Completing the Evaluation Triangle for the Next Century: Measuring Child "Well-Being" in Family Foster Care

Article excerpt

In recent years, success in family foster care has been evaluated by examining indicators of two goals of the child welfare system: permanency and safety. Systematic measures of child well-being have not been incorporated into the administrative databases that are used for case monitoring and evaluation. This article describes how child well-being has been conceptualized and measured in research on family foster care, and discusses the essential dimensions that should be included in a useful measure of child well-being. Challenges in incorporating measures of child wellbeing into ongoing evaluations of family foster care are discussed.

We found no means being used or proposed for assessing, at specific intervals, the extent of change in and adequacy of a child's situation.. . The evaluations by local child welfare officials were primarily concerned with areas such as maintenance of case files, service planning, and service delivery... We believe that the effectiveness of any assistance program must be expressed in terms relative to the well-being of the program's target population. [USDHEW 1976: 64, quoted in Magura & Moses 1986: 2]

More than 20 years ago, the U. S. General Accounting Office concluded that the existing mechanisms for evaluating effectiveness did not allow systematic examination of the well-being of children in the care and custody of the child welfare system. In 1980, Magura and Moses [1980] challenged the field to move beyond measures of case events to develop systematic measures of child well-being that could be used to assess changes in children's situations and functioning during their involvement with the child welfare system. The U.S. Children's Bureau has consistently stated that the three primary goals of child welfare services are the achievement of safety and protection, timely permanence, and child well-being [Williams 1998]. Logically, evaluations of success in child welfare would triangulate measures of these three goals to determine effectiveness of service. Despite these exhortations, success in family foster care has been evaluated in recent years by examining indicators of only two goals of the child welfare system: permanency and safety. As the 21st century approaches, little progress has been made in incorporating systematic measures of child well-being into ongoing evaluations of family foster care.

This article offers direction for incorporating measures of child well-being into evaluations of success for family foster care. It discusses the need for these measures and the reasons that they have not been incorporated into administrative databases, describes the ways that child well-being has been conceptualized and measured in research that has focused on children living in family foster care, and discusses the essential dimensions that should be included in a useful measure of child well-being. It concludes with a discussion of the challenges in incorporating measures of child well-being into ongoing evaluations of family foster care to guide policy and practice into the next century.

Background

Not surprisingly, efforts to incorporate systematic measures of child well-being into evaluations of family foster care have not been sustained. Growth and changes in family foster care caseloads have placed considerable demands on the child welfare system, diverting energies and resources to meet these demands. This caseload growth has occurred in an era of political conservatism, increased scrutiny of the child welfare system, and class action lawsuits designed to reform the system. The advent of increased accountability, expedited permanency, managed care, and outcome-based contracting has redefined the policy environment for the child welfare system and pushed it to produce selfevaluations that address these critical issues, but do not necessarily focus on the well-being of children in family foster care.

For example, measures of child well-being are not part of most child welfare administrative databases and are not usually included in regular evaluations of child welfare system performance and family foster care. …