Child Welfare Reinvolvement and Re-Entry Following Reunification: Implications for Practice and for National Performance Standards
Richard P. Barth, PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Shenyang Guo, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Elizabeth Caplick, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Placement into out-of-home care (OOHC) is a temporary means for boosting the expected level of safety for maltreated children, but policy calls for reunification whenever feasible and safe. Federal performance standards address the re-abuse rates of children who have remained at home and the re-entry rates of children who have entered out-of-home care but none offers an overall measure of the safety of children who are reunified by combining indicators of reabuse of these children with reentry. Yet, children served at home by CWS may be placed into OOHC without a new abuse report—thus reports of reabuse are underestimated. Also, reunified children are not infrequently reabused but this is not included in federal standards. Current national performance standards intended to guarantee safety may under-report the abuse of children who are at home or have been reunified. Reinvolvement in child welfare services is defined, here, as “any new abuse report (or placement into out-of-home care in lieu of a child abuse report) or any re-entry into OOHC.” The observation period is 36-months. The study draws on data from 5501 children who experienced a child welfare investigation in one of 36 states and are included in the NSCAW sample. Overall, a minimum of one-third of NSCAW children become “reinvolved” with CWS subsequent to the initial investigation. The proportion of reinvolved children was similar (33%) for children who were served at-home following intake and those who were reunified (36%). Upon reinvolvement, the proportion of the reunified group that was subsequently replaced into foster care (59%) was higher than that of the in-home group (38%). Some age groups had distinctive patterns: 6-10 year olds had very high reinvolvement (55%) after reunification but low entry into OOHC (31%) among those reinvolved whereas children who were 11 and older at the time they entered CWS had high low post reunification reinvolvement (21%) but high reentry (79%) among those reinvolved. A sample of 710 children that were reunified with a parent or relative after an OOH placement to understand the characteristics under which their reinvolvement resulted in reentry: 22% subsequently reentered OOHC. Reentry of young children (0-6) was best predicted by maltreatment type as physical abuse had the lowest hazard ratio, followed by sexually abused and neglected children (p < .01). More time in OOHC was marginally associated with lower reentry rates (p < .07) Among children 11 and older at the time of placement, prior CWS involvement was strongly associated with reentry and having the children with any problematic score on developmental, educational, or mental health measures (p < .10) was marginally associated with reentry. Time in OOHC prior to reunification was, again, only marginally associated with reentry (p < .11). Efforts to improve safety should account for all forms of CWS reinvolvement. Databases may have to be redesigned as will practices that allow placement of children into OOHC from open cases, without child abuse reports. Reinvolvement correlates depend on the age of the child and, for older children, the level of problem behavior.