Survey Identifies Priorities for Child Welfare Research

Updated on August 30, 2021 and originally posted January 21, 2021 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Parent holds a child

Results of a recent sur­vey from the Urban Insti­tute shine a spot­light on gaps in child wel­fare research and reveal a need for major sys­tems trans­for­ma­tion. The sur­vey, fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, Casey Fam­i­ly Pro­grams and the William T. Grant Foun­da­tion, shows that respon­dents see the great­est need for research that informs invest­ments in strength­en­ing fam­i­lies before child abuse and neglect can occur — known in the field as pri­ma­ry pre­ven­tion. The fun­ders plan to use the infor­ma­tion to devel­op a com­pre­hen­sive nation­al research agen­da that pri­or­i­tizes a sig­nif­i­cant redesign of child wel­fare, includ­ing com­mu­ni­ty-based sup­port that reach­es fam­i­lies much ear­li­er, before they are involved in the system.

The sur­vey cap­tured respons­es from 300 peo­ple involved with child wel­fare sys­tems across the coun­try, includ­ing agency staff, researchers and sys­tem con­stituents such as birth fam­i­lies, fos­ter par­ents and young adults for­mer­ly in fos­ter care. Respon­dents cred­it­ed the 2018 Fam­i­ly First Pre­ven­tion Ser­vices Act for its empha­sis on pre­vent­ing chil­dren from enter­ing fos­ter care through evi­dence-based ser­vices in men­tal health, sub­stance abuse and par­ent­ing skills. Nonethe­less, many said that exist­ing mea­sures were not enough, espe­cial­ly giv­en the per­sis­tent racial dis­par­i­ties in child wel­fare sys­tem involvement.

Respon­dents named five areas as hav­ing the largest gaps in evidence:

  1. Tools for deci­sion making
  2. Agency poli­cies and rules
  3. Child wel­fare practices
  4. Fed­er­al and state policy
  5. Cross-sys­tem collaboration

The sur­vey iden­ti­fied four pri­or­i­ty areas for research funding:

  1. Pre­ven­tion of entry into fos­ter care
  2. Pre­ven­tion of abuse and neglect
  3. Dynam­ics that affect the child wel­fare workforce
  4. Post-sys­tem involve­ment and sup­port in aftercare

A stronger focus on build­ing evi­dence for pri­ma­ry pre­ven­tion would help agen­cies iden­ti­fy effec­tive strate­gies for sup­port­ing fam­i­lies before they reach a cri­sis point. How­ev­er, research on such inter­ven­tions requires cross-sec­tor col­lab­o­ra­tion — for exam­ple, part­ner­ships with employ­ment and hous­ing sys­tems to ensure par­ents have sta­ble jobs and homes — pre­sent­ing sig­nif­i­cant data and admin­is­tra­tive hur­dles for child wel­fare agen­cies with lim­it­ed resources.

Accord­ing to fam­i­lies on the receiv­ing end of child wel­fare ser­vices, efforts to sup­port ear­li­er inter­ven­tions would be well worth the invest­ment. Researchers and prac­ti­tion­ers agree that risk fac­tors for child mal­treat­ment often inter­sect with — and extend from — oth­er areas of instability.

Pri­ma­ry pre­ven­tion is close­ly aligned with the Casey Foundation’s efforts to keep fam­i­lies strong and intact, so that all kids can grow up in secure, sup­port­ive homes.

At this piv­otal moment of poten­tial for reform in our social insti­tu­tions and trans­for­ma­tion­al change in our approach to child wel­fare — the cre­ation of a more equi­table sys­tem that ele­vates fam­i­ly voice and bol­sters rather than pun­ish­es par­ents — is pos­si­ble with the right evi­dence and data,” says Suzanne Barnard, direc­tor of the Casey Foundation’s Evi­dence-Based Prac­tice Group.

Fam­i­ly First is an impor­tant first step in the right direc­tion,” says Peter J. Pec­o­ra, man­ag­ing direc­tor of research at Casey Fam­i­ly Pro­grams. Now is the time to build evi­dence for pre­ven­tion prac­tice at a more fun­da­men­tal stage: before chil­dren are at risk.”

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