Evaluation of Family Preservation and Reunification Programs: Interim Report. Background


This is a report of an evaluation of programs intended to prevent the placement of children in foster care when it can be avoided.1  This report focuses on programs in three states, using a particular approach to family preservation, Homebuilders, thought by many to be the most promising approach.

Society has accepted a measure of responsibility for the well being of children, so government can intervene in family life when that well being is severely threatened by abuse or neglect, dependency due to death or disability of parents, or family conflict. Governmental intervention includes removing children from their homes when that is necessary. However, it has long been thought that children should remain in their parent's care whenever possible, consistent with their safety. The tension between assuring the safety of children and maintaining the integrity of families has been a perennial source of debate in the child welfare field and in our society more generally.

In 1980, Congress passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272) which required states to make "reasonable efforts" to prevent children from entering foster care and to return children who are in foster care to their families. Part of the response of states to that Act was the development of family preservation programs. The emphasis on family preservation was further codified in the 1993 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which established a 5-year capped entitlement program to encourage the development of family preservation and family support programs. This program was revised and extended by the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act.

There have been a number of other evaluations of family preservation programs. Early evaluations suggested these programs had considerable promise but these studies were criticized for flaws in research design. Later, more rigorously designed studies began to cast doubt on the extensive claims of success. The largest of these studies were in California, New Jersey, and Illinois. No placement prevention effects were found in California and Illinois, while the study in New Jersey found short term effects that dissipated with time.2  However, these studies were also criticized, most notably for not having examined programs thought to be most effective, those based on the Homebuilders approach.

The evaluation reported here was mandated by Congress in the 1993 legislation and was intended, in part, to provide information for deliberations on reauthorization of the funding. In using this report in discussions of reauthorization, it should be kept in mind that a relatively small portion of the Adoption and Safe Families Act funds is used for family preservation.3  It should also be noted that this report concerns only family preservation programs of a certain kind in three states. However, the three states were chosen because it was believed that they had implemented these programs effectively and because it was thought that they would represent the experience with the Homebuilders approach to service. It is hoped that the evaluation will also be useful to the states in making decisions about child welfare programs and to program planners and practitioners in developing responses to significant social problems.

The evaluation was designed to overcome shortcomings of previous studies of family preservation programs. It studied the Homebuilders model of service, the approach to family preservation that many observers believe to be the most effective. The evaluation also examined a number of outcomes. Placement prevention is a major goal of these programs, but family preservation is expected to achieve that goal while assuring the safety of children. A further important goal of these programs is improvement in functioning of parents, families, and children. Finally, it is expected that these programs will enable child welfare agencies to close cases more quickly, ending their involvement with families. Hence, besides placement prevention, the evaluation assessed the safety of children, changes in child and family functioning, and rates of case closing.

An additional issue raised in the earlier evaluations of family preservation concerned the targeting of these programs. It was found that the families served by these programs often were not those for whom they were intended: cases in which it was likely that at least one child would be placed in foster care without special intervention. The evaluation sought to throw light on this issue as well.

1. This is one of a series of reports from this evaluation. A previous report, The Evaluation of the New York City HomeRebuilders Demonstration reported on a program designed to facilitate the reunification of children in foster care with their families. A final report on the family preservation aspects of this project is forthcoming and will include data on a fourth site, Philadelphia, as well as further analysis of data from the three sites considered here.

2. J. Littell and J. Schuerman. (1995). A Synthesis of Research on Family Preservation and Family Reunification.http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/cyp/fplitrev.htm.

3. James Bell Associates. Family Preservation and Family Support (FP/FS) Services Implementation Study, Interim Report. March 1999. Prepared for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Contract # 105-94-8103.