Why Special Populations Are Not the Target of Family Preservation Services: A Case for Program Reform

By Denby, Ramona W.; Curtis, Carla M. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Why Special Populations Are Not the Target of Family Preservation Services: A Case for Program Reform


Denby, Ramona W., Curtis, Carla M., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


The number of children who have been placed outside their homes of origin as a result of abuse, neglect, delinquency, emotional problems, or developmental disabilities, is astronomical and steadily increasing. Of this number, "special populations" like children of color continue to be disproportionately represented. Intensive family preservation, a program that attempts to reduce out-of-home placement rates, has not demonstrated empirically, a sustained record of success in the reduction of placement rates among special populations. The purpose of the current study was to understand the manner in which special populations are targeted for services by examining the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of a national sample of family preservation workers. Results indicate a significant bias against targeting family preservation services to special populations in general, and children of color in particular. Specific recommendations about the targeting of special populations are given.

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The reality that there exists extraordinary numbers of children in out-of-home care within the U.S. child welfare system is now common knowledge. Nationally, at the end of 1999, there were 550,000 children in out-of-home care (Administration for Children and Families, 2002). The situation specific to "special populations" like children of color is even more bleak, given the fact that they are disproportionately represented across the service continuum. In fact, children at most risk of remaining in substitute care for extended periods of time are children of color (Black Administrators in Child Welfare, 2001; Gustavason & Segal, 1994; W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 1995). Additionally, other special populations like "older children," "sibling groups," and the "emotionally disturbed," have experienced a rise in their out-of-home placement rates. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) reports that over 120,000 of the half-million children currently in out-of-home care cannot return home safely because of their special needs.

Although many discussions have taken place concerning the need to remedy the overrepresentation of special populations within the child welfare system, a significant, programmatic address was not hoped for until the implementation of intensive family preservation services. Intensive family preservation services are short-term, home-based, family-centered programs that provide therapeutic intervention as well as concrete services to families who are at risk of losing their children to out-of-home care. Formal family preservation services began to surface in 1974 with the introduction of the Tacoma, Washington Homebuilders Program (Kinney, Haapala, Booth, & Leavitt, 1991).

Currently, there is widespread disagreement concerning the efficacy of family preservation programs. In January of 2001, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the findings of major evaluations of family preservation that were conducted in New Jersey, Tennessee, and Kentucky. All three programs reported little program effect in reducing out-of-home placement rates and improving overall family conditions. However, concurrent with the release of the government's evaluation of family preservation services, Kirk (2000) released his final report of a retrospective evaluation of North Carolina's family preservation services. Contrary to the government's evaluation, Kirk found that not only were services effective, but previous studies have not provided evidence that there is a lack of treatment effect in family preservation services. Kirk concluded that previous studies have been unable to detect treatment effect because of the lack of practice wisdom employed in the design of evaluations. Despite the debates, fiscal year 2000 funding for family preservation services was $295 million (ACF, 2002). For fiscal year 2002, the Promoting Safe and Stable Families amendment (sub-part of the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act which guides family preservation service funding) will be funded at $375 million (NASW, 2002). …

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