The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Losing Jobs, Welfare, and What Order? Patterns of Economic Connection and Disconnection Among Child Welfare-Involved Families

Friday, January 18, 2013
Grande Ballroom A, B, and C (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer L. Hook, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Southern California, Seattle, WA
Ji Young Kang, MSW, Student, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
JoAnn S. Lee, MSW/MPA, Doctoral Student, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Maureen O. Marcenko, PhD, Professor, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Jennifer L. Romich, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Poverty is an enduring correlate of child welfare system involvement.  Economically poor parents and their children are more likely become involved with child welfare systems, and when poor children are removed from their parents, the families reunify more slowly. Recently, attention has focused on the particularly vulnerable subgroup of economically disconnected (ED) families, those who neither work nor receive public cash assistance.  One estimate holds that 20% of families with recently opened child welfare cases are economically disconnected.  These families present unique challenges to state systems.  Relative to other recent entrants, ED caregivers report higher levels of unmet needs and lower levels of investment in working with child welfare services than other low-income families, jeopardizing their ability to safely reunify with their children.

Prior work does not reveal the sequence in which families came to be jobless, without benefits, and under child welfare supervision.  Multiple pathways are possible.  The loss of a job or of TANF benefits may lead to material neglect, instigating a child protection report.  On the other hand, the meetings and service requirements of a new child welfare case may disrupt parents’ ability to hold a job or satisfy work requirements in the welfare system.  Additionally, parents often lose Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) eligibility if children are removed from their care. 

Purpose: The purpose of the current study is to assess the dynamics of family economic resources relative to spells of child welfare involvement.

Data and methods:  Drawing on a data set linking 14 years (1998-2012) of administrative data collected by three state agencies -- child welfare, economic services, and employment -- we constructed income histories of 34,594 families prior to and following entry into the child welfare system. We use a number of techniques to mitigate limitations inherent in administrative analysis such as gaps in UI coverage and false negatives in the matching process. Trajectories are identified using group-based trajectory modeling followed by multinomial logistic regression predicting group membership to understand the demographic correlates and changing prevalence of groups.

Results:  For families from whom a child is placed out of home, consistent employment is the modal pattern.  Other common trajectories include intermittent employment, intermittent benefit connection, and mixed patterns of employment and unemployment.  Most families who experience economic disconnection do so only temporarily.  Economic disconnection is relatively common within quarters directly before, during and after an out-of-home placement.  Among the families who are ED in the quarter of a child’s out-of-home placement, most were connected at some point over the previous six quarters and most went on to be connected within six quarters post-placement.            

Implications: Child welfare involved caregivers who have secured employment or cash assistance prior to child welfare may find it hard to maintain income in the face of casework demands.  Child welfare involvement may have the unintended (and unproductive) effect of causing parents to lose employment.  Policies such as greater collaboration between welfare and child welfare will be discussed.