Center for Healthy Children recommends evidence-based programs

Federal legislation will radically change how foster care dollars can be used, and Penn State’s Child Maltreatment Solutions Network and Center for Healthy Children(CHC) is leading the charge to ensure services intended to prevent foster care placement, and better serve foster youth, are backed by sound research.

The Family First Act aims to provide more federal resources to help families in crisis stay together, and limit federal funds for putting foster youth into congregate care placements, including group homes.

According to Jennie Noll, principal investigator of the CHC and co-funded faculty member of the Social Science Research Institute, this call to action “enabled us to mobilize researchers from across the nation to advise the Administration for Children and Families in creating evidence-based standards for foster-care placement programs as part of the Family First Preventive Services Act.”

Through their national coalition, the CHC provided coordinated recommendations that will inform the language of this statute, which requires scientific evidence to be the key factor in selecting these programs. The CHC is the first national center for child maltreatment studies, established last year through a $7.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“This is a perfect opportunity for science to get involved in advocating for evidence-based policy, and we [CHC] are perfectly positioned to respond, as the overarching goal of the center is to translate research into workable solutions that can enhance how the child welfare system supports families,” said Noll.

The effort is also being led by Taylor Scott, assistant research professor, and Max Crowley, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State.

“The Family First Act will create a clearinghouse of evidence-based programs and establish standards that states will need to adhere to,” Scott explained. “Researchers' input is critical regarding the implementation of this new federal law, as it will radically change how federal foster-care dollars can be used by funding evidence-based services intended to prevent foster care placement.”

As a first step in creating this clearinghouse, the team solicited input from many researchers and organizations across the nation. Scott, along with intern fellow Liz Baker, Kent State University, distilled all of the responses and created an initial report. Additional feedback was then solicited from more researchers, making the resulting report even more impactful due to the broad-based perspective of those involved in its creation.

The team is utilizing the Research-to-Policy Collaboration model that was developed by Crowley and Scott to build capacity for the scientific community to engage effectively in policy processes. “This is truly a perfect opportunity for researchers to guide policy because the inclusion and exclusion criteria for reviewing relevant studies will have sweeping impacts on what programs are deemed effective and thus are eligible to receive funding,” said Crowley.

Scott then solicited other organizations, including the American Psychological Association, to endorse the final draft. Eight organizations endorsed the statement, which was anticipated to demonstrate the breadth of input solicited and summarized by the research community. The report was then provided to the Administration for Children and Families and will be entered into the Federal Register for perusal.

“This review of empirical evidence pertaining to foster care placements is a noteworthy strategy to guide the use of research in evidence-based policy and practice,” said Noll. “Many services and programs for child welfare-involved families are delivered in communities without  evidence of their impact. If we can change this narrative, we have the potential to substantially improve the lives of children and their families across the U.S.”