Policymakers could improve outcomes for children and youth in foster care and save money at the same time by both increasing and improving child maltreatment prevention programs and kinship care, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation released last month.
To generate the data shared in the report, RAND developed a data model meant to simulate a child’s pathway through the child welfare system. Using the existing child welfare system as a baseline, the model is designed to predict outcome changes that could result from a variety of policy reforms.
“It is not necessarily unexpected that increasing both prevention and treatment could reduce maltreatment, improve system experience and improve outcomes,” said Jeanne Ringel, director of RAND’s Population Health Program and the report’s chief author, in an email. “What our analysis revealed is that these improvements could be achieved with lower lifetime costs for the cohort of children in the model.”
Ringel and the research team used U.S. Census Bureau data for children born in America between 2010-2015 to create a statistically representative cohort for the model.
The reforms considered in the simulation highlighted three major focus areas of child welfare: services aimed at preventing child maltreatment, those focused on family preservation and kinship care, which places children with relatives rather than unknown foster parents. For each of those categories, policy change models simulated the impact of increasing the quantity of services, increasing the quality of services and doing both in concert.
Several permutations of possible reforms accomplished some, but not all, of the four policy objectives: reducing maltreatment, improving children’s experiences in the system, improving outcomes and reducing expenditures.
RAND concluded that the biggest gains across reform categories could be achieved when both prevention and kinship care programs were increased and also qualitatively improved. In this simulation, out-of-home placements into foster care decreased by more than 11 percent, and episodes of child maltreatment, child welfare investigations and substantiated cases of abuse all went down, too.
This policy reform package resulted in a net cost reduction of 6 to 7 percent, according to the report. While increasing and improving services does require greater expenditures, the model suggests that this increase is more than offset by the cost savings associated with fewer system responses and the lower cost of kin care versus other out-of-home placements.
In addition to considering short-term outcomes and immediate, direct-cost impacts, researchers also simulated the effect on a child’s likelihood of future homelessness, substance abuse, under-employment and criminal conviction. Data shows that childhood maltreatment increases the risk for all of these negative long-term outcomes. When prevention and kin care programs were collectively increased and improved in the simulation, all four of these negative outcomes dropped by more than 5 percent.
The report was originally published in May of 2017, but was withdrawn so researchers could “conduct further analysis after other child welfare researchers pointed out that there might be better data to use for several of the inputs used in the model,” according to the press release that accompanied the report.