Academic journal article Child Welfare

The Family Unification Program: A Randomized-Controlled Trial of Housing Stability

Academic journal article Child Welfare

The Family Unification Program: A Randomized-Controlled Trial of Housing Stability

Article excerpt

Inadequate housing and homelessness present pervasive challenges to the child welfare system. Nationally representative prevalence estimates indicate that one in six families who receive in-home child welfare services experience homelessness (Fowler et al., 2013). In addition, housing problems contribute to delays in reunification for 30-50% of youth placed in out-of-home care (Courtney, McMurtry, & Zinn, 2004; Fowler et al., 2013). The limited housing resources provided through child welfare services generally fail to stabilize families (Fowler, Taylor, & Rufa, 2011). A child welfare system intended to promote child well-being must move beyond keeping families together and address housing conditions that threaten child development (Samuels, 2012).

Housing problems threaten the safety, permanency, and-in particular-well-being of children and adolescents. A national study of child welfare-involved families shows that housing mobility in the year prior to a child protective services investigation puts youth on poorer developmental trajectories such that mobile youth are more likely to exhibit long-term behavior problems and impairments in basic cognitive abilities that underlie learning and school success (Fowler et al., 2014; Fowler et al., 2015). Likewise, overcrowded and decrepit housing worsens mental health and academic achievement among low-income children (Coley et al., 2013; Coley et al., 2014), and growing up in impoverished neighborhoods undermines biological processes that help regulate stress across the lifespan (Shonkoff & Garner, 2012). Furthermore, low-income caregivers who secure stable accommodations experience reduced stress and financial strain, factors that serve to promote child mental health (Gershoff, Aber, Raver, & Lennon, 2007; Kull & Coley, 2012).

In the absence of comprehensive housing resources through the child welfare system, families struggle to access community resources that adequately meet their needs. Because of limited affordable housing in most communities, families often wait extended periods of time for connection to subsidized housing, and high-risk families frequently drop out of multi-stage processes necessary for vouchers. Homeless services frequently focus on immediate shelter and prioritize the most vulnerable. As a result, children in many inadequately housed families face exposure to conditions that threaten their physical and emotional well-being due to a dearth of accessible housing services. More timely connections with needed housing resources provide great potential to stabilize families and better support healthy child development.

The Family Unification Program (FUP), a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) initiative, represents a systematic effort to provide permanent housing for families in contact with child welfare (Harburger & White, 2004). Child welfare-involved families access Housing Choice Vouchers through formal partnerships between local public housing authorities and child welfare agencies. Vouchers help to reduce the costs of housing for families and allow them to rent housing that is appropriate for their family size and often of higher quality than they would be able to rent without the subsidy. FUP also provides greater choice of neighborhoods to encourage relocation to safer areas. The goal of FUP is to provide families with affordable housing, and with services that can reduce financial burden and improve family stability.

Initial evidence for the positive effects of subsidized housing on family and housing stability suggests great promise. Observational and experimental studies show that low-income and formerly homeless families who receive subsidized housing experience less homelessness and improved housing quality over time (Sanbonmatsu et al., 1998; Shinn et al., 1998; Wood, Turnham & Mills, 2008). Likewise, a multisite evaluation of FUP in 31 cities across the United States showed most families (85%) who received FUP reported little homelessness and remained intact one year later; the lack of a comparison group, though, limits interpretation of these findings (Rog et al. …

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