In the past, child welfare agencies relied on out-of-home placement as their main strategy for protecting children. This approach was driven by high caseloads, the urgency of child safety and federal fiscal policy, which restricts most federal child welfare funds for use only after a child has been removed from the family. It is no wonder that foster care use was high. Agencies had few options other than placement.
For some time, child welfare leaders across the country have questioned this dependence on foster care as the primary strategy for protecting children. The urgency of child safety remains. But common sense suggests — and research and experience now show — that offering early support to families in their own communities can keep children safe in their own homes and avoid the need for removal in many cases. And that ongoing support for families whose children are placed leads to quicker and safer reunification. In cases where reunification is not possible, children can be put on a fast track for a permanent adoptive or legal guardianship home, preferably with relatives. The goal of most systems now is to build a wide continuum of services driven by the desire to improve outcomes and address the specific needs of children and families.
Supporting such a continuum of services, however, requires a change to the way child welfare is funded and practiced in this country. To date, a handful of states have received a waiver from the federal government that allows them to use their child welfare funds flexibly. California, the largest state in the country and the biggest user of federal child welfare funds, is one of those states. Two counties — Los Angeles and Alameda — are participating in this waiver program.
The waiver provides no new money, but allows the two counties to put their money where their values are. In the three years since the waiver went into effect, leaders in Los Angeles and Alameda counties have stepped out of their comfort zone to expand promising programs and develop new ones. Doing business differently comes with financial and political complexity, especially in challenging economic times. But the experiences of these two counties, the lessons they learned, and the results they are achieving are sure to influence the larger federal conversation about how best to finance child welfare while keeping the focus on improved outcomes for children and families.
This report is the story of the California waiver and what it has meant to the two counties that opted in. This publication documents the key strategies and practice changes each county. has put in place under the waiver. The report also includes case stories that show what the reforms mean to children and families.