Session: A Rare Event?: Randomized Controlled Trials in Child Welfare (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

2 A Rare Event?: Randomized Controlled Trials in Child Welfare

Thursday, January 14, 2016: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Meeting Room Level-Meeting Room 15 (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
Cluster: Child Welfare
Symposium Organizer:
Erin Maher, PhD, Casey Family Programs
Child welfare touches many other human service systems when it addresses the struggles families face in providing safe and adequate care for their children. However, evidence-based interventions uniquely tailored to the diverse and complex needs of these families are relatively rare. Further, many researchers have noted that uptake of evidence-based practices in child welfare is slow. Evaluations in this field are generally underfunded relative to other fields and, ultimately, few programs are well-supported by research evidence. These conditions mean that scarce public resources are often being spent on programs which are not accountable to outcomes, and that among the approximately 3.5 million families who touch the child welfare system each year, many are receiving services not shown to be effective.

While limited resources for applied research is one issue, other barriers exist. Workers often perceive evidence-based programs to be overly prescriptive and not suitable for diverse client groups in real world settings. Further, child welfare leadership and front-line workers express entrenched ethical concerns when the stakes for children and families, who are typically among our nation’s most vulnerable, are so high. On the other hand, when they have the opportunity, resources, and willingness, however, service providers and child welfare agency leaders are often eager to find the resources to implement programs with the promise of being more effective, and even with minimal evidence, are reluctant to deny these potential benefits to families, making it challenging to develop a sufficiently robust base of evidence.

This panel addresses these challenges and how they were overcome by highlighting three examples of large-scale evaluations that recently and successfully conducted randomized controlled trials with different child welfare populations. The panel presents the study designs and results of the three studies, which include: (a) a federally-funded evaluation of Family Group Decision Making in two states, (b) a statewide evaluation of a promising parenting education program, the Nurturing Parenting Program, funded by a federal demonstration project for child finance reform, and (c) an evaluation of Youth Villages Transitional Living services in one state funded by private foundations. All three evaluations use random assignment in order to assess program impact on child welfare outcomes.

In addition to the value the study findings may have for the spread and use of effective practices, this panel highlights the feasibility of randomized controlled trials and solutions to the obstacles faced when implementing this study design.

* noted as presenting author
An Evaluation of Family Group Decision Making in Child Welfare
Erin Maher, PhD, Casey Family Programs; John D. Fluke, PhD, University of Colorado School of Medicine; Tyler Corwin, MA, Casey Family Programs; Lisa Merkel-Holguin, MSW, University of Colorado; Dana M. Hollinshead, PhD, University of Colorado
Findings from the Experimental Evaluation of the Youth Villages Transitional Living Program
Mark E. Courtney, PhD, University of Chicago; Erin Valentine, PhD, MDRC; Melanie Skemer, MA, MDRC; Sarah Hurley, PhD, Youth Villages
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