NC’s Child Welfare System: An Introduction for Kin Caregivers

Because the child welfare system is complex, it can be frustrating even for those who work in it. For kinship caregivers, who often find themselves involved in the system with little or no time to prepare, it can be confusing and even intimidating.

To help, following is a brief overview of some basic things every kinship caregiver should know about North Carolina’s system, along with suggestions for how to learn more.

The System’s Purpose
The goal of the child welfare system is to ensure children and youth have safe, permanent, nurturing families. It exists to protect children from abuse and neglect and to preserve the family unit whenever possible.

NC Child Welfare Agencies
In North Carolina a state-level agency, the Division of Social Services within the NC Department of Health and Human Resources, oversees the child welfare system. There are 100 county-level agencies—typically a department of social services (DSS)—responsible for providing direct services to protect children and serve families. This arrangement is known as “state-supervised, county administered.”

Kinship caregivers, who have physical custody of the children in their homes, usually interact most with county DSS agencies. This is because when children enter foster care they are typically placed in the legal custody of the DSS in the county where they live.

Although kinship caregivers work with them less often, there are also 73 private agencies that provide placements for some of the children in foster care in North Carolina.

Key Players
CPS social workers are responsible for assessing suspected cases of abuse and neglect. If they conclude maltreatment has occurred, they provide in-home counseling and supportive services to help children stay at home safely with their families. If necessary, they petition the court to remove the child from the home until it is safe to return.

Permanency Planning social workers (also called Foster Care workers) serve children in foster care and their families. They ensure children are safe and well until they can return home. They also offer support to parents so that reunification can happen. If a court decides children cannot be reunified with their families, these workers help them achieve permanence through adoption or other means. (For more on this, see Support for Permanence through Kinship Care in NC.)

Licensing social workers recruit, train, license, support, and relicense relative and nonrelative foster care providers.

Guardians ad litem (GALs) are volunteers from the community appointed by a judge to represent children in court. They do not work for DSS. Their role is to focus on children’s rights and needs, and to make a written report to the judge stating what they think is best for the children they represent. To read more about GALs, visit

Judges. In North Carolina, Juvenile Court judges play a central role for children and youth involved with the child welfare system. Among other things, judges decide whether children can safely remain at home. If not, they decide where (with whom) they should live and preside over hearings in which they monitor children’s well-being and the progress of their parents.

Much More to Learn
The information above is just a start. To get a solid understanding of the child welfare system, kinship caregivers are strongly encouraged to consult the following resources.

If you have specific questions about kinship care in North Carolina, start by speaking with your child’s social worker. NC Kids, a part of the NC Division of Social Services, is also a great resource. They can be reached via their hotline (877-625-4371) or email: [email protected]).

For references cited in this issue, click here.