Researchers studied two groups of infants born with cocaine in their systems. One group was placed in foster care, the other with birth mothers able to care for them. After six months, the babies were tested using the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out. Consistently, the children placed with their birth mothers did better. For the foster children, being taken from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.  That means drug treatment for the parent almost always is a better first choice than foster care for the child. 

For more on what works, see NCCPR’s publications Civil Liberties Without Exception and Doing Child Welfare Right. 


The normal protections of due process of law simply don’t apply in child welfare proceedings.  Children can be stripsearched – and seized – without a warrant. Children can be taken solely on the authority of a caseworker without a hearing beforehand. At the hearing afterwards, there is no guarantee of counsel for the indigent, and usually no effective counsel at all. The standard of proof is no higher than that used to determine which insurance company pays for a fender-bender. Once again, the problem with all this is not the harm it does to parents – rather the harm is what is done to children needlessly trapped in foster care or caught in the web of surveillance. For more on this see NCCPR’s Due Process Agenda. For more on all of the issues in this overview, see NCCPR’s Issue Papers. 


Updated, August 9, 2022