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Child Welfare and Systems of Care: We Work Together

Child welfare professionals and children’s mental health advocates want the same things for children and youth: safe and stable families that can provide for their children’s physical, social, and emotional well-being. Systems of Care can help achieve that goal. A System of Care is a coordinated network of community-based services and supports that is organized to meet the challenges of children and youth with serious mental health needs and their families.

Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Children, Youth, and Families Is Critical

Too often, children, youth, and families in the child welfare system face unmet mental health needs. Consider the following:

  • One half of children with serious mental health needs are not getting the help they need. In fact, 5 percent to 9 percent of children and youth have serious mental health needs that reduce their ability to function effectively at school, in the community, and at home. The earlier children with serious mental health needs get help, the better off they will be.1
  • Children and youth with unmet mental health needs are at higher risk of becoming involved with child welfare. More than four out of five children in foster care have developmental, emotional, or behavioral problems.2
  • Youth in child welfare are likely to have experienced trauma. As many as 93 percent of children and youth in the child welfare system have experienced recurring trauma, such as physical abuse. One study found that one-third of these children had experienced four or more types of traumatic events.3

Systems of Care Can Help

When children and youth with serious mental health needs receive coordinated services through Systems of Care, they and their families can and do get better.

Systems of Care are...

  • Comprehensive. Partners include child welfare, juvenile justice, education, mental health, substance abuse, and health care professionals, as well as families, faith-based organizations, and other community partners.
  • Guided by common core values. Systems of Care are family-driven and youth-guided, culturally and linguistically competent, and community-based.
  • Effective and accountable. As part of a nationwide initiative, each System of Care is evaluated on the progress it makes toward helping children, youth, and families. Data are gathered regularly to ensure Systems of Care are financially and ethically accountable.

Working Together Benefits Everyone

Cross-agency collaboration between a System of Care and child welfare professionals and Systems of Care can achieve the following benefits for children and their families:

  • More stable homes for children. One evaluation of children in Systems of Care showed a significant increase in children maintaining a single living situation after 24 months of service.4
  • Stronger, more supported families. Almost half of families and caregivers reported decreased levels of strain associated with caring for a child with a serious emotional disturbance after receiving services from a System of Care.5 Unemployment or missed days of work due to the child’s mental health needs also decreased.6
  • Family-centered services. With their family-driven approach, Systems of Care can support child welfare agencies in creating collaborative, individualized plans for families and identifying the community-based services that families need to achieve their goals and provide safe homes for their children.
  • Better emotional outcomes for children and youth. One-third of children and youth involved with child welfare showed significant emotional and behavioral improvements during their first year in a System of Care. Substance use problems and suicide attempts decreased as well.7
  • Improvements for children and youth who have experienced trauma. After 6 months of services, 18 percent showed improvement on internalizing symptoms (e.g., depression, anxiety) and 21 percent showed a decrease in externalizing symptoms such as aggression.8

Together, we can help children and youth with mental health needs reach their full potential, while helping child welfare services reach their full potential in serving families.


  1. President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. (2003). Final report. Rockville, MD: Author. Retrieved from http://govinfo.library.unt.edu/mentalhealthcommission/reports/FinalReport/downloads/FinalReport.pdf Exit Disclaimer
  2. Child Welfare League of America. (n.d.). Child mental health: Facts and figures. http://www.cwla.org/programs/bhd/mhfacts.htm Exit Disclaimer
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Promoting recovery and resilience for children and youth involved in juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/children/SAMHSA_ShortReport_2012.pdf (PDF - 2.33 MB)
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services. (2009). The Comprehensive Community Mental Health Services for Children and Their Families Program: Evaluation findings—Report to Congress, 2009. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/PEP12-CMHI2009SUM/PEP12-CMHI2009SUM.pdf (PDF - 3.56 MB)
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services. (2008). The Comprehensive Community Mental Health Services for Children and Their Families Program: Evaluation findings—Report to Congress, 2006–2008. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://store.samhsa.gov/product/PEP12-CMHI2009SUM
  7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2012). Promoting recovery and resilience for children and youth involved in juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://www.samhsa.gov/children/SAMHSA_ShortReport_2012.pdf (PDF - 2.33 MB)
  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2011). Helping children and youth who have experienced traumatic events. Washington, DC: Author.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs to talk, please call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

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