Child Welfare Decision Making

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Decision-Making Ecology

The Child Protection Research Center is pleased to announce the publication of a research monograph entitled The Decision-Making Ecology.

Every day in child welfare systems throughout the world, case workers, supervisors, judges and administrators make decisions that profoundly impact the lives of children and families. These decisions, made under conditions of uncertainty, form the dynamic backdrop for child protection systems impacting services entries and exits and the longer term trajectories of children who are involved. A major part of critical research in child welfare is to understand these decision-making systems and the behaviors involved.

The monograph summarizes a general conceptual framework for decision making in child welfare and provides a platform for creating research questions and interpreting research findings. Building on the general social psychological literature associated with decision making, the monograph provides a description of the framework which is illustrated by examples of how the conceptual elements are tied into research findings.

Read the monograph. (PDF) 

Watch this video to learn more about The Decision-Making Ecology.

Strategic Research Initiative Area 1: Child Welfare Decision Making

Decision making is the primary activity that underlies all child welfare intervention. The development and application of decision making theory has focused primarily on the improvement of information -- most often, assessment. Other approaches related to decision-making behavior have been researched, but in only limited ways. Increased attention to research in this area is needed.

Factors Influencing Caseworker Decisions

When it comes to decision making under uncertainty -- which is characteristic of most child protective services (CPS) decisions about substantiation, the evaluation of service needs and whether to place children out of their homes -- errors are inevitable. Such decisions, while heavily influenced by case characteristics, are also known to be a function of decision-maker thresholds for action, which in and of themselves may be set independently of knowledge about the case. Factors that influence action thresholds can be described as part of the decision-making ecology (DME), which includes characteristics of the case worker and the agency, as well as other external factors. As shown below, these factors can be conceptualized in a multi-level framework.



Achievements Around Decision Making

Since its inception, a focus of the Child Protection Research Center has been to use these principles to improve decision making in child welfare. To that end, the Center has:

  • Held two meetings on the topic of decision-making in child welfare
  • Prepared two papers that have been published in major peer-reviewed journals in the field
  • Helped sponsor and support aspects of evaluations of service disparities in Texas and in Canada
  • Added a fellow to the center, Len Dalgleish, to help further our research agenda

Other Benefits of Our Focus on Decision Making

Our decision-making research focus is also foundational to research efforts tied to our general initiatives on child welfare disparities, such as the Colorado Disparities Resource Center and the Center for the Study of Social Policy literature review. In addition, this area supports aspects of the research associated with our Quality Improvement Center for Differential Response. Plans are in place to publish a monograph series on child welfare decision making, the first of which will be a publication describing the decision-making ecology and its research base in depth.

Current Projects

Strategic Research Initiative Area 1: Child Welfare Decision Making

Center for the Study of Social Policy Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare – Research Literature Review on Disproportionality and Disparities

This project calls for a compilation and analysis of research related to racial and ethnic disproportionality and disparities in child welfare, primarily beginning with research published since Bob Hill's Research Synthesis in Child Welfare: An Update (October 2006). The analysis will also compare studies to previously conducted research syntheses by Bob Hill on the topic, as well as any earlier studies that may not have been included in previous papers.

Because there is so much interesting ongoing research in the field, this analysis will include not only research in published, peer-reviewed journals, but also a broader scope of research available in the field.

The analysis will organize research by child welfare into decision-making stages (i.e., child protective services reporting, investigations, substantiations, placement in foster care, exits from foster care and re-entry). We will specifically examine findings of the new National Incidence on Study (NIS) 4 study as it relates to racial disparities. Finally, the analysis will examine research related to how socio-economic and other related topics inform our understanding of racial disparities and disproportionality in child welfare. A draft version of the document will be available for review in March 2010.

Work Scope

To address the project description above, the project team will prepare a research synthesis in the form of a monograph report. In preparing the report, our team would like to be able to confer with the Center for the Study of Social Policy project director at key milestones, including the outline and the first and second drafts. Our team anticipates that the second draft will be reviewed externally. We plan to complete a third draft as a final version of our product that will also include an executive summary.
The project was initiated in December 2009 and will conclude in May 2010.

Foster Care Redesign – Texas Department of Family and Protective Services

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), through the state’s Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), is redesigning the Texas foster care system as a result of the expanded Child Protective Services (CPS) Reform Initiative. The redesign project, which the Child Protection Research Center is working on, will create needed sustainable placement resources in communities, meeting the service needs of children and youths in foster care using the least restrictive placement settings available. 

The existing system places too many children and youths outside of their communities and away from their families, siblings, schools and social support networks, because a significant number of communities do not have the appropriate and the least restrictive placement options locally available. DFPS has determined that distal placements increase the risk of poor child and family outcomes.

The project will require effective communication, collaboration and commitments between DFPS and existing and potential stakeholder groups. These groups include residential child care providers and their respective statewide associations, the Texas Judiciary, the Texas HHSC, providers of services to families in the CPS system, the Texas Legislature, foster children and youths, CPS families, DFPS staff, and advocacy groups for children, families and the department.

The project will seek to shift revenue to providers in order to deliver effective, appropriate, and the least restrictive services in communities in need. Therefore, the Center will integrate knowledge of CPS programs and services with the financial impact that incentives will have for both DFPS and contracted service providers. We will also effectively manage communications with providers on the financial impact of establishing service networks and/or expanding services to areas where none currently exist. 

Working in partnership alongside Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, the Center, as members  of the research support project team, will help DFPS develop the evidence base necessary to forecast the conditions leading to decisions about how best to reincentivize the statewide foster care system. The project team will facilitate and conduct administrative data analysis using computer simulation technology and other decision support systems to develop forecasts of payment system scenarios aimed at maximizing outcomes for children.

This project began in January 2010 and will finish in January 2011.

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Decision-Making Ecology

Watch the video

Read the monograph (PDF)