by Julia H. Littell and John R. Schuerman
Westat, Inc., in association with James Bell Associates, and the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.
A part of the National Evaluation of Family Preservation Servcies
For the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation
Department of Health and Human Services
How effective are current efforts to preserve and reunify families in child welfare? In this paper we review research on programs aimed at preventing out-of-home placement of children, broader family preservation programs, and programs designed to reunify families with children in foster care.1 We examine what is known about the outcomes of these programs, relationships between service characteristics and outcomes, and the response of subgroups of clients to services.
Claims that family preservation programs result in substantial reductions in the placement of children are based largely on non-experimental studies. Such studies do not provide solid evidence of program effects. Evidence from controlled studies of placement prevention effects is much weaker. The results of controlled studies suggest that difficulties in targeting services to families at risk of placement contribute to the lack of effects on likelihood of placement. The small amount of evidence on outcomes other than placement suggests that these programs have little effect on the recurrence of child maltreatment, although they may produce modest, short term improvements in some aspects of child and family functioning.
Research on family reunification programs is in its infancy and there are very few controlled studies in this area. Available evidence is mixed. While some studies suggest that intensive, in- home services can speed the process of family reunification, the long-term effects of these programs are largely unknown. In particular, it is not clear whether intensive service programs increase the rates at which children return home, reduce the risk of foster care reentry, or lessen the chance of subsequent child maltreatment.
We conclude our review with a discussion of directions for further research in this area.
1 Studies of efforts to preserve families served in the juvenile justice (e.g., Henggeler, Melton, and Smith 1992; Collier and Hill 1993) and mental health systems are not included here.