Building Research Strategies in Child Welfare: A Research and Evaluation Framework for Policy and Practice

Article excerpt

Abstract

While sound public policy development is built on rigorous research, research tends to occur in an ad hoc way, with little strategic attention being paid to identifying research information needs as they interact across a system of policy interest. The development of research strategies that address integrated information needs can help to ensure that the best possible advantage is gained from current and future research. This paper discusses the collaborative development of a research strategy that responds to the information needs of the statutory care system in New Zealand. The strategy addresses the contextual, operational, evaluative and developmental needs of the child welfare statutory care system. The paper discusses the way in which the research strategy was developed, broadly describes the menu of projects that emerged, and considers the implications of the strategy for social policy and practice development.

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, there has been a greater focus on developing research strategies that respond to the needs of children and families in New Zealand. Writers have identified the need for enhanced research activity, and have reinforced the importance of family policy that is informed by rigorous intersectoral or cross-portfolio research (Petrie and Wright 2001, Smithies and Bidrose 2000, The Royal Society of New Zealand 1998). Within the child welfare area of children in statutory care, the neglect of strategic research has been identified as an international issue (Courtney 2000, Wise 1999, Berridge 1997).

More generally, writers have called for major child welfare reform (Whittaker and Maluccio 2002). However, ideas of reform are problematic in countries where research is underdeveloped. For example, in both the United Kingdom and New Zealand, innovative child welfare legislation was introduced in 1989--The Children Act in the United Kingdom, and the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act in New Zealand. Yet despite their far-reaching implications, overall there has been little work done to more fully understand how the law has influenced the systems of statutory care in the United Kingdom (Berridge 1997), and the same can be said for New Zealand. Within these environments, there is inevitably a danger that policy can be developed without the influence of research, driven by policy and practice cultures alone (Shonkoff 2000). Berridge (1997) identifies a number of possible reasons for the neglect of research, including the unexceptional nature of foster care, lack of political imperative, and the undervaluing of foster care based on its gendered history--the care of children largely being a female activity. However, part of the difficulty may also rest in the complexity of the task of developing a research strategy that captures the broad-ranging concerns of the policy and practice area, effectively harnesses the research that has already been undertaken, and creates the opportunity to positively shape the care system of the future.

In 2002, the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services (CYF) in New Zealand commissioned the development of a research and evaluation strategy to test the effectiveness of the state as a provider of care. This paper discusses the development of the project, including the strategy's methodological approach and framework. It then explores some of the implications of the project for policy and practice development.

THE TE AWATEA PROJECT TEAM

The development of the strategy was undertaken in conjunction with CYF by a project team within the Te Awatea Research Centre at the University of Canterbury. The multifaceted nature of the task required that the team be experienced in research (both qualitative and quantitative), policy, and practice within the child welfare area, and also have knowledge and expertise that reflected an understanding of New Zealand's cultural diversity. Sometimes a gulf exists between the world of academia and the world of organisational policy development that has the potential to create unhelpful partnerships and unsatisfactory outcomes. …