In recent years, systems of care principles have been increasingly adopted because of their potential to support efforts to improve child welfare and other human service systems in ways that lead to increased safety, permanency, and well-being for children, adolescents, and their families. However, while the systems of care approach has become more widespread, a clear understanding of what defines a system of care and how it operates has not kept pace. As the systems of care approach gains wider acceptance, the Children's Bureau has committed considerable resources to assessing its impact and to understanding how this approach might be best applied in public child welfare settings.
In any given year, approximately 500,000 children are involved in the child welfare system nationwide. Children and their families face a variety of issues including neglect, physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, health and mental health challenges, and educational and vocational challenges (Children's Bureau, 2008). Also, children, youth, and families of color are often disproportionately represented in the child welfare system.
More than any other human service system, child welfare is charged with ensuring the overall safety of the children it serves. Federal mandates such as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, Indian Child Welfare Act, Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 (The Chafee Program), Adoption and Safe Families Act, and Promoting Safe and Stable Families Amendments of 2001 dictate what public child welfare systems must do, often despite severely limited resources. To address these challenges, child welfare administrations must be innovative in accessing and leveraging the resources of other child- and family-serving systems, families, and communities.
In addition, the Child and Family Services Reviews, implemented in 2000 as the mandated monitoring system, are an important impetus for State child welfare systems to improve outcomes for children, youth, and families. The review process has identified significant gaps between the ideals and the realities of current child welfare systems across the country (Children's Bureau, 2004).
Because systemic change is at the core of the Child and Family Services Review process, each State's Program Improvement Plan (designed to address review findings) must not only address frontline practices but also must propose other systemic changes, including changes in training, supervision, administration, funding, and governance. Such changes are challenging and their success depends on the capacity of the leadership, management, frontline workforce, providers in the service array, families, and the community at large to initiate and maintain processes that transform day-to-day practice, policy development, and standards of accountability (Ackerman & Ackerman, 2001). The systems of care approach integrates these mandates and system change processes by offering a comprehensive and principle-based framework to promote and sustain continual positive change within child welfare and partner agencies.