The child welfare system consists of services designed to promote children’s well-being by ensuring their safety, strengthening families to successfully care for their children, and achieving permanency in a child’s living situation. Most families first become involved with the child welfare system due to a report of suspected child abuse or neglect (sometimes called “child maltreatment”).
Federal law defines child maltreatment as serious harm (i.e., neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse or neglect) caused to children by parents or primary caregivers, such as extended family members or babysitters. Child maltreatment can also include harm that a caregiver allows to happen (or does not prevent from happening) to a child. In general, child welfare agencies do not intervene in cases of harm to children caused by acquaintances or strangers; law enforcement agencies are responsible for these cases.
The child welfare system is not a single entity. Many organizations in each community work together to strengthen families and keep children safe. Public agencies (e.g., departments of social services, child and family services, human services) often contract and collaborate with private child welfare agencies and community-based organizations to provide families with services, such as in-home (“family preservation”) services, foster care, residential care, mental health care, substance abuse treatment, parenting skills classes, employment assistance, and financial or housing assistance.
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