A Look Back at the Impact of Research on Child Welfare Policy

This year begins my 40th year as a student of child welfare services. As a researcher and observer of the child welfare policy process I appreciate the opportunity to reflect on some of the ways research has influenced child welfare policy.

Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (1980)

In 1978, David Fanshel and Eugene Shinn’s breakthrough volume, “Children in Foster Care: A Longitudinal Investigation,” was the first book that presented rigorous prospective, longitudinal research on outcomes for children in foster care.

This work, and Fanshel’s testimony, led Congress to make the case that time limits for federally supported foster care would be helpful, and that 18 months was the typical point after which many children would not go home. In 1980, these conclusions became hardened into law as part of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, which was our nation’s first comprehensive child welfare policy and has been reaffirmed, for the most part, in all subsequent federal reforms.

In retrospect, the research methods that Fanshel and Shinn used were crude and almost completely lacking in measuring whether stronger services could help children get back home even after 18 months. Also, the work did not pay any significant attention to developmental differences in foster care pathways or outcomes.

The latter shortcoming continues to plague child welfare policy, which is often overly reliant on a one-age-fits-all strategy despite our understanding that children of different ages have dramatically different patterns of child welfare service use.

Federal Independent Living Initiative (1986)

One of the most influential studies done to shape child welfare policy was conducted in New York City. Research published in 1985 by Sara Rimer of the New York Times showed that 27 percent of homeless youth appearing in city shelters were once in foster care.

This figure was brought to the attention of former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who then built upon the work of a task force and much legal advocacy to create the Federal Independent Living Initiative in 1986. Although this legislation was able to move child welfare in the right direction, there are other examples where single studies have not been good policy guides and have led to policy mediocrity or worse.

This is a case where the phenomena in question — transitions from foster care to homelessness — can be identified so clearly, sometimes occurring within one day of ending foster care, that sophisticated research was not needed to see the magnitude or impact of the problem.

Not until Mark Courtney and colleagues’ landmark Midwest study in 2001 did a critical element of the policy response become compelling enough to act upon. The study’s findings served as the basis for an extension of federal funding for foster care, for agreeing states, until age 21 under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.

Family Preservation and Support Act (1993)

The original legislation introduced in the process of eventually passing the Family Preservation and Support Act relied heavily on a month-long, intensive family preservation model called HomeBuilders. The program had shown some benefit for families who were primarily troubled by poor parent management of difficult child behaviors (but which lacked any replication studies of a significant scale).

A heavy push from family preservation advocates was close to getting passage of the first family preservation legislation. Not until the 11th hour, when a federally funded replication study found little or no impact, did policymakers conclude that the research behind HomeBuilders was not sufficient to single out the model. This was an uncommon example of policymaking pausing, and changing course, as new research emerged.

Somewhat ironically, when this legislation was later reintroduced, it was done without worry about having any guiding research. There was a requirement of spending at least 25 percent on family support services even though a subsequent research review could not find any substantial basis for its efficacy with the child welfare population.

Even now, we have little evidence for interventions that safely preserve families, especially those who have multiple child abuse reports but still remain at home. We continue to have no solid basis for estimating what the impact of putting more funds into prevention services will be for child welfare-involved children and families.

Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (2008)

A rigorous experimental study led by Mark Testa in 2004, which sought to clarify the impact that funding kinship guardianship would have on child welfare outcomes, may be the best example of a straight-line relationship between rigorous research and agreement that policy should support the equal treatment of an option that had, previously, been shunned.

Although the policy impact was hardly instantaneous, there is no doubt of the significant power that this state-wide experiment, done in a highly populous and diverse state, had on improving federal policy.

Our current national debate is largely focused on whether more flexible funding for prevention programs, funded in part by dollars made available because of a limit on the use of group care, will result in better overall outcomes for children. Whether there is sufficient research to support policy that restricts the use of group care is debatable.

We do know that young children can be effectively cared for in family care and that this offers greater opportunity for permanency than group care.

My own research suggests that group care, as a specific service, is generally no more effective and is certainly more expensive than less intensive services. But we do not have enough rigorous studies that compare the outcomes of group care to family care across different age groups coming into foster care for different reasons. Indeed, the discussions about the Child and Family Service Reviews showed the field that youth come into foster care in many different ways with vastly varied issues depending on local agency and court practices.

What Comes Next?

Stringent policy requirements that limit the use of group care before we have better research put us at risk, again, of not adequately differentiating which service is best for which youth at which time.

A general understanding that youth and families need diverse approaches to child welfare services may prove to be more helpful to designers of child welfare policy than would reliance on policy strictures resting on the assumption that we know enough to legislate specific service solutions. I would bet that a well-trained child welfare worker along with a consistent high-quality approach family involvement, and a partnership of evidence-informed service providers, would achieve the best outcomes for kids in care.

Before stepping into a wholesale reshaping of how child welfare is financed, there are some lessons to be learned. The Title IV-E waivers now provide the fiscal flexibility to implement such practices and could be the basis for more definitive tests of what legislative approaches are most likely to succeed. These waiver studies are worth improving, and their results worth waiting for.

Richard Barth
Richard Barth
is dean and professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, past president of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, a fellow of the American Psychological Association and winner of numerous awards for child welfare scholarship.

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