Child Welfare Feature

Researcher finds high reliance of child welfare agencies on private service providers

June 10, 2014
Rebecca Wells, Ph.D.

Rebecca Wells, Ph.D.

In the last decade, child welfare services have faced the combined challenges of public budget cuts, serving families affected by the recent “Great Recession,” and continuing pressure for accountability. Rebecca Wells, Ph.D., professor and department head with the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, recently published a study entitled “Trends in Local Public Child Welfare Agencies 1999-2009,” in Children and Youth Services Review. In this study, Wells and colleagues report on the increasing reliance of child welfare agencies on private service providers, among other recent trends.

“Local public child welfare agencies are unique in their legal responsibility and authority to respond to all child maltreatment reports made within their service area,” said Wells. “Often, the underlying issues affecting child safety include unmet child and caregiver health needs. Hence, child welfare agencies services play a vital role in the safety net for vulnerable families.”

The study examined how over 100 local public child welfare agencies changed between 1999 and 2009, using data from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-being. Agency facets examined included system integration, subcontracting of services to private providers, and child welfare agency cooperation with other service providers.

Between 1999 and 2009, local public child welfare agencies became more likely to be in agencies that also included mental health and public health services, which bodes well for holistically addressing family needs. At the same time, child welfare agencies became more likely to report subcontracting a range of services to private service providers.

“Increasing connectivity with a range of local service providers may improve families’ access to some services and potentially allow more choices according to their preferences,” noted Wells. “At the same time, heightened reliance on private providers increases challenges of coordination and monitoring, and makes the public safety net more vulnerable to vicissitudes in the private sector.”

Local public child welfare agencies play an essential role within the US health and human service safety net. Research such as Wells’ enables practitioners and policy makers to make informed decisions about how to structure services to meet the complex needs of the people they serve.


— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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