A new agenda for research on child welfare systems calls for bold new studies that meet the needs of the 21st Century child welfare system and improve the lives of our most vulnerable children, youth, and families.
While there have been several research agendas for child welfare developed over the last decade, to our knowledge there were none that focused on the voices of the multiple individuals and organizations involved in addressing the issues faced by the broader child welfare community. The result of close collaboration with Casey Family Programs and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, as well as numerous national organizations, researchers, and individuals with lived experience in child welfare, the 21st century research agenda for child welfare captures the diversity of individuals involved in the child welfare system to highlight the most urgent needs. The full research agenda, in addition to supplemental materials and resources, is available online.
>Why a 21st Century Research Agenda for Child Welfare?
Child abuse and neglect in the United States are significant areas of concern with far-reaching consequences for children and their parents, often exacerbating existing inequalities in economic, academic and health outcomes. In 2020, child protective agencies across the United States received referrals of potential abuse or neglect for over 7.1-million children or approximately 36% of all children in the nation (USDHHS, 2022). Black, Indigenous, and Latinx children are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system (USDHHS, 2022). There is an urgent need to reduce children’s involvement with child protective services and to improve outcomes for children already in care.
Research on child welfare prevention and response is not limited to the child protection system. It includes every system and support families may touch—housing, income, health, justice, mental health, substance abuse treatment—all of which have known inequalities particularly for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx families. When child neglect is identified, it is often grounded in poverty, mental health, or substance misuse problems and rather than continuing to be reactive, we believe the root causes of these problems needs to be mitigated. The roots of disproportionality are structural, reflecting widespread inequities in the material conditions of life and in systems that hoard opportunities for the advantaged and deny them to those who are already disadvantaged.
There is an urgent need to reduce children’s involvement with child protective services and to improve outcomes for children already in care.
Research is needed to identify programs, policies, and practices that reduce inequalities and ultimately eliminate the need for child welfare system involvement. There is a need to understand which programs, policies, or practices prevent initial and recurrent contact with child protection services and out-of-home placement and how those practices or policies vary by specific racial, ethnic, and other population characteristics, such as immigrant status. Equally pressing is the need to find effective ways to reduce inequalities in the social support system to reduce or eliminate disproportionate involvement.
Our Support for Research on Reducing Inequality in Youth Outcomes
The William T Grant Foundation’s focus on reducing inequality supports research to build, test, or increase understanding of programs, policies, or practices to reduce inequality in youth outcomes on the dimensions of race, ethnicity, economic standing, language minority status, or immigrant origins. It is critical to examine initiatives that are sensitive to state and regional policy and social contexts and consider the diversity of family experiences including the influence of structural racism on the effectiveness of these strategies. We are particularly interested in research that addresses the macro-structural roots of inequality to change the institution or systemic policies or practices that create or maintain unequal access to resources and opportunities. Ultimately, our goal is to support research that accumulates to generate effective responses to youth inequality.
How does the 21st century research agenda align with our interests in reducing inequality?
Many of the research gaps identified in the 21st century research agenda align with our focus on reducing inequality. Below we highlight a few of the salient knowledge gaps and note research by current Foundation grantees as exemplars of relevant work.
We encourage applications that aim to test programs, policies, and practices that can begin to address the gaps identified in the research agenda. For example:
- The field needs research on how contemporary child welfare and related policies and practices contribute to and may be altered to eliminate differences in service access, quality, and outcomes for families and their children who are Black, Brown, and Indigenous, or who are marginalized.
- The Foundation supported Carolyn Barnes to investigate features of rural southern communities that influence the organizational practices of local public welfare agencies to understand how these practices may alleviate or contribute to racial inequality.
- With Foundation support, Lisa Gennetian examined the disparities in Hispanic families’ access to income assistance and how their experience with social services shapes the outcomes of the children in these families. She is now using these findings to understand how state and local policy provision and practices influence family experiences with social services and ultimately youth outcomes.
- The field needs research that aims to address or mitigate the structural roots of inequality in the child welfare service system and other related systems on child outcomes.
- The Foundation supported William Schneider to examine the causal connection between economic hardship and child maltreatment and whether the effects vary by race and ethnicity. Dr. Schneider’s work aims to understand if social policies could reduce maltreatment overall and inequalities among race and ethnicity.
- In Fred Wulczyn’s grant, he examined how policies and system structures around group care affect whether youth attempt to run away from care, an important outcome given attempts at running away from care is connected to longer-term inequalities for those youth.
- The 21st Century Research agenda calls for research on specific American Indian/Alaska Native policies and practices included in the Indian Child Welfare Act that might prevent child maltreatment or improve outcomes for children receiving child protective services.
- The Foundation awarded a grant to Frank Edwards and Theresa Rocha Beardall to examine whether the laws and policies that enhance the sovereignty of tribal governments can disrupt inequalities of child welfare involvement for American Indian youth.
- The field needs research on programs, policies, or practices that reduce inequalities for Latinx children and, in particular, for children living in immigrant families.
- The Foundation supported Cecilia Ayón to examine if the policy of sanctuary cities is a mechanism for reducing inequalities by immigrant origin status for Latinx children’s mental health.
- Dolores Acevedo-Garcia’s grant examined the stark inequalities of US social policy created by excluding immigrants from the safety net including for their U.S. citizen children.
- The field needs research on the critical role economic factors plays in mitigating the risk of child maltreatment.
- The Foundation has supported a team led by Zhuan Pei to examine the long-term impact of the welfare reform policies on poverty and intergenerational mobility.
- Randall Akee has a grant from the Foundation to examine the long-term impact of tribal government cash transfers on intergenerational transmission of income and health inequality.
We are encouraged by the development of the 21st Century Research Agenda and for its potential to spur new knowledge on ways to improve child and family well-being by preventing initial involvement with the child welfare system and improving outcomes for those who already involved. The research agenda covers a broad survey of topics across the body of research in child welfare, and a number of potential research gaps align closely with our reducing inequality focus area. We encourage you to learn more and consider applying.