The US, in comparison to many other Western industrialised countries, hosts a welfare state that is highly residual in nature. The safety net is comparatively thin and individuals and families are considered an important defence against market, health or other unanticipated hardships (Hacker and Pierson, 2017). Family support policies in the US are relatively weak, though it should be noted that there is considerable diversity in family and child policy within and across the 50 states and territories (Meyers et al, 2001). The US does not provide federal paid family leave, it does not provide child allowances, childcare services are typically arranged through private pay (though some subsidised services are provided to low-income families), and healthcare is not universally provided. Federal policy and the funding that follows provide limited support for family strengthening services. Within this context, the child protection system is designed to serve children who have been or who are at risk of being harmed by their parents or other caregivers. With few prevention services available, child maltreatment, once discovered, may be serious and may require an intrusive state response. An inappropriate state response – whether unnecessarily intruding on the privacy of the family, or inaccurately assessing the need for protective measures offered to the child – can be consequential. These inaccurate judgements are typically referred to as ‘errors’. This chapter reviews the primary approaches utilised in the US to prevent errors from happening, and also discusses strategies in place to assess errors after they occur.
An overview of child protection in the US
Children represent 23 per cent of the total US population of 327 million residents (US Census, 2017). The child protection system designed to serve these children is highly decentralised. The federal government provides an overarching framework and some funding, but there is a high degree of variability in the delivery of child welfare services across the 50 states and territories. In about a dozen states, the administration of services is further decentralised to the county level where variability in policies and practices is notable. Drawing on the framework provided by Gilbert et al (2011), the US is typically referred to as a child protection system, characterised by a notion that maltreatment is the result of challenged parenting resulting in substantial risk or harm to the child and warranting a government response to determine evidence of harm and to discern an appropriate state response.