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, p. 9).

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 a decision."

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.


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