Academic journal article Child Welfare

Inside the Black Box: An Exploration of Service Delivery in a Family Reunification Program

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Inside the Black Box: An Exploration of Service Delivery in a Family Reunification Program

Article excerpt

Of the vast array of research problems in the evaluation of human services programs, one of the most challenging is describing the complexity of interactions that constitute service delivery. Without an appreciation of how services are provided and thus of how a program is implemented, all information about the outcomes of an intervention becomes ephemeral, tied to a particular program or service setting, and not amenable to generalization [Doueck et al. 1992]. The complexity of service delivery, often unacknowledged in research studies, should be the essence of child welfare research. This article, using as a case example a study of a family reunification program, advocates an approach to evaluation that focuses on describing what occurs in one kind of service delivery, hoping to encourage discussion of the importance of studying the process of programs as well as their outcomes The report provides information about the use of time in reunification programs, demonstrates how information about service delivery can have an impact on program evolution, and discusses the implications of this emphasis on process for practice, program planning, and research.


Family reunification services that have certain features in common with Intensive Family Preservation Services (IFPS) are being used increasingly to consolidate agencies' efforts to reunify families successfully [Tracy et al. 1991; Fein and Staff 1991a; Cole and Duva 1990]. The structure of IFPS and family reunification programs is similar. Both are intensive home-based services, time-limited in application, using paraprofessionals for at least part of the service delivery. The two types of programs differ functionally, however. IFPS depends chiefly on crisis intervention knowledge and skills to produce relatively quick change from the heightened emotional tensions of families in crisis, threatened with imminent breakup and the placement of their children; it is a placement-prevention activity. Family reunification services depend chiefly on placement knowledge and skills to reunify families after the children have been in placement.

Although this distinction may suggest differences in motivation of the families [Fein and Staff 1991a; Hess and Folaron 1991], the service similarities make the evaluations conducted on family preservation programs [Wells and Biegel 1991] relevant to those conducted on family reunification. Most of the family preservation studies focus on the outcome of the intervention and claim high rates of preventing placements [Wells and Biegel 1991; Nelson and Landsman 1992]. The smaller number of studies of reunification services [Fein and Staff 1993; Lerner 1990; Fraser 1991] show lower "success" rates. None of the studies, however, explore the process of service delivery [Frankel 1998].

Few (studies) provide much detail on what the program looks like when actually delivered. Which services are delivered and at what dosage level are issues which are not illuminated by rich descriptions ... Without such rich descriptions family preservation programs have to be regarded as "black boxes." [Rossi 1991: 28]

Recent reexamination of the validity of the outcome measures, appropriateness of control groups, and other methodological issues has raised questions concerning outcome studies and the power of their findings [Rossi 1992; Levitan 1992]. This article does not join in the specifics of that debate; rather, it will suggest that, given the early stage of most of the programs and their evaluations, the primary focus for these studies should be the process of the service delivery, or what is "inside the black box."

A first but often ignored priority is some focus on the content and manner of the service being delivered. In research that is intended to have an impact on policy and practice, there is little point in knowing about the effects of an intervention on clients unless we know how that intervention may be repeated, modified, or avoided . …

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