Reliability of Foster Care Placement Decision Making
Over the course of the years, researchers have searched for answers to the
question of what guides decision making in the field of child welfare. A
1995 study of child protective services caseworker decision making conducted
in Texas found that "no clear pattern regarding the decision to provide
services or to remove the child from the home emerged." Admission or
denial on the part of the alleged perpetrator, the capacity of the caregiver
as represented by the absence of parenting skills, unrealistic expectations
of the child, as well as the refusal to accept parental responsibility were
among some of the placement factors the researchers identified (Texas Department
of Protective and Regulatory Services, 1995).
An early study by Bernice Boehm examined the criteria used by caseworkers
in making the decision to place a child out of the home or to provide at-home
services. It was found that workers had a "tendency to use a model
family as a frame of reference, and to evaluate problem behaviour by the
extent of deviation from ideal parenting." It was ultimately concluded
that "the decision for placement is based largely on an evaluation
of maternal care" (Boehm, 1962; Stein, Gambrill, & Wiltse, 1978,
Phillips et al. (1971) examined intake decisions for 309 children in three
state agencies located in two eastern cities. No single item or combination
of factors pointed strongly to a placement decision. In contrast to the findings of Boehm (1962), they noted that in two-parent families "the
traits of the father were the single most important cluster of variables"
in placement decisions, and that neither the "mother's functioning
nor her relationship to the child were important considerations in reaching
Edmund Mech (1970) reported a study that sought to delineate factors involving
whether a child should be maintained in custody or returned to the parent.
Differential factors related to either decision could not be identified.
Mech concluded that no framework for decision making existed, and the development
of one was vital.
Other studies have identified decisions as based on a very stereotypical
basis, largely unrelated to individual case need, and a lack of flexibility
in intake policies and decision-making processes (McGowan, 1983). Studies
have found that a high percentage of the information gathered by caseworkers
during the intake interview was not related to the objective of reaching
a placement decision (Stein & Rzepnicki, 1983); that there was a "lack
of uniformity in the data gathered" by the caseworkers in one study,
with either much data that appeared superfluous, or omissions in the data
which appeared to be vital to decision making (Golan, 1969); and that predictions
about a child's probable future varied substantially from one caseworker
to another (Briar, 1963).
Decision-making deficits are to be found at all levels. Deborah Shapiro (1972)
reported that caseworkers with more experience were more likely than those
with lesser experience to discharge children from foster placement during
the first year in care. Trudy Festinger (1996) sought to identify those factors
which would serve to predict reentry into foster care. While the results
were inconclusive, six variables relating to the decision were identified:
parenting skills, social support, unmet service needs, caregiver problems,
organizational participation, and caseworker experience. The results showed
the two factors which were the strongest predictors of reentry were "limited
parenting skills, such as assessed problems in communicating with their
children, understanding child development, and handling discipline"
and "a limited level of support from family, friends and neighbors."
In results similar to those of Shapiro, Festinger identified the length of
experience in the field of child welfare as having some bearing on the decision.
These findings are particularly distressing in view of the historically high
level of turnover in the field of child welfare.
In 1994, Duncan Lindsey applied a hypothetical model which viewed decision
making as a stochastic (random) model. In applying a reliability factor
of .25 to the model-a reliability factor higher than that found in the studies
he had examined-Lindsey concluded that "the low reliability leads to
a system that is unable to discern which child should be removed and which
child should be left at home." The most salient feature of this model,
argues Lindsey, is that it does not require assumptions of bias or prejudice
on the part of the child welfare caseworker to account for the removal of
a great many children not in need of placement or the returning home of
a large number of children in true need of placement. Caseworkers in doubt
about a child's situation make the safe decision to remove a child. Too
often, the caseworker is in doubt, thus the caseworker too often places
the child in foster care. Notes Lindsey (1994, p. 138):
It is hard to imagine how the results of the stochastic model could be more
distressful, in terms of what it suggests for the outcome of children considered
for removal. If the level of reliability were to slip much further than
.25, all children, except in the most extreme cases, would have an equal
likelihood of being placed in foster homes, meaning that the decision-making
process would be roughly equivalent to a lottery!
A recent study in Washington state sponsored by the National Center on Child
Abuse and Neglect is particularly illuminating. A sample of 200 randomly
selected child protective services referrals were identified and the workers
who investigated those cases were interviewed about their decision-making
processes. Major themes influencing child protective services caseworker
decisions included issues associated with resources, individual and organizational
factors, role ambiguity, and the willingness and ability of caretakers to
recognize and participate in services. Significantly, findings of abuse in
these cases were not necessarily related to whether or not maltreatment
had actually occurred (English et al., 1998).
But if the vague statutes, increases in reporting, defensive social work,
cultural incompetence, and poor decision making in the field aren't enough
to ensure that a large number of children will be unnecessarily removed
from their homes, one other factor is certain to do it. The Children's Defense
Fund undertook a comprehensive review of the child welfare system. Project
coordinator Jane Knitzer explained the studies findings to a Congressional
committee, identifying as a major finding that "there is an antifamily
bias that pervades the policies and practices of the child welfare system.
The system works against families, not for them." The children in care
are subject to continuing neglect at the hands of public officials, she explained,
adding that the federal role exacerbates both the antifamily bias and the
public neglect of children. This antifamily bias is "reflected at all
points in the placement process," she said, and as a result: "Children
are inappropriately removed from their families" (Committee on Ways
and Means, 1979).
In some instances, children enter foster care on the basis of a "voluntary
placement agreement." Pelton (1989, 1997) points out that such "voluntary"
placement agreements are often obtained through coercive influence. A recent
study conducted by Legal Services of New Jersey (Goldhill, 1994) details
the extent of this problem. New Jersey is unique in that, unlike any other
state, the vast majority-between 75% to 80%-of its placements are obtained
through the use of such agreements. In fact, 17 states have less than 1%
of their foster children placed through the use of voluntary placement agreements.
In one respect, however, New Jersey does mirror others. It consistently
fails to provide services to aid families:
Despite federal and state laws and policies requiring the state to provide
services to preserve families, in many cases the state fails to provide
families the services they need in order to remain together. While cash
or rental assistance might avert the need of costly foster care placement,
generally the state claims it has no money in its budget for such payments.
Families in need of intensive Family Preservation Services may be placed
on a long waiting list and separated before help arrives. Families needing
substance abuse treatment are usually referred to agencies with extensive
waiting lists that cannot provide timely assistance. Overburdened case workers
cannot give families the support and help they need to get into treatment
programs. In too many situations, only foster care is offered as a solution.
Unaware of any other options, parents often feel they have no choice but
to sign a placement agreement.
According to the study, parents often report signing placement agreements
under the threat that court action against them will be taken if they do
not sign. In some instances, parents have been told that failure to sign
means they will never see their children again. Many parents who have signed
such agreements had language or other barriers making it difficult or impossible
for them to read and understand the agreement they were signing. One of
the more insidious aspects of these agreements is that parents, often unknowingly,
waive their right to representation by counsel by signing. "Until such
time as New Jersey adopts a system that utilizes placement agreements on
a short-term basis in only truly voluntary situations, the State must address
the need for representation in these cases," the report concludes.
Vague laws and ever-expanding mandates allow child protective services caseworkers
unlimited discretion as to whether to remove a child into state care (Besharov,
1985; Giovannoni & Becerra, 1980; Goldstein et al., 1996; Hutchinson,
1990), whether through forcible removal or a coerced voluntary placement
agreement. Nor are there clear legal standards to protect a family once
it has entered the system, as existing legislation grants judges and caseworkers
virtually unrestricted dispositional authority. As a result, "decision
making is left to the ad hoc analysis of social workers and judges" (Wald, 1976). Hence, hundreds of thousands of children are irreparably damaged
by inappropriate removal from their homes and families, even as those relatively
few children for whom placement would be an appropriate option are left
behind. Once in the system, the wrong children have their rights to their
parents terminated, even as other children are reunified with dangerous parents.
As Pelton (1989, p. 67) explains:
It is my belief that not only are there many children in foster care who
should not have been placed there, but that there are other children who
are being wrongfully left in their natural homes. In short, children are
being removed from their homes in the wrong cases and being left at home
in the wrong cases. Furthermore, it is my belief that if only those children
were placed in foster care who actually need it, we would have very few
children in foster care.