For many years, legislators, policymakers, administrators, practitioners, and researchers have decried the dearth of information about case outcomes in the child welfare services system. In spite of such concern, as well as efforts to correct this problem at the state and federal level, we are still faced with a situation in which fundamental questions about the functioning of the system cannot be answered by many states, let alone at a national level.
Consideration of a few of the most basic questions illustrates our predicament. How many children are reported as abused or neglected each year across the country? This is an essential measure of arguably the most important contributor to the need for child welfare services. Yet, many states count only reports of abuse and are not able to distinguish between multiple reports on the same child. In addition, reporting categories differ so much among states that comparisons are often difficult or impossible to make. What proportion of children whose families receive in-home placement prevention services avoid placement in out-of-home care? Although there are many other appropriate measures of the success of family preservation programs, this is certainly a fundamental one. Unfortunately, some states collect information only on families who receive such services and later have a child placed in out-of-home care. In other words, in these states one can identify only cases in which family preservation failed to prevent placement. How many placements on average do children have before they return home or exit care via another route? Since some jurisdictions maintain management information systems that regularly purge previous placement information when a child moves to a new placement (e.g., Florida), it is unlikely that we will have a national measure of this important indicator of placement stability any time soon. Of children in care who are adopted, how many end up returning to the out-of-home care system at a later date? Though research indicates that this number is low [Barth and Berry 1988], it may vary considerably by child welfare jurisdiction, and may increase as greater efforts are made to place special-needs children for adoption. Sadly, many states do not even make an effort to collect such information, and others do not retain the necessary information on the child's new identity (e.g., new last name) to be able to readily identify adopted children who return to out-of-home care.
These questions are just the tip of the iceberg of our ignorance. In addition to basic questions such as those above, we have little systematically collected information about the characteristics of the families and children who make use of child welfare services, or of the services that are provided. Most management information systems (MIS) used in child welfare collect only basic demographic information (e.g., race, gender, age) about children and even less about their parents. They tell us virtually nothing about the strengths and weaknesses of our clients. Similarly, in spite of the vast sums expended on various services to children and families, most states would be hard-pressed to identify what types of services are provided to whom. When service information is included in MIS, it is often recorded in overly broad categories and as crude dichotomies (e.g., a service was provided or it was not), leaving little opportunity to analyze the types and intensities of services offered.
This is not to say that we know nothing of the outcomes of child welfare services. Research efforts at the state and local level have provided information relevant to all of the questions raised above as well as others [Barth and Berry 1987; Murray 1984; Wells and Biegel 1992]. In the present "age of accountability" and fiscal restraint, however, federal and state legislatures are asking for more comprehensive evidence that child welfare services are accomplishing their established purposes. In addition, though existing research is informative in regard to how particular systems functioned at specific points in time, it seldom meets the need of local, state, and federal administrators for information about how their systems are functioning now, and about how that functioning changes over time. …