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

16607 Causal Effects of Foster Care: An Instrumental-Variables Approach

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 5:00 PM
Independence E (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Joseph J. Doyle, PhD, Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Associate Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
Background and Purpose: The child welfare system investigates over 2 million children each year for parental abuse or neglect, yet little is known about the effects of removing children from home and placing them in foster care. Long-term outcomes are rarely observed, and children placed in foster care likely differ from those not placed, making comparisons difficult.

Methods: This paper describes the use of instrumental variables to estimate causal effects of foster care. This estimation strategy provides a tool to evaluate what are known as “natural experiments”: settings that mimic randomization usually associated with a controlled trial. The proposed natural experiment involves the effective randomization of investigators to child-protection cases. The estimation employs linked administrative data in Cook County Illinois for children investigated by child protection investigators from 1990 to 2000. The outcomes include juvenile delinquency and emergency healthcare utilization as a rough proxy for child safety.

Results: The results suggest that placing children in foster care increases their likelihood of becoming delinquent during adolescence and requiring emergency healthcare in the short term. Along this one dimension of child safety, it does not appear that foster care is serving a protective role.

Conclusions and Implications: Care must be taken when interpreting IV estimates. The results apply to cases that are part of the natural experiment—“marginal cases” where the investigators may disagree about the placement recommendation. Future research from other geographic locations would be particularly useful to begin to establish the types of child welfare interventions that lead to the best child outcomes.