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Camille Wheeler


Camille Wheeler, MSW has been a visiting professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work since 1998. In 1980, the year of the passage of the Adoptions Assistance and Child Welfare Act, she was at the Baltimore County Department of Social Services. Ms. Wheeler held numerous management positions during her career with Baltimore County DSS, and was Director of the Agency when she left in 1998.

The 1980 Adoptions Assistance and Child Welfare Act is one of a series of federal laws that has shaped child welfare practice.  More recently the Tax Reform Act of 1986 allowed for reimbursement of adoptive parents for expenses incurred in adoption of a child with special needs and the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 allowed continued eligibility in cases where a subsequent adoption of a child was necessary. Understanding the impact of the 1980 law requires some background and previous history, which Ms. Wheeler provides.

“Prior to 1980 and this act we are talking about most of the child welfare law was contained in titles having to do with the Social Security Act, Title IV and Titles I and II. …this basically was a system that had money for the income maintenance of the children; that is, foster care payments for children that qualified for AFDC or those families that qualified. As a result there were lots and lots of kids who were in ‘the system’ but their services were not very well focused or directed so often children stayed there [in foster care] for months of their life and then when they became 15 or 16 they became rambunctious and all of a sudden they are turned back to their family of origin. Once you went into the system there was really no real effort of termination of parental rights. So there was a very large number of children in the foster care system and it was a period when the idea of reform was being talked about.

There had been some important legislation in the 70s that had primarily to do with child abuse and child abuse reporting that had begun to push more children into a system that really couldn’t handle it. So there was an effort at reforming foster care and the philosophy – and you know that social policy is driven frequently by values as well as a couple of other things – that children ought to be placed within their community or close to their biological family and that the effort should be to reunite children with their biological families and where that isn’t possible to move them into long term, permanent foster care…Although in the 1980 law there wasn’t any time limit for a parent to give up their rights, in the latest law once a child has been in care for 15 months there is a judicial review and parents terminate their rights.”

The 1980 law included a number of new requirements for state programs, with federal funds tied to states managing to meet these requirements.

“As a result foster care, which was already fairly bureaucratic, mostly because of the idea if you [DSS] have a child in care you [DSS] are their parent to a certain extent, … became a raft of bureaucracy [paperwork, forms, etc.] because of the state’s obligation to meet the federal audit in order to get the federal dollars. That changed foster care from what had been predominately a service that had to do with casework/counseling, those kinds of things.”

The impact of the 1980 law was to decrease the number of children in traditional foster care programs. However, because of tightened child abuse and neglect reporting laws with accompanying investigation and services [1974 law] more children were entering into the child welfare system through that avenue.

“The other thing that came [with the 1980 law] was outside review of the bureaucracy. The review could take three forms. One could be foster care review boards. Second could be administrative review, and the last one could be judicial review. States had the ability to opt for one of those 3 kinds of reviews. Maryland, because of some history of wanting foster care review boards even before the federal law was passed, opted for review boards. The immediate effect on foster care was that numbers dropped because of the ability to return some children home and have some children adopted. So the old kind of foster care was diminished and a new sort of care came into play [from abuse and neglect laws] and this new world brought a lot of children in so that now we had more kids in care than we ever had.”

Mrs. Wheeler assesses some of the impact of the 1980 law and speculates on future developments in Foster Care.

“I don’t think in 1980 I had any idea whether there was a need or not [for the law]. I do remember going to Philadelphia [the regional office] where the federal government brought in a lot of local people to talk about this law. I remember this guy who said ‘if we don’t get it right this time it’s all over.’ He meant if we don’t get it right well then foster care is going down the tubes. Now 20 years later I don’t think foster care will ever exactly go away. We have to have some mechanisms to protect children and now what that mechanism should be is the debate… Back then the public was so unhappy and dissatisfied with a system that ultimately was reformed in a very dramatic way. I think right now we are on the verge of seeing similar dramatic reforms in child welfare…but there is no agreement on what that reform will ultimately look like. A little bit of it is probably contained in the ’96 law that pushed toward adoption, but I think more likely what you are going to see is a narrowing of the funnel of foster care. Remember when I said earlier that the 1980 law had an effect in terms of the old system of foster care (see above) but with the real push for protective services… more of those children who came into the new system were because of protective service and the protective services definitions [of abuse and neglect].

What’s going to happen is a way to fix that narrow back way children came into foster care…This is already happening in some states, Illinois being one of those good examples…They are beginning to say only a few children can come into the foster care system. They are diverting most of the children who get identified due to the community concern about their safety…into other systems and not into the foster care system…Kinship care has grown dramatically in some of the big cities. But there are a lot of problems with kinship care. A lot of kids are not faring well. But child welfare services are trying to narrow down what comes into the system and pushing it [children’s service needs] into other systems like education and health care… The problem is, like welfare reform, you get people receiving fewer services. I think there was just another dramatic death in Chicago and what that had to do with is the closing down of foster care intake. It is very hard to get into foster care in Illinois. And that is the tension — the historical tension of child welfare–protection versus the family and leaving children with their biological families.”

What got you into child welfare social work?

“I didn’t exactly go into child welfare. I went into working with poor people… I lived a very privileged life and didn’t honestly know there was anything called welfare or child welfare, even at the end of my college years. I went back south and went home for the year in Alabama and didn’t really want to go home due to all of the riots and things. I was an integrationist and my points of view and values didn’t really fit with the times down there. It was hard to get jobs from a long distance but it was easy to get a job at the welfare department, so I got a job at the Baltimore City welfare department. The first I knew it had to do with money was when the moving man said ‘don’t give away too much money!’ I got there and found out much more what it was about, and very rapidly saw I had no business mucking around in people’s lives without any background. I had majored in history at Goucher College. So I went to the School of Social Work and once you have a masters degree in a public agency you move up rather quickly and I became a director.”

Was there anything that was not so gratifying in your career?

“Well it wasn’t fun being fired. I was fired because a child died. So that wasn’t fun… [Mrs. Wheeler was director of Baltimore County DSS at the time of this incident.] The child was dead by the time I heard of it. I heard about it originally from a reporter. But that’s all part of being the director… It’s like being the captain of the ship. And it is your responsibility.  If a child died we failed. Now that said, it is very hard work. The family was a very deceptive and manipulative family who put up a very good front and the staff was very close to breaking through. Another week and we probably would have removed the child. It’s just one of those things that happens…You have to figure the police cannot catch every robber or murderer out there so how can we catch every child in need.  The public has tolerance for that [police limitations] but not when a child dies and not for the public welfare system.”

Overall, has your career been gratifying?

“Social work in general is a very worthwhile pursuit…a lot of jobs pay better and have more status…but they don’t have the intellectual challenge or meaning that social work has. When you come towards the end of your career you can never say ‘I was bored.’ No two days are alike. Basically you are trying to do the right thing…No other job is more rewarding. I think it is a great career and there is so much to do.”

Ms. Wheeler was interviewed by Ms. Jennifer Frese