Research & Reports

Since 2016, the Right to Counsel and State Secrecy Report Cards, and other policy publications, have been conducted by First Star Institute, Inc. See For questions about these reports, please contact Noy Davis, at

//Research & Reports
Research & Reports 2019-03-21T00:00:01+00:00

A Child’s Right to Counsel: 3rd Edition

childsright3The right to an attorney is one of america’s most basic constitutional privileges. Yet, this study by first star and the children’s advocacy institute of the university of san diego school of law, revealed that only half of u.S. States currently provide traditional legal representation for children involved in dependency court and foster care proceedings.

The legal protections afforded these children are weaker and less consistent than those given to common criminals, who are provided attorneys by every state. And they are decidely weaker than those given to their abusers.

State Secrecy and Child Deaths in the U.S.

StateSecrecy2-coverThis is the second edition of the State Secrecy Report Card. The first was released in 2008 and became a key factor in prompting changes in public disclosure laws. The 2012 study provides an update on whether states have since strengthened their laws. Eleven states improved their disclosure laws by making them mandatory, more enforceable, more broadly applicable and/or more specific with regard to the types of information to which the public is entitled. Three states passed new laws or adopted new regulations further restricting public access to information resulting in lower grades than they received in 2008. The states reporting the most improvement were Utah and Pennsylvania, which went from grade of F to A and A+ respectively.

Shame on U.S.

shame_coverShame on U.S., a report by the Children’s Advocacy Institute of the University of San Diego School of Law, in collaboration with First Star, discusses how the federal government is failing to properly enact, monitor, interpret, and enforce federal child welfare laws — and in so doing is allowing states to fall below minimum floors with regard to appropriately detecting and protecting children from child abuse and neglect and complying with minimum federal child welfare requirements and outcomes.

Foster Youth Success

shame_coverA release of First Star Institute: A report on how college-based programs support foster care alumni attending college. A national survey of public 4-year colleges. The First Star Institute Foster Youth Success in College Project is a multi-survey research project that highlights U.S. college and university approaches to supporting Foster Care Alumni (used here to encompass foster youth and former foster youth), and to describe existing college and university programs.

During the summer of 2010 First Star reviewed and compiled statutes relating to the representation of children in dependency courts, public access to child abuse and neglect proceedings, and public access dependency court records for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
First Star focused on these particular statutes because the decisions made in dependency court impact the fundamental well-being of children in the child welfare system. By appointing well-trained child lawyers to children in dependency court proceedings and holding the system accountable through public scrutiny, we can better protect the rights of America’s most vulnerable children.

Child Representation in Abuse and Neglect Proceedings

  • 28 states and the District of Columbia require the appointment of an attorney for the child in abuse and neglect proceedings (includes appointment of legal counsel and attorneys appointed as GAL)
  • 22 states do not require the appointment of an attorney for the child in abuse and neglect proceedings (includes discretionary appointment of an attorney; representation by lay volunteers; and attorney GALs limited to non-attorney actions)

Public Access to Child Abuse & Neglect Proceedings

  • Child abuse and neglect proceedings are open to the general public in 19 states (includes statutes which indicate that hearings are open but that give the court the discretion to close hearings).
  • Child abuse and neglect proceedings closed to the general public in 31 states and the District of Columbia (includes statutes which indicate that hearings are closed with certain exceptions and that give the court the discretion to open hearings).

Public Access to Dependency Court Records

  • Dependency court records are open in 7 states (includes statutes which indicate that records are open but that give the court the discretion to limit access to the records)

Dependency court records are closed in 43 states and the District of Columbia (includes statutes which indicate that records are closed with certain exceptions and that give the court the discretion to make records available to certain parties).

What is the Child Welfare System?

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act

The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), originally passed in 1974, brought national attention to the need to protect vulnerable children in the United States. CAPTA provides Federal funding to States in support of prevention, assessment, investigation, prosecution, and treatment activities as well as grants to public agencies and nonprofit organizations for demonstration programs and projects. Additionally, CAPTA identifies the Federal role in supporting research, evaluation, technical assistance, and data collection activities. CAPTA also sets forth a minimum definition of child abuse and neglect. Since it was signed into law, CAPTA has been amended several times. It was most recently amended and reauthorized on December 20, 2010, by the Keeping Children and Families Safe Act of 2003 (P.L. 111-320). To see the 2010 amendment to CAPTA, visit: About CAPTA

GOAL of the Child Welfare System

“The child welfare system is a group of services designed to promote the well-being of children by ensuring safety, achieving permanency, and strengthening families to successfully care for their children.”

By its broadest definition, child welfare is the set of public and private agencies that provide social services to children and their families. Although it is often assumed to refer primarily to child protective services (CPS), the domain of child welfare also includes day care, parenting classes, and mental health counseling. Most families first become involved with the child welfare system due to a report of suspected child maltreatment.

The overarching responsibilities of the child welfare system are to investigate reports of alleged child abuse and neglect; to provide services to families who are deemed unable to protect and care for their children; to arrange for children to live with foster families if they must be removed from an unsafe home environment; and to arrange for permanent adoptive families for children leaving foster care. Nonetheless, due to system complexity and fiscal disparity, child welfare procedures vary from state to state.

Mandatory Reporting

All states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands currently have mandatory reporting statutes. Eighteen states currently require anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect to file a report with CPS, but mandatory reporters typically are professionals such as doctors, teachers, social workers, childcare providers, or law enforcement officers. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 3 million reports involving 4.5 million children were made to CPS agencies nationwide in 2002, the year for which the most recent data is available. Presuming that individuals outside the immediate family only report the most serious and/or obvious episodes of abuse, child maltreatment is most likely underestimated in official records.

Approximately 48 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands designate professions whose members are mandated by law to report child maltreatment. Individuals designated as mandatory reporters typically have frequent contact with children. Such individuals may include:

  • Social workers
  • Teachers and other school personnel
  • Physicians and other health-care workers
  • Mental health professionals
  • Childcare providers
  • Medical examiners or coroners
  • Law enforcement officers
  • Some other professions frequently mandated across the States include commercial film or photograph processors (in 11 States, Guam, and Puerto Rico), substance abuse counselors (in 13 States), and probation or parole officers (in 15 States). Six States (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, and South Dakota) include domestic violence workers on the list of mandated reporters. Court-appointed special advocates are mandatory reporters in seven States (Arkansas, California, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Virginia, and Wisconsin). Members of the clergy now are required to report in 26 States

CPS Investigation

Any concerned person can report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Once a report has been filed, CPS investigators are dispatched to determine if abuse or neglect has occurred (substantiated, “screened in”) or not (unsubstantiated, “screened out”). The investigator gathers evidence and interviews family members and others in contact with the child. Even when a case is unsubstantiated, the CPS investigator might recommend that the child and family receive ongoing services, such as in-home nurse visits; if not, the case is closed.

The course of action taken after the investigation depends on the family’s situation and on the jurisdiction. More than 70 percent of all reported cases nationwide are closed, either because there was no credible evidence of abuse or because there was too little evidence to compel a family to participate involuntarily. The likelihood of an official intervention or the provision of ongoing services is reliant upon federal and state funding priorities; even with evidence of abuse or neglect, cases are sometimes closed if they are considered lower risk and determined as a lower priority than other cases in the system.

In 2006, an estimated total of 3.3 million referrals involving 6 million children were made to CPS agencies. Approximately 61.7 percent were screened in, and more than 38.3 percent were screened out (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [HHS], 2008).

In 2006, approximately 905,000 children were found to be victims of child abuse or neglect (HHS, 2008).
In 2006, an estimated 312,000 children were removed from their homes as a result of a child abuse investigation or assessment. Nearly two-thirds (63.6 percent) of the victims who were removed from their homes suffered from neglect; 8.6 percent from physical abuse; 3.2 percent from sexual abuse; and 16.8 percent from multiple types of maltreatment (HHS, 2008).

Approximately 60 percent (61.7%) of referrals were screened in for investigation or assessment by CPS agencies.
Approximately 30 percent of the investigations or assessments found at least one child to be a victim of abuse or neglect, with the following report dispositions: 25.2 percent substantiated, 3.0 percent indicated, and 0.4 percent alternative response victim.

More than 70 percent of the investigations or assessments determined that the child was not a victim of maltreatment, with the following dispositions: 60.4 percent unsubstantiated, 5.9 percent alternative response nonvictim, 3.2 percent “other,” 1.7 percent closed with no finding, and 0.1 percent intentionally false.

Foster Care

Depending on the circumstances and severity of the situation the child may be immediately removed from the home and placed in foster care. Most children are placed with relatives or foster families, but some may be placed in group homes. When in foster care, the child attends school and receives medical care and other services needed. The child’s family also receives support to reduce the risk of future maltreatment. Every child in foster care is assigned a social worker whose responsibilities include drafting a permanency plan for the child and a guardian ad litem who will represent the child in future dependency hearings. In most cases, the permanency plan entails eventual reunification with parents, although if these efforts are unsuccessful, adoption or kinship care are viable options. Federal law requires the court to hold a permanency hearing within 12 months after the child enters foster care; many jurisdictions hold them sooner and more frequently to increase agency accountability. The presiding judge also has discretion to mandate a specific course of action to the parents, such as drug or alcohol treatment, in hopes of ensuring the child’s safety and stability should reunification take place.

In fiscal year 2003, 55 percent of children leaving foster care were returned to their parents. The median length of stay in foster care was 12 months. The average age of a child exiting foster care was 10 years old (HHS, 2006).

Variations in the Child Welfare System

In the 2003 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services performed the National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts The goal of the study was to identify current practices and improvement efforts in the child protective services system. The study identified seven areas of variation in state CPS policy.

Mandatory reporting: Nearly all states require professionals who work with children (i.e. social workers, medical personnel, educators, and child daycare providers) to report suspected child maltreatment. However, standards for nonprofessionals and anonymous reporting sources vary.

Investigation objectives: In 31 states, the purpose of an investigation is to determine if child abuse had occurred; 18 of these states also included the purpose of determining risk or safety of the child. In the remaining 20 states, the goal is to protect the child or to establish the risk to the child.

Standards of evidence: Relatively high evidentiary standards (preponderance, material, or clear and convincing) are necessary to substantiate abuse in 23 states. In 19 states, lower standards were specified (credible, reasonable, or probable cause). Nine states do not specify a standard of evidence.

Types of maltreatment: Nearly all states define the four major categories that are specifically discussed in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA): neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse. Beyond this, state inclusion of other types of maltreatment, such as medical neglect or abandonment, vary significantly.

Required timelines: State policy varies widely both for required response time to referrals and for the completion of investigations.

Central registry: State central registries contain information on perpetrators of child maltreatment. Many state policies allow use of central registries in background and licensing checks, and information can be shared with other agencies upon request. The types of disposition categories (substantiated, indicated, unsubstantiated) included in central registries vary from state to state, as do procedures for accessing information, expunging protocols, and due process requirements.

Alternative response: Alternative responses allow CPS workers to assess the needs of child without requiring a determination of maltreatment. Just over half of the states have alternative response polices. The policies vary greatly both in purpose and the types of alternative responses available.

While this study does not place value judgments on differing state practices, it does acknowledge the potential benefits of moving toward parity in state practices. Among these potential benefits are greater accountability of the CPS system and more equitable treatment for children across the country.


National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, available online at

Jane Waldfogel. The Future of Child Protection: How to Break the Cycle of Abuse and Neglect (1998). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 68.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth and Families/Children’s Bureau and Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. National Study of Child Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts: Review of State CPS Policy. (April 2003).

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2008). Child maltreatment 2006. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved April 1, 2008, from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2006). Child welfare outcomes 2003: Annual report. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved May 1, 2007, from

Research Highlights on – Education and Foster Care

My Brother’s Keeper Task Force – 90 Day Progress Report to the President

This report was issued on May 28, 2014, in response to the President’s initiative to launch a task force to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people who are willing to do the hard work to get ahead can reach their full potential — using proven tools and focusing on key moments in their lives where we can help make a difference.

Enormous progress was achieved, and the groundwork for the task force’s solutions are described.

Read the full report

The National Working Group on Foster Care and Education published this document about the importance of education to the future of foster children, and research into the problems, and the promising programs underway to address them.

Why Education Matters to Children in Foster Care

When supported by strong practices and policies, positive school experiences can counteract the negative effects of abuse, neglect, separation, and lack of permanency experienced by the nearly 400,000 U.S. children and youth in foster care.

Read the full report

Trafficing in Persons – Analysis of 2014 U.S. State Department Report

The U.S. State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report on June 20th, downgrading Thailand, Venezuala, Malaysia, and The Gambia to a Tier 3 classification – reserved only for the worst centers of human trafficking. The report estimated that only about 44,758 victims were identified, out of a total of at least 20 million. Human trafficking generates billions of dollars in profits a year and is considered to be one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world.

The Fleecing of Foster Children

How We Confiscate Their Assets and Undermine Their Financial Security

This report discusses the federal and state policies and practices that leave youths unable to achieve independence after aging out of foster care. 30,000 young people age out of the foster care system each year, and receive little or no assistance as they seek employment and housing, pursue education, and struggle to maintain their physical and mental health. Many of these difficulties would be made easier if the youths entered adulthood with financial stability. More legislation, at the federal and state levels, is needed to help youths leaving the foster system become self-sufficient adults.

Read the full report

Child Maltreatment 2011

This report contains national data on child abuse and neglect within the United States brought to the attention of Child Protective Services in the fiscal year 2010. It includes information concerning referrals and reports of child maltreatment, characteristics of victims and non-victims, fatalities that occurred as a result of maltreatment, services to prevent maltreatment and to assist children and families, and additional pertinent research.

Read the full report

The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress

This 2011 report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics examines multidisciplinary data in scientific and sociological fields. It finds that early experiences and environments leave a lasting impression on a child’s genetic predispositions, affecting development of the brain and long-term health.

Read the full report

The Neglected Brain, Part 1

By Stacey Solie

Danielle Goodwin, 36, was born in Great Falls, Montana to a pair of drug-addicted parents. She never met her biological father. Her mother married another man shortly after Danielle was born and had three more children before he died of a drug overdose. She then married one of Danielle’s father’s friends, and had another child. When they split up, Danielle’s mother married another one of his friends, had another baby. All in all, Danielle can count six stepfathers…

View Article

Domestic Violence, Developing Brains, and the Lifespan New Knowledge from Neuroscience

By Lynn Hecht Schafran

The author suggests that, before reading this article, you go to and watch First Impressions: Exposure to Violence and a Child’s Developing Brain (15 minutes) featuring Dr. Bruce Perry, senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas, and Dr. Linda Chamberlain, founding director, Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project…

View Article

The Invisible Achievement Gap

Education Outcomes of Students in Foster Care in California’s Public Schools. This study was conducted under the auspices of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning at WestEd, which is dedicated to improving teacher-development policy and practice. For more than a decade, the Center has been steadfast in the pursuit of its mission to ensure that every student in California’s elementary and secondary schools has a well‑prepared, effective, and caring teacher. WestEd, a research, development, and service agency, works with education and other communities to promote excellence, achieve equity, and improve learning for children, youth, and adults.

View Article

The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease

A list of publications from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACT) Study, plus pending articles. Continuing research will show the biomedical, emotional and economic consequences in medical care of abusive childhood experiences, on average a half-century earlier.

View Article

The relationship of adverse childhood experiences to adult medical disease, psychiatric disorders and sexual behavior: implications for healthcare. Chapter Eight written by Vincent J. Felitti and Robert F. Anda of The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease: The Hidden Epidemic

View Article

A Critical Look At The Foster Care System: How Widespread a Problem?

One of the most comprehensive surveys of abuse in foster care was conducted in conjunction with a Baltimore lawsuit. Trudy Festinger, head of the Department of Research at the New York University School of Social Work, determined that over 28 per cent of the children in state care had been abused while in the system.

View Article

A Critical Look At The Foster Care System: Incentives to Foster Parents

While there are many dedicated people willing to open their homes and hearts to children in distress, it can not be denied that financial gain is among a number of significant incentives leading some to become foster parents.

As the number of licensed foster homes has dropped to a low of 100,000 for the nations’ estimated 500,000 foster care children, so has the quality of foster care homes unquestionably diminished over the years.

View Article

Youth in Foster Care, Juvenile Justice Systems Struggle After Age 18, Report Finds

Youth in foster care and on probation in Los Angeles County are faring poorly under the current system and face severe challenges in education, employment, health, mental health, and earnings potential, a study funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation finds.

View Article

A Better Start: Clearing Up Credit Records for California Foster Children

Published by the California Office of Privacy Protection

Children make attractive targets for identity thieves, because the crime is usually not discovered for many years, giving thieves years of unobserved use of the stolen identities. Foster children may be particularly vulnerable – the children and their sensitive information pass through many hands. And a newly emancipated foster child usually faces the daunting task of dealing with the results of the crime alone, without a family safety net to help.

View Article

Adoption from Foster Care: Aiding Children While Saving Public Money

In the current era of massive deficits, federal, state and local government agencies are seeking ways to lower expenditures and still maintain essential services. Child welfare programs represent an area where significant savings could be achieved while actually improving the life circumstances of the young people affected. The way this could be accomplished is by increasing the number of children and youth who are adopted out of foster care. Findings from a recent national survey of child health provide new evidence that adoption can save the public money while improving the life prospects of youngsters who have been maltreated in their early years.

View Article