Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR)

The Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) is a state agency created in 1935 to provide social welfare services to the citizens of the state. DHR is governed by the State Board of Human Resources, chaired by the governor. A commissioner provides direct supervision of day-today services, which are divided among four areas: field services, including staff development and training; fiscal and administrative services; family resources, including financial assistance, food stamps, and child-care services; and children and family services, including child protective and foster care services, adoption, and adult services. DHR's central office is located in the state capitol, Montgomery, with offices in each of the state's 67 counties.

The department currently employs some 600 social workers, making it the largest employer of social workers in the state. Its client population includes some 6,000 children in foster care and more than 4,700 adults alleged to have been victims of maltreatment. According to recent data, DHR investigated 18,150 reports of child maltreatment in a single year, of which 9,290 were substantiated. During the same period, there were 48,117 individuals receiving financial assistance through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, and 29,200 children receiving subsidized child care.

Of the $1.25 billion DHR spent during 2005 and 2006, more than $297 million were spent for child welfare services, $100 million for TANF recipients, more than $650 million for food stamp services, and $108 million for child-care services. More than $998 million of the agency's funds came from federal sources.

The forerunner of DHR was the Alabama Department of Child Welfare (ADCW), created in 1919 by the state legislature in response to pressure from advocacy groups, including the Alabama Federation of Women's Clubs, the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Alabama Child Labor Committee. These groups had successfully lobbied for passage of child labor, juvenile court, and compulsory school attendance laws and considered the creation of ADCW to be the crowning achievement in their efforts to secure adequate living conditions for the children of the state. The National Child Labor Committee and the Russell Sage Foundation also conducted studies of Alabama's social welfare system during the preceding decade, and recommended the creation of a state-level child welfare agency.

In 1923, Loraine Bedsole Tunstall was appointed as the agency's first director, making her the first woman to head a state agency in Alabama history. During her tenure, Tunstall focused on expanding ADCW's services throughout the state via county child-welfare boards and by hiring social workers, then called child welfare superintendents, to provide services to at-risk children and families. The county child welfare boards were composed of the judge of the juvenile court, as chairman, a representative from the court of county commissioners, and one from the local board of education. The judge also had the authority to appoint three additional members, two of whom had to be women. The child welfare superintendent administered the school attendance law, served as probation officer for the juvenile court, and worked with families and children to prevent juvenile delinquency. The state legislature authorized the creation of the boards in 1923, making Alabama one of the first six states in the nation to do so. Between 1927 and 1929, 53 counties created child welfare boards, and by 1931 65 counties had followed suit.

In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, ADCW took on primary responsibility for administering financial assistance provided under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). With the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, ADCW became a part of the newly created Department of Public Welfare (DPW), Alabama's first state-level social welfare organization. The creation of DPW enabled the state to receive federal monies for new programs for the blind and disabled, for aid to dependent children, and for child welfare services.

Alabama's record in implementing the social welfare programs mandated by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, while pioneering in some ways, was problematic in others. Alabama was the first state in the nation to secure federal approval to use child welfare funds provided by the SSA. However, the state also administered the newly created Aid to Dependent Children program along segregationist lines, however, maintaining separate offices and staff for blacks and whites when the program began in the 1930s. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the DPW focused on such issues as improving standards for adoptive homes and for day-care facilities. The agency was renamed the Alabama Department of Pensions and Security (DPS) in 1955. In 1965 DPS sponsored the creation of the state's first child-abuse reporting legislation, the Child Abuse Reporting Act. After the passage of the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 1974, state law was amended to mandate reporting of neglected as well as abused children.

The 1970s saw the passage of new federal laws affecting child welfare programs, including federal block grants for child welfare services and child-support programs. In general, block grants are large allotments of money from the federal government for specific programs that allow states flexibility as to how the money is spent. With the new efforts, reports of child maltreatment increased dramatically, from fewer than 800 in 1975 to approximately 33,000 in 1988, partially as a result of child abuse and neglect reporting legislation that was passed in the 1960s and 1970s. The department had difficulty responding to this increase, with the result that investigations were often delayed, and follow-ups were frequently inadequate. The federal passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (1980) required significant changes in state services to families and children, and Alabama was no exception. The legislation required states to provide reasonable efforts before removing children from the family of origin, to develop a permanent plan for the child no longer than 18 months after they came into care, and mandated that children removed from their homes be placed in the least restrictive placement possible.

DHR adopted its current name in 1986 and began to attempt to develop programs to comply with the new federal law. That same year, the governor appointed a Commission on Child Welfare Services, which issued a report documenting the need for additional staff, training, and resources. However, despite the development of some new resources, such as an Independent Living program for teens in long-term foster care, lack of funding prevented the agency from making significant progress. In 1988, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class-action lawsuit, R.C. v. Walley, against DHR for failing to provide adequate services to vulnerable children and families and asking that Alabama's child welfare system be placed under federal control. The lawsuit stemmed from a case involving a child, "R.C.," who, according to the ACLU, was removed from his father's custody and placed in a mental institution without adequate attempts to first provide services that would allow him to remain in his own home. The state agreed to settle the lawsuit and to make sweeping changes in its child welfare system.

In the consent decree settling the suit, signed and approved by the federal court in 1991, DHR agreed to reforms that included emphasizing prevention of out-home-placement of children, providing individualized services for children and their families, pursuing family reunification for children already in care, using home and community-based services, and facilitating the participation of children and their families in case planning and implementation. The decree also required DHR to enhance training programs for child welfare workers and to develop new services and programs to assess service outcomes and to protect the rights of the agency's clients. The reforms were to be overseen by a monitor appointed by the court.

During the 1990s, DHR began to implement this new approach, by providing intensive, home-based family preservation services to prevent child removal, requiring the development of individualized service plans for children and families, and involving families in the case-planning process, insuring the provision of reasonable efforts to prevent removal of children from their homes, and developing and implementing a new training program for child welfare workers. The purpose of these reforms was to develop a "system of care" that would offer specialized services to allow children in foster care, or in DHR custody, or those at risk of such placement, who had severe, moderate, or mild emotional or behavioral problems to either remain in or be returned to their families of origin. Such services were also to be provided to children who were at "high risk" of developing such problems, and who were at imminent risk of placement.

The 1990s also saw significant changes in DHR's financial assistance programs. The federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, commonly known as "welfare reform" replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Need Families (TANF), a block grant program. Under the new law, Alabama and other states require recipients of public assistance to work or engage in work-related activities in exchange for benefits. States also implemented new methods of child support collection and instituted work requirements for food stamp recipients.

In January 2007, the U.S. District Court released the state from federal oversight of its child welfare system, certifying that each county in the state had successfully achieved an adequate system of care. The Alabama Department of Human Resources has had varied success in meeting its clients' needs over time, but in general it has, particularly in the field of child welfare, often been a pioneer in developing and implementing new approaches to meeting human need. This is its continuing challenge in a new century.

 Additional Resources 

Thomas, Mary Martha. The New Woman in Alabama: Social Reforms and Suffrage, 1890-1920. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992.

Welch, Kathryn. "Public Facilities for the Care of Dependent Children in Alabama." M.S.W. thesis, University of Chicago School of Service Administration, 1935.

Ike Burson
Jackson State University



Published January 9, 2008
Last updated November 4, 2013

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