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Policy and Practice Recommendations for Ensuring that Foster Care Serves Children’s Best Interests

Sarah A. Font and Elizabeth T. Gershoff

Introduction

More than half a million U.S. children spend time in foster care each year, and combined federal, state, and local expenditures on foster care services approach $15 billion annually. However, foster care is a poorly regarded intervention to protect children exposed to abuse or neglect.

In contrast to this prevailing view about the negative effects of foster care on child wellbeing, the totality of research evidence suggests no differences between children receiving foster care versus similar children who do not, or slightly positive effects for select subgroups or for select outcomes. In addition, federal policies, such as the 2018 Family First Preservation and Services Act, which heavily emphasize reducing the use of foster care as an outcome independent of child safety, are not supported by the research evidence. 

Moreover, current federal evaluation efforts, such as the Child and Family Services Reviews, focus almost exclusively on process evaluation (e.g., how long a child spends in foster care), rather than on impact evaluation, which would involve measuring changes in children’s physical and mental health while they are in foster care. The processes measured in existing research and evaluation of the foster care system also tend to be overly simplistic and superficial. For example, research and evaluation commonly consider the proportion of children in foster care who are placed with relatives (known as kinship care) as an indicator of good process, despite wide variation in the quality of kinship care environments. 

Finally, research studies on population-level effects of foster care, as well as real-time tracking of individual children’s experiences and outcomes in foster care, are stymied in many states by a lack of reliable data. Although some states and municipalities have sought to integrate their child welfare system data with other sources, such as education and juvenile justice data, to better understand and track child outcomes, many have not, and few can easily track this information in real-time to inform case decisions.

In this brief, the authors highlight what it would take to make meaningful improvements in children’s experiences and outcomes in the foster care system. 

Key Findings

Foster care interventions should be subject to rigorous impact evaluation

  • There is little evidence that the processes valued and prioritized in the Child and Family Services Reviews consistently or uniformly ensure child safety and wellbeing.
  • Children would be better served by a foster care system that is oriented toward achieving objective, longitudinal measures of child safety and wellbeing, for example, measuring changes in children’s physical and mental health while they are in foster care – rather than on process evaluation, for example, how long a child spends in foster care. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Reframing the U.S. Foster Care System towards Evaluating Impacts that Focus on Children’s Long-term Safety and Well-being 

This figure draws on program evaluation methods by showing a logic model for the foster care system. A logic model explains how a program or intervention is designed to work and includes clear identification of four measurable components: inputs, activities, outputs, and impacts or outcomes. The authors recommend that researchers, administrators, and policy-makers use this framework to clarify the purpose of the system, think critically about what various measures truly mean, evaluate the impacts of foster care, and propose reforms that can be rigorously evaluated.

Key Findings, cont.

The quality of the foster home environment is a core component of children’s experiences in foster care and should be measured in process evaluations

  • Decades of research on child development demonstrate that children function best in an environment where caregivers are responsive, sensitive, and able to meet children’s needs. However, procedures for measuring the quality of children’s foster home environments vary significantly across agencies and data on foster home environments are not widely available for research and evaluation.
  • If policymakers seek to ensure better outcomes for children in foster care, it is critical to understand how children’s experiences within foster care – including the quality of their environments and relationships with foster caregivers – are associated with safety and wellbeing. By identifying the core components of successful foster care experiences, agencies can better understand, and target for improvement, weaknesses in the quality of their foster care intervention.

Strategic investments in data integration across multiple systems is the most viable approach for high-quality impact and process evaluations

  • Investment in data quality is critical to achieving better outcomes for children in foster care. Without it, researchers are unable to assess the effects of changes in policy and practice. This also means that policy proposals to “reform” foster care are based on weak or unreliable data or on anecdotal accounts.
  • Data integration is the most sustainable, cost-efficient, and reliable approach to improving quality of data on child wellbeing for three reasons. First, it leverages the vast amount of data already collected by government-funded agencies and does not place additional documentation burdens on child welfare caseworkers. Second, it has the potential to be cost-neutral in the long term, by reducing redundancies because multiple agencies will no longer need to collect the same information on multiple forms. Third, because agency-collected measures have the potential to be manipulated if used for performance evaluation, the use of information from outside of the child welfare system is critical to true accountability.

Key Challenges in the Foster Care System and Recommendations for Improvement

Although the legal term “best interests of the child” is frequently invoked in foster care policy and practice, current federal policy directives do not prioritize children’s interests. There is no consensus definition of “best interests” and prescriptive federal policies are often presumed to be in all children’s best interests unless proven otherwise.  The authors suggest that a child’s best interests should be explicitly defined to include physical and psychological safety, stability, and the opportunity for healthy development, and that evaluation of children’s best interests by trained professionals should inform all key decisions that affect children in foster care.

Figure 2 outlines key challenges in the foster care system and recommendations that, if implemented, have the potential to effect real and lasting change to better serve the needs of children.

Reference

Font, S.A. & Gershoff, E.T. (2020). Foster care and the “best interests of the child”: Integrating research, policy and practice. Advances in Child and Family Policy and Practice (pp. 1-130). eBook ISBN: 978-3-030-41146-6; softcover ISBN: 978-3-030-41145-9; doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-41146-6

Suggested Citation

Font, S.A. & Gershoff, E.T. (2020). Policy and practice recommendations for ensuring that foster care serves children’s best interests. PRC Research Brief 5(3). DOI: 10.26153/tsw/7522.

About the Authors

Sarah A. Font, saf252@psu.edu is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Pennsylvania State University and is a faculty member of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network. Elizabeth T. Gershoff is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences and the associate director of the Population Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for infrastructure support (Grants R01HD095946, P50HD089922, P2CHD041025, and P2CHD042849). The authors also acknowledge data sources made available by the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect, specifically the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS), the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), and the National Surveys of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


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