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

17362 Factors Predicting Reunification of Children In Out-of-Home Care with Their Child Welfare-Involved Families

Thursday, January 12, 2012: 4:30 PM
Cabin John (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Mark E. Courtney, PhD, Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Maureen Newby, PhD, Research Scientist, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Joseph A. Mienko, MSW, Doctoral Student and Research Assistant, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Background and Purpose: In the child welfare system, how long a child is in substitute care before reunifying is a prime concern and a barometer of performance (Maluccio, 1994; Wulczyn, 2004). While our knowledge of child and parent factors associated with reunification has grown in the last several decades (Wells & Guo, 2006; Wulczyn, 2004), it remains limited (Kemp et al, 2009). The purpose of this presentation is to inform child welfare policy and practice by exploring the child, parent and system predictors of reunification for children in out-of- home care using data from a statewide survey of child welfare involved parents linked to child welfare administrative data.

Methods: In-person interviews were conducted with a statewide sample of parents, 18 years and older, with a child welfare case opened for in-home (43%) or out-of-home services (57%) in the past 30 to 180 days (n = 809; response rate = 82%). A structured questionnaire was used to collect demographic characteristics, measures of parent mental health, behavioral risk factors, financial hardship and need for and receipt of services. Survey data from parents with children in out-of-home care were linked to the state's administrative data to look at the children's (n=696) permanency outcomes from October 29, 2007 to August 31, 2010. Cox Proportional Hazards models assessed the relationships between covariates and family reunification.

Results: Overall, parents reported significant material deprivation (e.g., nearly half of parents had annual household incomes under $10,000; 45% reported recent housing instability; 60% reported food insecurity). Chronic risk factors for child maltreatment were common: Over half experienced sexual abuse as a minor; 1/3 reported domestic violence; almost half met clinical criteria for depression; nearly 30% reported either alcohol or drug abuse/dependence. At the end of the observation period, 47% of children in out-of-home care had reunified with their parents, 6% had entered into a legal guardianship, and 9% had a finalized adoption. Parents with children in out-of-home care experienced the most extreme material deprivation. Multivariate models examining predictors of reunification indicated that socioeconomic factors--housing problems and low levels of education--were associated with a decreased likelihood of reunification. Parental engagement was positively associated with reunification. Adolescents (12 or older) had a decreased likelihood of reunification compared with other age groups.

Policy and Practice Implications: The preponderance of child welfare involved families struggling to meet their most basic needs has implications for policy and practice improvement efforts especially considering the impact of these factors on rates of reunification of children with their families. Housing was found to be a particularly strong predictor which is consistent with other child welfare research and points to the critical need for housing resources for child welfare involved families. Parent engagement as a significant predictor of reunification also has implications for child welfare practice and policy and strategies aimed at engaging parents in child welfare services should be developed and tested as a mechanism for promoting reunification.

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