In addition to evaluating whole programs, it would be useful to assess a number of program components that are increasingly being used in reunification and permanency programs. The provision of a particular program feature could be varied within an overall program, some families receiving it and others not, with the outcomes of the differing conditions examined to determine whether the feature made a difference.9 We consider here several program components that we believe could be separately evaluated.
Foster Parent Mentoring. Foster parents have long been viewed as potential resources in working with birth parents and the idea of foster parent mentoring is being tried in a number of jurisdictions and programs. These efforts obviously require special training of foster parents. It is clear that not all good foster parents are suited for such a role and anecdotal reports indicate that foster parents often resist involvement with birth parents. It is possible that there is a role conflict between foster parent responsibility for the care and safety of children and becoming involved with birth parents. Some staff have reported an unintended consequence of foster parent mentoring is a decision by birth parents to relinquish children once they become aware of the contrast between them and the foster parents. To our knowledge, no rigorous evaluations of foster parent mentoring have been undertaken.
Family Group Conferencing. Family group conferencing seeks to bring together the family, relatives, neighbors, community supports (such as clergy), and representatives of organizations working with the family to determine goals and courses of action. Theoretically, a conference should occur at the outset of the case and periodically thereafter to assess progress and adjust plans. Some research on the outcomes of family group conferencing has been conducted in New Zealand and in Europe. The Chapin Hall Center for Children is conducting an evaluation of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation Community Partnerships Promoting Change program, in which family group conferencing is a prominent feature. However, we know of no rigorous equivalent group designs in the United States.
Termination of Parental Rights Mediation. TPR mediation is being tried in a number of jurisdictions as an attempt to avoid adversarial proceedings and shorten the time before children are available for adoption. In theory, TPR mediation could be examined in a controlled experiment, examining the outcomes of time to termination and families' feelings about the process and its outcome. We have not determined the number of families involved in TPR mediation in particular jurisdictions and one difficulty in evaluation may be that the numbers of cases undergoing mediation in a reasonable period of time are too small to support a controlled experiment.
Concurrent Planning. Concurrent planning presents special problems in constructing rigorous evaluations. For one thing, it is expected by policy to take place in most cases, an expectation that would need to be waived for cases in a control group. Furthermore, there are difficulties in determining just when concurrent planning has taken place: what activities constitute a threshold that could be considered concurrent planning and how can it be determined whether or not these activities have taken place? The determination of outcomes may also be problematic. It is expected that cases with concurrent planning will on average achieve a permanent solution more quickly, but presumably this expectation applies only to those cases in which an alternative to return home is decided upon, so the expectation of shorter times to permanency only applies to a subgroup. Complicating interpretation of times to permanency is the possibility of extensions of timelines and delays in obtaining TPR and finalizing adoptions. While randomized experiments on concurrent planning may not be advisable at present, studies of its implementation and process are quite important to determine whether it is being implemented as intended.
Other Components of Permanency Practice. There are a number of other components of reunification and permanency practice that are potential candidates for evaluation. These include assessment procedures, approaches to visitation, the provision of aftercare services (for both reunification and adoption), and recruitment programs for foster and adoptive parents. However, while these are important elements of practice, we do not know of promising new approaches in these areas that might warrant the mounting of rigorous evaluation.
Therapeutic Technical Packages. A number of models and approaches have been developed for working with troubled families and children. They include multi-systemic therapy, attachment trauma therapy, family resolution therapy, parent-child interaction therapy, parents anonymous, and many others. Some of these approaches focus on work with disturbed children and adolescents. Treating behavioral and psychological disturbances of children obviously may have impact on the likelihood of successful reunification, but we have not focused on these issues in this paper, since the field of child welfare more often focuses on parent and family interventions. Technical packages have varying degrees of research support. Multi-systemic therapy is one approach that has been evaluated fairly rigorously in contexts outside reunification and might well be tried in reunification work.
9. One difficulty with component evaluation is that all elements of a program may be seen as crucial, the program intending to make use of interactions among them, to produce the desired outcomes.