Document Type

Symposium Article

Publication Date



The past thirty years have been marked by an increased federalization of child welfare law, which, like other areas of family law, traditionally remained within the sole purview of state legislatures. Despite increased oversight by the federal government, outcomes for foster children remain unacceptably poor The number of children in foster care has more than doubled over the past twenty-five years and reports of suspected maltreatment have skyrocketed. Children continue to stay too long in care and have too many placements. Case workers assigned to work with families and attorneys representing parents and children are overwhelmed and rarely provide meaningful assistance. State courts face pressures to move cases through a busy docket rather than spend the time needed to make informed decisions about individual children. Many child welfare systems are or have been subject to court monitoring after evidence that the systems violated the constitutional and statutory rights offamilies. This Article explores the unintended consequences of federal involvement in child welfare policy and argues that federal involvement in dictating the substance of child welfare policy must be minimized to spark the vigorous debate and innovation needed to reform child welfare systems. The Article first explores the significant growth in federal laws affecting the foster care system over the past thirty years. Then, it discusses the unintended consequences of this growth, primarily its impact on stifling much needed innovative approaches and rigorous debate in the area. Finally, the Article proposes that the federal government s role in child protection issues should be limited to four areas: 1) supporting, not supplanting, the states' responsibility to design systems to meet the needs of their families; 2) ensuring that states protect the constitutional rights of parents and children; 3) resolving interstate issues affecting children that cannot be adequately addressed by individual states; and 4) providing research and technical assistance to states as they design their policies.