National Goals

Child welfare systems are complex, and their specific procedures vary widely by state, but they all work to promote the three national goals for child protection:

  • Safety: All children have the right to live in an environment free from abuse and neglect. 
  • Permanency: Children need a family and a permanent place to call home.
  • Child and Family Well-Being: Children deserve nurturing environments in which their physical, emotional, educational, and social needs are met. 

To support these national goals, the following tenets (as articulated by the Children's Bureau in 1998) form the foundation of child welfare practice:

  • A safe and permanent home and family is the best place for children to grow up.  Every child has a right to adequate care and supervision and to be free from abuse, neglect, and exploitation.  It is the responsibility of parents to see that their children’s physical, mental, emotional, educational, and medical needs are adequately met.  Child protective services (CPS) agencies should intervene only when parents request assistance or fail to keep their children safe and meet their basic needs.
  • Most parents want to be good parents and, when adequately supported, have the strength and capacity to care for their children and to keep them safe.  Most children are best cared for in their own families.  Therefore, CPS agencies focus on building family strengths and providing parents with the assistance needed to keep their children safe so that the family may stay together.
  • When parents cannot or will not fulfill their responsibilities to protect their children, CPS agencies have the legal mandate to intervene directly on behalf of the children.  Interventions should be designed to help parents protect their children and should be as unobtrusive as possible.  CPS agencies must make reasonable efforts to develop a safety plan to keep children with their families whenever possible, although they may petition for juvenile or family court intervention and placement when children cannot be kept safely within their own homes.
  • CPS agencies are held accountable for achieving the outcomes of child safety, permanency, and family well-being.  To do so, CPS agencies must engage families in identifying and achieving family-level outcomes, goals, and tasks that reduce the risk of further maltreatment and mitigate the effects of maltreatment that has already occurred.
  • Families who need assistance from CPS agencies are diverse in terms of structure, culture, race, religion, economic status, beliefs, values, and lifestyles.  CPS agencies and practitioners must be responsive to and respectful of these differences.
  • CPS efforts are most likely to succeed when clients are involved and actively participate in the process.  CPS caseworkers need to work in ways that encourage clients to fully participate in assessment, case planning, and other critical decision-making processes in CPS intervention.
  • When children are placed in foster care because their safety cannot be assured, CPS agencies should develop a permanency plan as soon as possible.  In most cases, the preferred permanency plan is to reunify children with their families.  All children need continuity in their lives, so CPS agencies must immediately work with the family to change the behaviors and conditions that led to the maltreatment and necessitated that the child be removed from the home.
  • To best protect a child’s overall well-being, CPS agencies should assure that children move to permanency as quickly as possible.  Therefore, as agencies develop plans to support reunification, they should also develop alternative plans for achieving permanency once a child enters the CPS system.


The purpose of the safety goal is to ensure that children are not abused or neglected and, if possible and appropriate, to keep them safely in their homes.  Generally, when looking at safety, child welfare practice is concerned with addressing the following questions.

  • Did the child protective services (CPS) agency respond quickly to reports of child abuse and neglect and take immediate steps to protect the children in the home?
  • Once involved, did the CPS agency effectively use a family assessment and case plan to ensure that children were not abused or neglected again? 
  • Did the CPS agency provide services to make sure that children do not enter or re-enter foster care?

Good practice to achieve positive safety outcomes includes ensuring timely and appropriate assessments and/or investigations and collaborating with the child and family whenever possible.  By doing so, CPS agencies can work to prevent or to reduce the risk of maltreatment from recurring.  They often do this through a formal assessment and management of safety and risk, asking the questions:

  • Is the child currently safe from abuse or neglect in the home?
  • What is the risk of maltreatment if the child is kept in or returned to the home?
  • If the child is not safe, what must be done to protect the child?
  • What services need to be provided to the child and family to both prevent further maltreatment and to help mitigate the effects of the abuse?

The caseworkers, working in collaboration with parents, children (if age appropriate), and caregivers, can look at the risk and protective factors present to help in determining risk of maltreatment and the services needed to achieve safety.


The purpose of the permanency goal is to ensure a legally permanent, nurturing family for every child in out-of-home care through family reunification, adoption, guardianship, or another planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA).  All children deserve to have permanency and stability in their living situations, whether they remain in the home, are removed from the home and then reunited with their families, or are removed from the home and then live permanently with families other than their birth families.

Generally, when looking at permanency, child welfare practice is concerned with addressing the following questions:

  • Did the child protective services (CPS) agency make good decisions to return a child to parents and provide services to prevent re-entry?
  • Is the child in a stable placement now, and how many placement changes did the child experience?
  • If appropriate, was the child placed in the same foster home as his or her siblings?  Was relative placement explored, and did it happen?
  • Were a permanency goal and all subsequent goals established in a timely manner, and were the goals appropriate?
  • Did the agency make concerted efforts to achieve the goal?
  • Was the child placed close enough for parents to have ongoing contact?  Did the agency make sure that visits occurred frequently enough?

Achieving permanency means working with the child and family to develop a case plan that provides stability and, once the child returns home or goes to another permanent placement, prevents re-entry into care.  A caseworker may use concurrent planning -- that is, working toward more than one permanency goal at a time -- to reunite the family while seeking other options to ensure that the child achieves permanency in a timely manner.  This is done by developing permanency goals (reunification, adoption, kinship care, or other planned permanent living arrangements) and then implementing the tasks and providing the services to achieve those goals.

Throughout the permanency process, the caseworker should also work to provide and maintain the child's family connections.  This is done by helping the child maintain family relationships and trying to ensure that, if removed from the home, the child is in close proximity to siblings and other family members.


While safety and permanency are integral to a child’s well-being, they are not enough. The well-being goal addresses the physical health and behavioral, emotional, and social functioning of children and youth who have experienced maltreatment, trauma, and/or exposure to violence.

Generally, when looking at well-being, child welfare practice is concerned with addressing the following questions:

  • Did the child protective services agency do a thorough assessment of the needs of the child, family, and foster family, and provide the services necessary to ensure the child’s well-being?
  • Did the agency make sure that the child’s physical, educational, and mental health needs were met?
  • Were the child and the family actively involved in developing the case plan?
  • Did the caseworker meet often enough with the child, parents, and foster family to ensure that the child was safe and that everyone was focused on the case plan's outcomes, goals, and tasks?

Good casework practice in achieving positive well-being outcomes includes thorough and ongoing assessment of children and their caregivers to determine their needs and then meet those needs through written case plans and service provision.  Because physical and behavioral health needs and functioning involve more than the affected child, it is important to engage all pertinent parties, such as educators, healthcare providers, and therapists.  Regular and attentive caseworker visits are also important to monitor a child’s functioning.  The goal is not merely to have the child survive his or her time in child welfare, but to thrive as best as he or she can.

Well-being is often harder to quantify than safety or permanency.  To assist agencies, the Children’s Bureau has developed a pair of guides identifying well-being instruments for early childhood and middle childhood/adolescence.