Child Welfare in Social Work

When you choose to become a social worker, there are countless avenues you can take to make a difference in the world. There are numerous populations that need additional support, guidance, and resources. One particular area that continues to be in dire need of a helping hand is child welfare in social work.

According to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), child abuse and neglect is “any recent act of failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm”.

In other words, most states categorize child abuse as physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse/exploitation, emotional abuse and, in some states, parental substance abuse, and abandonment are specifically written in their laws as abuse, as well. Specifics vary state by state.

Statistics of Child Welfare in Social Work

  • According to data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), 50 states reported a total of 1,484 fatalities of children specifically due to child abuse or neglect
  • Many people believe that child fatalities are actually underreported and that approximately 50% of deaths reported as “unintentional injury deaths” are reclassified after further evidence is found and reviewed
  • In 2013:
    • 71.4 percent of children who died from child maltreatment suffered neglect either alone or in combination with another maltreatment type
    • 46.8 percent suffered physical abuse either alone or in combination with other maltreatment
    • Medical neglect either alone or in combination was reported in 8.6 percent of fatalities
  • In 2013, parents, acting alone or with another parent, were responsible for 78.9 percent of child abuse or neglect fatalities,
    • more than one-quarter (27.7 percent) were perpetrated by the mother acting alone,
    • 12.4 percent were perpetrated by the father acting alone,
    • 24.6 percent were perpetrated by the mother and father acting together,
    • nonparents (including kin and child care providers, among others) were responsible for 17.0 percent of child fatalities,
    • and, child fatalities with unknown perpetrator relationship data accounted for 4.2 percent of the total.

Signs of Neglect

Some people who work in certain helping professions are required by state law to report any child maltreatment under certain circumstances—these are called mandated reporters. Some states require all adults to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. There are numerous signs that would indicate child abuse or neglect. Here are just some behaviors that should raise your suspicions:

From the Child:

  • Sudden change in behavior or academic performance at school
  • Medical problems that are not being addressed by the parents
  • Learning problems/difficulty concentrating
  • Very watchful and on guard
  • No adult supervision
  • Overly compliant or overly withdrawn
  • Unexplained physical marks
  • Seems frightened of parents or to go home
  • Abuses animals or pets
  • Frequently absent from school
  • Poor hygiene
  • Lacks proper clothing for the weather
  • Experiencing a sudden change in appetite
  • Reports nightmares or bedwetting
  • Is either inappropriately mature (parenting other children, for example) or inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging, for example)

From the Parents: Child Welfare in Social Work

  • Denies existence of child’s problems at school
  • Gives permission to teachers to use physical punishment
  • Demands an unrealistic academic and/or physical performance from the child
  • Sees the child as worthless or burdensome
  • Shows little concern
  • Offers conflicting, unconvincing or no explanation of a child’s physical marks
  • Uses harsh discipline
  • Describes the child in a negative way
  • Has a history of child abuse
  • Overtly rejects the child
  • Constantly blames or belittles the child
  • Is unduly protective of the child or severely limits the child’s contact with other children, especially of the opposite sex
  • Substance abuse
  • Seems apathetic or depressed

What You Can Do to Promote Child Welfare in Social Work

Child Welfare agencies play a significant role in ensuring child safety and well-being, as well as supporting families by providing resources and education so they can successfully care for their children.

As a social worker you can:

  • Support or coordinate services to prevent child abuse and neglect
  • Receive and investigate reports of possible child abuse and neglect
  • Assess child and family needs, strengths, and resources
  • Provide services to families that need help protecting and caring for their children
  • Arrange for out-of-home care (foster care, kinship care, or other) when children and youth cannot remain safely at home
  • Support the well-being of children living with relatives and foster and adoptive families, including making sure that their health, mental health, and educational needs are addressed
  • Work with children, youth, and families to achieve family reunification, adoption, or other permanent family connections for children and youth leaving out-of-home care



  1. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2014). Definitions of child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.
  2. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.
  3. Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). What is child welfare? A guide for health-care professionals. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.
  4. Every Child Matters Education Fund, 2012.
Working with Children's Welfare in Social Work
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Working with Children's Welfare in Social Work
Learn how to read the signs of a neglected child and what you can do as a social worker for child welfare in social work.
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