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Case research reveals poor children staying longer in foster care under welfare reform

Case Western Reserve University : 30 January, 2007  (Technical Article)
Three related studies at Case Western Reserve University's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences reveal how families involved with the child welfare system are deteriorating under welfare reform.
Working together with the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services in Ohio, Kathleen Wells, the lead researcher and a professor of social work at the Mandel School, and her research team discovered that between 1995 and 2001 there were comparatively steady increases in the number of children with substantiated reports of abuse and neglect and in the number of children referred to foster care services. In May 1995, for example, 439 children in Cuyahoga County were found to be abused or neglected. There were 593 such children in June 2001.

When researchers examined three groups of foster children, one that entered before reform and two that entered after reform, they found an increasing proportion of children remained in foster care for more than one year (37.3% vs. 45.7% vs. 53.4%).

In addition, the research shows that family income is related to the speed with which children return home. For example, children whose mothers lost a significant amount of cash assistance after their children were placed in foster care went home more slowly than did children whose mothers did not. In addition, children whose mothers had higher incomes went home more quickly than did children whose mothers had lower incomes.

These studies, conducted between 1995 and 2002, prior to and following implementation of welfare reform in 1996, investigated the number of children in foster care, how quickly children returned home and the socioeconomic conditions of their families.

'Mothers with children in the child welfare system represent a portion of the welfare population that has not benefited from welfare reform,' said Wells.

A survey of a sub-set of the mothers of children who entered foster care after welfare reform found that many of the moms had severe problems such as substance abuse and poor mental health. Wells, in fact, noted that 'the child welfare system has become a de facto substance abuse treatment system for the poor.'

Mothers also lacked the education and skills needed to get a job as well as the transportation required to go to work. Following interviews with several mothers of children in foster care, more than half of them fell below the extreme poverty level, or 50% below the federally-defined poverty level, Wells said. In addition, the types of jobs that are available to them don't allow them to get back on track any quicker.

'Low wage jobs for which mothers may qualify are often unstable, provide inadequate benefits, require evening or early morning work, or offer limited flexibility making it difficult to combine caring for children and earning a living,' Wells said.

Wells and her research team said communities will need to commit additional resources so single moms with children in foster care, and who are no longer on welfare assistance but may have additional problems, may get their children back more quickly.

'Reuniting children with their biological parents within children's first year of placement is a goal of U.S. child welfare policy,' she said. 'However, it is unlikely to be achieved, especially in communities that lack jobs and high-quality treatment programs, without a renewed commitment to those who have not prospered under welfare reform and new policies for this population.'
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