Preliminary Findings in California Title IV-E Waiver Evaluation
Every time I start a new evaluation project, I feel a mix of excitement and a touch of trepidation: excitement because the idea of finding a solution to an entrenched problem in child welfare is so tantalizing, and trepidation because I know too many well-intentioned, logical social interventions do not foster social change. That worry has been particularly pronounced in my two years as the principal investigator of the Title IV-E Waiver Demonstration California Well-Being Project because so much is at stake.
In those two years, I’ve heard about the countless strategies that waiver counties and providers have used to improve their daily practice now that they have flexible funding available. It is hard to imagine a more wide-scale, broad attempt to keep children out of foster care without sacrificing safety. I’ve also heard about barriers that make social change elusive in the California child welfare system.
We are finally at the point in the Title IV-E Waiver Project where we can see the effect of the intervention on outcomes, and my trepidation is turning to cautious elation. We recently prepared a dictionary-sized report about our latest findings, which I will not try to replicate here but is available on the NCCD website here. One finding, however, stands out to me: In some counties, the waiver marked a significant change in the frequency with which children are removed from families. This means that for every child who is investigated in these counties, a decreasing percentage of children are being removed from their parents and placed in foster care or group homes. This is exactly what the Title IV-E Waiver is designed to do: Eliminate unnecessary family dissolution by making funding available to support services to families who retain custody of their children, instead of tying funding to foster care.
As examples of this change, consider Sacramento and San Diego counties.
In Sacramento County, the pattern of out-of-home placements within 30 days pre- and post-waiver is quite striking and suggests that the rates of these removals became progressively worse (higher) until the waiver was enacted; after the waiver, they became progressively better. While it is premature to interpret this model because additional evaluation is needed, it is noteworthy that the data suggest the waiver had a highly statistically significant effect on keeping children in their homes with their families.
San Diego County also showed marked improvement in keeping families together. As in Sacramento County, further testing and evaluation are needed; however, the pattern of out-of-home placements within 30 days before and after the waiver shows a clear, noteworthy effect. Furthermore, statistical tests show the change in the trajectory is highly significant, with rates of removal decreasing each month under the waiver. Better still, the likelihood of children experiencing a new substantiation improved, meaning fewer removals without sacrificing safety.
While our report includes research on seven counties, each county is measured against its own baseline. However, unmistakable differences between the seven counties exist. Critical differences in county policies affect these outcomes. Some counties had a long history of improvement, which the waiver augmented or stabilized. Others experienced declining outcomes until the waiver period. It is remarkable to see a county like Sacramento, where the waiver marked a distinctive turning point from decline to improvement, and a county like San Diego, where the waiver enhanced an existing trend toward improvement. Unfortunately, in some other counties, the waiver did not have a significant positive effect. These are quite different patterns and suggest different experiences under the waiver. This also suggests that the effect of the waiver is not monolithic but can, in the right context, cause improvements.
California and national leaders should take note of these results. The fact of the matter is that far too few interventions lead to meaningful improvements in child welfare outcomes. So it’s big news that a fiscal intervention has allowed some California counties to reduce the number of children in foster care while maintaining child safety. Some work is still needed in California’s child welfare system, but there is room for excitement and hope for building a better system.
Elizabeth Harris, PhD, is a senior researcher with NCCD.