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Thursday, August 1, 2013

The use and misuse of research in child welfare

I recently came across the notes for a speech by Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet on this topic. The link is below for this fascinating work which challenges to a great deal of research in the field of child welfare that has become accepted as de facto truth.

Prof. Elizabeth Bartholet
Harvard Law School

One very strong point that she offers is that "overall the research in this field is skewed in an adult-rughts direction..." It is this that is the foundation for much of the belief that family preservation is the foremost principal in most legislation in North America. 

Prof. Bartholet also raises questions about the ways in which research, funded by private agencies with agendas, are prone to have research developed that will support that agenda. For example, she walks the reader through material that shows the growing prohibition on international adoption is premised upon flawed research. Yet, it has become the basis for a common voice among the agencies that are involved in international child welfare opposing international adoption. 

Her comments also caused me to reflect upon the family preservation agenda as being very skewed towards the rights of parents. It results in strong efforts to keep children in family homes. As Prof. Bartholet suggests, this means that the focus becomes more about keeping the child within the family home - it is the measured goal. As she states, the goal is to avoid removal or apprehension by CPS as opposed to asking what is the risk for further abuse or maltreatment if the child is left in the home. 

In my experience, many social workers are worried about further abuse but they work with family preservation as a priority, along with increasing budgetary pressures that limit alternative placement options. At the same time, foster care is not a good permanent solution for children. Yet, she reviews good quality research by Putnam-Hornstein & Needell that 82% of children in California referred for maltreatment before their first birthday were kept at home. Of those kept at home, more than half were referred again before the age of five. Out of those kept at home following substantiation of the charges and receiving services, 65% were re-referred by the age of five. Thus, a family preservation agenda may be good, although it may be that we are not providing the kinds of services that really do work.

In research, it truly matters what you decide to measure. If the measure is reduced removals from families, then other forms of questions may be ignored or minimized - such as what are the rates of further abuse or maltreatment if the child is left in the home. If we research to support a political agenda that is adult focused, we may well not be serving the needs of the children for whom child protection exists.


Bartholet, E. Creating a child-friendly child welfare system: The use and misuse of research. Unpublished manuscript. Boston, MA: Harvard Law School. 

Putnam-Hornstein, E. & Needell, B. (2011). Predictors of child protective service contact between birth and age five: An examination of California's birth cohort. Children and Youth Services Review, 33 (11), 2400-2407. 

1 comment:

  1. This is absolutely true from my family's experience. My 5-yr old granddaughter has been taken away from her mother 3 times in 5 years by DCF for violence, drugs, and neglect. My son is pursuing custody due to the traumatic life events that the mother's family had made us aware of. My granddaughter has a loving home and family waiting for her, but DCF refuses to grant her happiness by making her stay in a house of filth, sex abuse, heavy drug use, neglect,violence, starvation, abandonment, and threats made by the mother to my granddaughter. It is an OUTRAGE! My granddaughter begs us not to take her back to her mother's when her visitation is up and it is breaking our hearts and we are always filled with worry about her LIFE!! What is happening to our common sense and giving a voice to our children? DCF workers are not of a quality level of standardization. They even alter their reports to suit their goals.. In our case there is definite prejudice against the father, who offers the utmost love, support, and care. My granddaughter tells everyone she wants to be "home" with Daddy and not go with her mother.. We are living a tragedy.. she is already showing signs of emotional problems.