Academic journal article Child Welfare

Safety, Family, Permanency, and Child Well-Being: What We Can Learn from Children

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Safety, Family, Permanency, and Child Well-Being: What We Can Learn from Children

Article excerpt

This study is an attempt to infuse into discussions about system accountability the notion that children can speak to issues of safety, family, permanency, and well-being in child welfare. The study utilized a cross-sectional survey design involving in-home, semistructured interviews with children ages 6 to 13 in two urban California counties. Of the 100 children who participated in face-to-face interviews, 59 were living with kin caregivers and 41 were living with nonkin. Standardized instruments and measures developed specifically for this study were employed. Findings indicate that while children assess their homes as safe, neighborhood conditions are often challenging. A significant proportion of children reveal less than optimal relationships with their caregivers, and many experience feelings of impermanence. Nevertheless, children report positive regard for the caregiving they receive and are optimistic about the future. Implications for practice and research are addressed.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997 clarified the fundamental goals of the child welfare system. According to federal law, the principal goal of child welfare now revolves around ensuring child safety at every point in the process - at intake and assessment, through the course of services, and at case termination (Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2000). The second goal, permanency, and the related components of the law designed to offer incentives toward this goal, have shifted the emphasis in many public child welfare agencies to reducing children's length of stay in care, increasing efforts toward reunification, and encouraging adoption or guardianship for those children unable to return home (Gendell, 2001). These goals fall within the context of a family-focused approach, made philosophically prominent through the policy messages embodied in the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program, authorized under ASFA.

The first two goals of ASFA may represent a shift in emphasis, but they are not markedly different from the general goals that most child welfare agencies were pursuing prior to the law (O'Flynn, 1999; Stein, 2000). A third goal of ASFA, set in the outcome measures established through the Child and Family Service Reviews, is to promote child well-being. States are now required to demonstrate that

* families have enhanced capacity to provide for their children's needs,

* children receive appropriate services to meet their educational needs, and

* children receive adequate services to meet their physical and mental health needs (DHHS, 2004).

Although child welfare workers may have, for some time, assumed that child welfare practice supported child well-being, only now has the importance of this goal been articulated in law. Support for child well-being represents a departure for the federal government and for state and county agencies that may require philosophical and programmatic changes for which agencies are unprepared.

Even as significant efforts are underway at the federal, state, and local levels to assess the performance of the child welfare system vis-à-vis the principal goals of safety, permanency, family support, and child well-being, little is being done to assess the system's performance from children's vantage points. Indeed, children can be considered the most important stakeholders in child welfare, yet due to a variety of administrative, logistic, and sometimes judicial concerns, their voices are often absent from policy and programmatic discussions (Berrick, Frasch, & Fox, 1998).

Following a modest historical legacy in child welfare research in which foster children are directly asked about their experiences in care, this study is an attempt to infuse into discussions about system accountability the important notion that children can speak to issues of safety, family, permanency, and well-being. In our review of the literature, we identified almost two dozen studies involving current or former foster youth (see Fox & Berrick, in press), only seven of which (Brown, Cohen, & Wheeler, 2002; Chapman, Wall, Barth, & the NSCAW Research Group, in press; Fanshel, Finch, & Grundy, 1990; Gardner, 1996; Johnson, Yoken, & Voss, 1990; Kufeldt, Armstrong, & Dorosh, 1995; Wilson & Conroy, 1999) were published since 1990. …

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