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Can policies on foster care settings reduce racial and ethnic disparities in youth outcomes?

One in five teens in foster care will run away at least once. While running away is common among all foster care youth, we know that it is more common among Black and Latino youth than their White peers. What’s more, when these youth are in congregate care settings, including group homes and residential centers, rather than family settings, instances of running away are more frequent.

What is unclear, however, is how disparities in experiences on the basis of race and ethnicity are improved or worsened by child welfare policies that dictate the settings where young people receive foster care.

To examine this question, Fred Wulczyn and Amy Dworsky are investigating how the outcomes of youth in congregate care settings vary by state, and whether and how this variability contributes to racial and ethnic differences in rates of youth running away from foster care.

This study is one of the first to apply the hypothesis that racial differences are due to differences in how the local child welfare system works

The study draws on an administrative data, focusing on more than 50,000 children and adolescents who entered the foster care system between 2010 and 2012. Wulczyn and his team will link child placement and monitoring data collected by child welfare agencies, county-level data on the supply and use of congregate care placements, and state-level data on policies related to running away and the use of congregate care. The team intends to investigate how differences in outcomes by race are due to differences in how the local child welfare system works. For example, we know that congregate care settings are more common in urban areas with high Black and Latino populations than in suburban or rural areas. Preliminary findings confirm that the likelihood of a young person being placed in congregate care is influenced by the available supply of foster care beds: the supply fosters the demand. In this light, it’s possible that the primarily Black and Latino young people who enter the child welfare system do so in areas where the supply of congregate care influences the choice of placement. Because the risk of running away is linked to placement in congregate care, the elevated risk of running away among Black and Latino young people may reflect placement availability found in the urban areas where Black and Hispanic youth live.

Given that young people who run away from foster care face even steeper barriers to positive academic, social, and behavioral outcomes than those who remain, improving the policies that govern the settings of care is a crucial step in the effort to support youth who are especially vulnerable. Wulczyn hopes that his findings will inform policymakers of the relative effect of state policy on running away, with an emphasis on policies that may reduce racial and ethnic inequalities. The findings will also illuminate the risks associated with running away so that decisions about allocations of appropriate care are attuned to those risks.

“This study is one of the first to apply the hypothesis that racial differences are due to differences in how the local child welfare system works,” says Wulczyn. Essentially, it will reveal the extent to which these disparities are due to the supply of congregate care in areas with higher Black and Latino populations. If it is indeed a supply effect, this is an instance where research can potentially inform policy, and where policy can improve outcomes for young people.”

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