Since the 1970s, child welfare policies and programs have focused on providing children and youths in foster care with permanency (Pike, 1976). For the purposes of this article, we are interested in permanency associated with a stable exit from foster care, as well as placement stability while in care. Child welfare research has typically centered on increasing permanent exits from foster care, for example, successful reunification, adoption, or guardianship (Berrick, Needell, Barth, & Jonson-Reid, 1998). Little work has been done to understand how stability during foster care and permanency after child welfare foster care is linked to later delinquent acts that lead to probation-supervised foster care. The present study followed children who exited child welfare foster care before emancipation to understand how placement stability and permanence following care was associated with subsequent placement in probation-supervised foster care. This was done while controlling for child demographics and foster care s ervice information (for example, placement types, number of spells, and length of stay).
An underlying assumption in child welfare agencies and most child welfare research is that the absence of a return to child welfare foster care indicates a positive outcome. Children who leave the child welfare system before emancipation may, however, again experience foster or group care under the supervision of either juvenile justice or mental health agencies. Neither mental health- nor probation-supervised foster care is a positive indicator of development.
Juvenile probation departments may use a foster or group home as a sentencing option for children and youths who have committed a crime that is serious enough to handle formally but does not warrant a more restrictive placement in a juvenile detention facility (Greenwood, 1996). Youths may be placed in such homes when there is insufficient supervision at home to ensure successful probation services with the family of origin. Program descriptions and legislative testimony indicate that the reason for placement often is related to family conditions similar to those found in families served by the child welfare system (Los Angeles County Probation Department, 2001; Close to home: Community-based mental health services for children, 1991).
An accurate description of the youths in probation foster care is impossible to provide. Although state and federal reports on juvenile probation cases exist, these reports combine probation-supervised foster care with other types of residential placements such as camps, detention facilities, or mental health facilities (Puzzanchera et al., 2000). In our study of probation foster or group care, the most common type of placement is a six-bed community group home--juvenile detention facilities and rural camp settings are not included in these data.
Little research exists on probation foster or group care despite the fact that substantial numbers of youths are in such placements. In 1995, 4, 640 children and youths were in probation-supervised foster care in California (Needell, Webster, Barth, & Armijo, 1997). Children in probation-supervised foster care were a substantial proportion (38 percent) of children in group home placements (Needell et al.). With the exception of the present investigation, we found no study that examined probation-supervised foster or group care as an outcome for children who exit the child welfare system.
Transitions from child welfare foster care to probation foster care are of concern to social workers for several reasons. Social workers serve at-risk children and youths in all the primary public services sectors (that is, child welfare, education, juvenile justice, and mental health). Understanding how to prevent negative system movements, such as the transition from child welfare foster care to juvenile probation foster care, supports our professional ethic of providing the best possible, least restrictive service. …