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The seven key challenges facing today’s child welfare systems

Strategic child welfare transformation begins with small steps that place children and families at the center.

In brief
  • Child welfare workers are being asked to do their jobs with inadequate technology and flawed communication strategies that limit the opportunity to change.
  • Any transformation strategy will need to be informed by those who work on the front lines and play a pivotal role in shepherding children through the system.
  • A transformation management office (TMO) is designed to enable holistic change through strategic planning and an assessment of evolving needs.

Safeguarding children who have experienced poverty, abuse and/or neglect is one of the most pressing challenges faced by governments around the world and in the US.

A total of 606,031 children were served by the foster care system in the US in fiscal year 2021, according to the latest report from the US Department of Health and Human Services.¹ That number is down from the 631,686 US children served by foster care in fiscal year 2020. It’s still a large number of children, however, who face considerable uncertainty, instability and insecurity during their formative years.

And there are no easy answers to fix the problem.


Frontline workers experience the difficult circumstances of each child on a daily basis and do their best to support them in their journey through the system. Their ability to convey these challenges to management at child welfare agencies can boost visibility and provide valuable scope and perspective into the problems children face. But everyone, from those on the front lines to the leadership team, are still working in a system with a daunting mission and a steady stream of new concerns that make the work even more difficult.


The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) was signed into law in 2018 to shift the focus of the child welfare system toward “keeping children safely with their families to avoid the trauma that results when children are placed in out-of-home care.”² The intent is to provide greater access to mental health services, substance use treatment and/or parenting skills courses and shift how the country provides services for family and youth. While it’s an encouraging step, more needs to be done to affect real change in how the child welfare system functions in the US.


It can begin with the creation of a transformation management office (TMO).


Seven key challenges child welfare agencies face

Ernst & Young LLP (EY) has identified seven key challenges that convey the difficulties child welfare agencies face as they attempt to do their work:

  1. Increased child welfare caseloads: While the national numbers reflect a decrease in the number of new children entering the system, anecdotal evidence at the local level tells a different story.
  2. Limited staff resources: Departments are challenged with hiring, onboarding and maximizing available skill sets to create a full and effective workforce. Fewer people are taking jobs in child welfare, while more people are leaving the field. In addition to the job stress, workers claim they can make just as much money working in other fields that are much less challenging on an emotional level.
  3. FFPSA: Among other things, this legislation includes a funding mechanism that helps states place kids with other members of their family rather than in the system.
  4. Outdated information systems: Data is complex, incomplete and difficult to consolidate. And the systems that house that data are outdated and only make this task more difficult.
  5. Ineffective oversight of overarching system changes: The need to triage operational issues in various crisis situations hinders careful oversight. When a problem arises, the goal becomes to solve the immediate crisis as quickly as possible. The urgency is understood, but it often leads to flawed solutions that eventually lead to additional concerns.
  6. Interdepartmental silos: Silos hamper communication and collaboration and make it difficult to make decisions and effectively manage new and existing technology and transformation initiatives.
  7. Difficulties in redesigning child protection: Local departments have trouble maximizing investments for improving the affordability and quality of child protection.

Child welfare agencies are tasked with one of the most important missions in health and human services: ensuring the safety and well-being of vulnerable children. Six of these seven challenges make that mission more difficult to achieve. The seventh, the FFPSA legislation, is geared to help but is another wrinkle in a complex system that is already tough to manage. As new challenges continue to arise for the sector, it’s time to re-examine how agencies function and embrace the opportunity to transform child welfare from the inside out. With the right support, the child welfare system can work toward comprehensive, systemic transformation designed to care for the people it serves.


The transformation roadmap is one approach to consider. It lays out a plan for how to implement change and create an operating model that consistently delivers better outcomes for the communities that agencies serve, their partners and the organization itself. A key part of this strategy is the TMO. The business of child welfare does not pause for transformation, or for anything else in today’s world. Having a leader dedicated to the change effort without being distracted by unrelated needs and responsibilities is critical. The TMO can define, implement and monitor compliance to achievable, realistic performance indicators and measures of success.

Listen to those on the frontline

The importance of hearing the voice of frontline workers and using their perspective to inform decision-making cannot be overstated. One of the most important functions of the TMO is to hear the voice of the frontline worker and use that perspective to inform decision-making. Those who provide service, as well as those who receive it, must always be kept at the center of any transformation effort. Decisions on policy changes must not be made in a bubble without considering the real impact on the people it affects. For example, as technology continues to evolve, agencies should consider how it could help people do their jobs better. Resist the urge to invest in technology that looks cutting-edge but doesn’t have a tangible impact on how care is delivered.

There is evidence that transformational change is beginning to happen in the area of child welfare. Several states have allocated funding to address child abuse and neglect, to upgrade system technology and to create pilot programs that change the way care is delivered.

As agencies consider their own circumstances and what a transformation strategy might look like, here is some guidance on how to approach three critical areas: workforce, operations and systems.



A wave of challenges in recruiting and retaining high-quality child welfare and family support workers is significantly impacting the services that agencies offer to their most vulnerable population. Agencies approach these workforce challenges with one primary focus: people. A TMO will collaborate with the agency to effectively manage communication, mitigate change impacts and train all participants. A thoughtful approach to workforce optimization, organization redesign, recruitment and retention can lead the agency to achieve better outcomes for children and families.


Approaches to consider:
  • Increase efforts by leveraging veteran child welfare employees to build up new staff and forge new relationships to increase support
  • Identify opportunities to focus on career development and investment in your supervisory staff
  • Address implicit bias and grow diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives through training plan modifications


The TMO works with the agency to establish interrelated processes for evaluating, selecting, prioritizing and allocating resources against agency needs to best accomplish organizational strategies. By setting clear standards, consistency within the organization and across individual projects can be achieved. Once processes, procedures and tools are developed and the TMO governance and organizational structure is defined, they must be implemented and maintained.

Approaches to consider:
  • Evaluate process flow to identify gaps and opportunities to move towards objectives and goals
  • Execute a transformation planning session to set the overarching transformation vision
  • Ingrain continuous quality improvement skills and practices into all levels and functions within the agency


Child welfare systems have the following key purposes: enabling staff to effectively serve our most vulnerable children; tracking, monitoring and reporting for leadership to enable evidence-based decisions in real time; and informing financial decision-making. An effective TMO will guide the agency through the process of envisioning, procuring, managing, funding and implementing a system replacement to fulfill these purposes.


Approaches to consider:
  • Requirement gathering and further understanding of current system challenges and dependencies
  • Implement a human-centered design approach to process changes through discovery and outcome-based objectives
  • Mapping to new regulatory requirements and evolving state and federal guidelines


The child welfare system in the US will not transform overnight. It will happen incrementally, one step at a time. There will be setbacks and, undoubtedly, days when it feels like success is an unreachable dream. The key to this approach is that everyone has a defined role to play. If you follow a roadmap that has been built and informed by your team, and create a TMO to keep everything on track, it should create a pathway to better outcomes for the organization and the children you’re working hard to serve.

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