Publication Date



Child welfare services are intended to prevent the abuse or neglect of children; ensure that children have safe, permanent homes; and promote the well-being of children and their families. As the U.S. Constitution has been interpreted, states have the primary obligation to ensure the welfare of children and their families. At the state level, the child welfare “system” consists of public child protection and child welfare workers, private child welfare and social service workers, state and local judges, prosecutors, and law enforcement personnel. These representatives of various state and local entities assume interrelated roles while carrying out child welfare activities, including investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect, providing services to families to ensure children’s safety in the home, removing children from their homes when that is necessary for their safety, supervising and administering payments for children placed in foster care, and ensuring permanency planning and regular case review for children in foster care.

Most federal dollars dedicated to child welfare purposes are provided to state child welfare agencies, and federal involvement in child welfare is primarily tied to this financial assistance. In recent years, Congress has appropriated just above or below $8 billion in federal support dedicated to child welfare purposes. As a condition of receiving these foster care and other child welfare program funds, states must typically provide nonfederal funds of between 20% and 50% of the program costs, and they are required to abide by a series of federal child welfare policies. Those policies focus on ensuring the safety and well-being of all children served. However, the most specific and extensive federal requirements are designed for the protection of children in foster care, especially to ensure them a safe and permanent home.

Apart from the federal funding provided for programs described in this report, state child welfare agencies tap significant program resources—as much as $5.6 billion—from other federal funding streams, including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), and Medicaid. These federal funding streams have federal statutory goals, or support activities, that overlap with child welfare purposes. However, they are not solely dedicated to child welfare purposes and states are not necessarily required to use them for those specific purposes. Neither do states need to meet federal requirements specific to the conduct of their child welfare programs as a condition of receiving this “nondedicated” funding.

This report begins with a review of federal appropriations activity in FY2014 as it relates to child welfare programs, including the effect of the automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration. The bulk of the report provides a short description of each federal child welfare program, including its purpose and recent (FY2012-FY2014) funding levels.


Suggested Citation
Stoltzfus, E. (2014). Child welfare: An overview of federal programs and their current funding. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.