A substantial body of literature points to the relationship between state-level variables and outcomes for youth in foster care. However, little research supports the salient features of state policy texts to how children and youth are treated at various stages along the child welfare pipeline. This work details the collection of the first-ever comprehensive dataset of child welfare statutes and regulations across all 50 US states, DC, and Puerto Rico. Our ultimate goal is to address the following research question: To what extent do state policies, rules, and regulations predict child welfare outcomes for children and youth in out-of-home care? The present research reflects questions about and reflections on the process of
We consulted the Child Welfare Information Gateway’s (CWIG's) State Statutes Search database as a guide to assist us in identifying relevant state statutes, rules, and regulations. We selected all topics listed under ‘child abuse and neglect’ and ‘child welfare,' excluding adoption-related topics from our search results. This search was performed separately for each of the 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. Statute citations were pulled from the generated CWIG reports and entered into a Google spreadsheet. We then used Casetext.com to access and download PDF copies of statutes and regulations. This process also involved evaluating the potential relevance of sections surrounding those cited within CWIG’s database. We gathered 23,298 policy documents total. Following our own established methodological approach, our analysis consists of three phases. In the first, already completed, we performed a quantitative text analysis, analogous to the first round of qualitative coding, to identify general topics in the text and seed a qualitative codebook. We are currently performing the second phase, a qualitative analysis of a single state (NY), to solidify emergent and salient properties of the policy text. In the final phase, we will analyze the relationship between features of state policy and youth outcomes.
Results: Our quantitative text analysis identified several salient features of state policy that we used to seed our codebook for qualitative analysis and point to questions for future research. For example, a number of state-specific themes suggest that corporate interests may have permeated legal decision-making, such as a theme tied almost entirely to Oregon (where Nike is headquartered) relating to regulations of outdoor activities. We also identified emergent themes relating to guardianship appointment, reviewing of complaints and child fatalities, and cultural competency.
Conclusions and Implications: Our findings present a new, distinct understanding of the contents of child welfare policy texts, suggesting new avenues in which policy may play a salient role in influencing youth outcomes. Methodologically, our work reaffirms the importance of leveraging both quantitative methods, which helped us sort through and organize large datasets, with qualitative methods, which are irreplicable in capturing the rich and varied meanings of text data.