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

16255 Double Jeopardy: Economic Disconnection Among Child Welfare-Involved Families

Sunday, January 15, 2012: 10:45 AM
Burnham (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Maureen O. Marcenko, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Jennifer L. Hook, PhD, Research Scientist, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Purpose: Poverty is a poorly understood yet enduring correlate of child welfare system involvement (Lindsey, 2004; Garrison, 2004-05). Evidence suggests that pre-welfare reform, AFDC was the primary source of financial support for families known to child welfare (Wells & Guo, 2006). Pursuant to welfare reform participation in TANF fell both among child welfare (Wells & Guo, 2006) and previously welfare-reliant parents (Blank, 2002; Acs & Loprest, 2004) Recent studies have exposed another phenomenon, there is persistent and growing number of welfare leavers who are economically disconnected (Acs & Loprest, 2004). Research to-date has not examined economic disconnection among child welfare involved families, representing a significant gap in the literature. We take advantage of a large statewide survey of child welfare involved parents to examine economic disconnection in this population. Additionally, we exploit the range of variables available in the survey to investigate the relationship between parent engagement, a factor theorized to contribute to family reunification and connectedness, controlling for demographic and pre-existing maltreatments risk factors. Methods: Face-to-face interviews were conducted with a statewide sample of parents with children either in out-of-home care or receiving in-home supervision from the child welfare agency (n = 809; response rate = 82%). Economically disconnected parents were defined using existing convention in welfare studies. First, the extent of disconnection and the correlation between economic connectedness and demographic characteristics, chronic risk factors, and parent engagement in child welfare services were examined. Then, we estimate a multivariate model to assess whether the correlation between economic connectedness and engagement remains in the presence of long-term control variables. Finally, we examine group differences in financial hardship and unmet service needs.

Results: One fifth of the sample met criteria for economic disconnection, 39% received benefits only and 41% were economically connected. Disconnected caregivers were younger, had children earlier and likely to have children in out-of-home placement than connected households. Disconnected parents reported more frequent aid from social networks; 50% got financial help from friends or family and fewer than 20% were living with friends or family. Compared to employed households, the economically disconnected reported greater material hardship, more unmet needs, and higher levels of drug and alcohol use. Disconnected parents reported lower engagement even after controlling for demographic and chronic risk factors. On average, employment-connected caregivers group scored .21 points higher on engagement than the disconnected group.

Implications: This analysis reveals that economically disconnected parents experience greater material and psychosocial disadvantage compared to those parents receiving public benefits and those connected through employment. Additionally, disconnected parents were more likely to have children in out-of-home care, a factor that further disadvantages them both emotionally, due to the difficulty of separation, and financially, through the potential loss of TANF. Assistance from friends and family suggests that private sources are sustaining these caregivers. That disconnect parents were less likely to be engaged speaks to the challenges inherent in working with this group of parents. Policies such as greater collaboration between welfare and child welfare will be explored.

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