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November 2000Vol. 1, No. 7Researchers Study Infants Who Reenter Child Welfare System

For many children placed in out-of-home care, family reunification is only temporary. This instability can be particularly damaging to infants due to their rapid developmental growth.

The factors leading to reentry of infants into the child welfare system, following reunification, are examined in the July/August 2000 issue of Child Welfare, published by the Child Welfare League of America. The authors reviewed the case records of 88 randomly selected infants who had been reunited with their families. Of these infants, 32 percent (28 infants) reentered out-of-home care within 4 to 6 years.

In this case review of reunified infants and their families, researchers found that the factors most strongly associated with reentry were:

  • Maternal criminal activity and/or substance abuse
  • Placement during the child's first month of life
  • Placement in non-kin foster care.

Reentry also was more likely in families that experienced housing problems at the time of reunification and in families that had greater numbers of CPS reports.

The researchers found that children placed with relatives were about 80 percent less likely to reenter care, corroborating other research on the value of kinship care in achieving permanency. Other findings that align with earlier research summarized by the authors include the significance of the child's age at entry and certain key family problems.

The study did not find, as earlier studies have, that African American infants are more likely to reenter out of home care, nor did the study find significant associations between reentry and type of maltreatment, family size, or time spent in foster care. "The possible effects of such characteristics may be masked by the small sample size," the authors note.

The authors also consider the relationship between reentry and post-reunification services. In this study, all of the families of the infants who reentered care had received post-reunification services. One explanation might be that only the most troubled families receive post-reunification services, which appears to be the case in this particular study. Also plausible is that in the course of providing services, child welfare workers identify children who need to be removed from their homes again.

"[I]t appears unlikely that services themselves are causing reentry," the authors write. But, "the high reentry rate found in this sample suggests, at minimum, that current services are not enough to meet families' multiple needs."

The statistical models used in this small-scale study should not be used as the basis for broadbased policy making or decision making in individual cases, the authors stress. But, the results of this study may help administrators be more responsive to mothers who lack kin support and who may be involved in substance abuse and criminal activity. It also may guide child welfare workers during their casework. According to the authors, "[S]ome background knowledge about the likelihood of certain children eventually reentering foster care may inform, if not direct, their approach."

Address requests for a reprint of this article to:
Laura Frame
Center for Social Services Research
School of Social Welfare
16 Haviland Hall
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-7400

Single copies of Child Welfare may be obtained from:
CWLA/Child Welfare
9050 Junction Drive
P.O. Box 2019
Annapolis Junction, MD 20701-2019