Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

15979 The Organizational Context of Child Welfare Casework Practice and Child Outcomes

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 10:00 AM
Constitution C (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Andrew E. Zinn, PhD, Senior Researcher, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Cheryl Smithgall, PhD, Research Fellow, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose: Child welfare caseworkers face complex, and often, contradictory roles and expectations imposed by overlapping professional, organizational, and institutional contexts. In addition to case-level exigencies, workers are tasked with complying with federal and state policies and court mandates, and are subject to different sets opportunities and constraints within their own service agencies. This perspective suggests that there are multiple intervention points for efforts to improve casework practice and child and family outcomes. Existing research has not yet fully exploited multi-level models as a means of understanding how variability in outcomes can be attributed to different levels within the child welfare system and what factors at each level explain such variance. The current study uses a combination of caseworker survey and administrative data to examine variability in outcomes that can be attributed to different levels of the child welfare system and factors associated with that variability. Methods: The study sample includes child welfare caseworkers (N = 735), and their supervisors (N = 209), from 56 private agencies in Illinois who completed a web-based survey between August and October, 2010 (91% response rate). Respondents were queried about their experiences as child welfare workers, their opinions about the importance of various practice activities, and the nature and quality of their supervisory and organizational environments. These survey data were linked to administrative records from the IL Department of Child and Family Services describing the characteristics and substitute care placement histories of children (N = 9,412) assigned to the caseloads of surveyed workers. Mixed-effect regression models were used to examine the respective relationships between caseworker characteristics, organizational attributes, and children's placement discharge outcomes. Results: The primary source of variation in the rate of discharge is found to differ considerably across discharge types. In the case of reunification and adoption, only half of the variation is explained at the child level, with the balance of the remaining variance explained at the level of the caseworker. In contrast, almost all of the variance in the rate of placement disruption is explained at the child level. Moreover, although several worker-level characteristics - including workers' opinions about the involvement of fathers and informal supports - are found to be significant predictors of reunification, very few are found to be predictive of adoption. Finally, there is some evidence that the relationship between worker characteristics and the rate of reunification vary across child characteristics. Implications: The finding that the source of variation in outcomes differs considerably across outcome types has important implications for the targeting of reform efforts. For example, in the case reunification and adoption, the findings suggest that gains could be made by addressing worker-level attitudes and practices. Conversely, variability in the rate of placement disruption appears to be mostly a function of phenomena occurring at the child- or placement-level. Together, these findings underscore the fact that child welfare outcomes are a manifestation of an interplay between and characteristics and needs of children, and the contexts in which they are served.
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