July/August 2019Vol. 20, No. 6Evaluating the Allegheny County Family Support Center Network
Written by Marc Cherna, director, Allegheny County Department of Human Services
Allegheny County, PA, is home to a network of 28 family support centers (FSCs) serving approximately 3,600 families each year. FSCs, located in economically disadvantaged communities, are community-based, participant-driven hubs of programs, services, and supports designed to improve outcomes for children (birth through age 5) and their families by increasing the strength and stability of families as well as parents' confidence in their parenting abilities.
Since opening the first FSC in the early 1990s, significant federal, state, and foundation funds have been committed to the operation of the FSCs. In 2016, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) conducted a multicomponent evaluation designed to answer a number of questions concerning their operation and impact. As one component of the evaluation, the Center for State Child Welfare Data at Chapin Hall analyzed case management and administrative data to determine the impact of FSCs on the neighborhoods in which they are located and whether a neighborhood FSC is associated with lower rates of child welfare maltreatment investigations.
- Preventing child abuse and neglect: The FSC neighborhoods showed lower-than-expected rates of child abuse and neglect investigations than the matched neighborhoods without an FSC.
- Fostering supportive relationships: Family members active in FSCs were found to be establishing informal support relationships and networks through their participation in the FSC.
- Engaging high-risk families: Two-thirds of families participating in the Parents as Teachers program met the definition of high risk.
About Family Support Centers
By design, every FSC is unique, reflecting the needs and interests of the individual community. However, all are based on the philosophy that parents are a child's first and most important teachers. At a minimum, every FSC works with parents and children to provide prenatal care, early childhood development, school readiness, parental skill building, and parent support in a safe and welcoming environment.
FSCs provide drop-in and scheduled programming and socialization opportunities as well as evidence-based home visiting. Centers may also offer or partner with agencies that provide one or more of the following activities: afterschool and summer programs for youth, career readiness training, concrete goods, counseling, child care, Head Start or Early Head Start, English as a second language and literacy programs, food bank access, transportation, and father support groups.
The evaluation utilized both quantitative and qualitative data-collection methods and included five domains: family engagement, connections to social services, early childhood development and school readiness, maternal and infant health, and child abuse and neglect.
A full report on the evaluation (An Evaluation of the Family Support Center Network), including a summary of the findings from the Center for State Child Welfare Data's analysis, was published by DHS in 2016. It includes an extensive discussion of the FSC network as well as the purpose, function, and structure of family support. Evaluation findings are provided in each domain, with positive findings found in three key areas: preventing child abuse and neglect, fostering support relationships, and engaging high-risk families.
More recently, a detailed report about the impact on child maltreatment was published by the Center for State Child Welfare Data (Do Family Support Centers Reduce Maltreatment Investigations? Evidence From Allegheny County). The investigators examined administrative data at the neighborhood level to determine whether the presence of an FSC was associated with lower rates of child welfare maltreatment investigations. Looking at first investigations from 2009 through 2013, they asked three questions:
- How is the investigation rate related to the level of social disadvantage?
- How is the investigation rate related to the presence of an FSC?
- How are the investigation rate, the level of social disadvantage, and the presence of an FSC interrelated?
Because the connection between child welfare investigation rates and social disadvantage is well established in the literature, we would expect the investigation rate to be higher in areas with higher levels of social disadvantage. In the simplest terms, we expect lower rates of investigation in areas with an FSC because the FSC alters the balance of risk and protective factors at the community level such that communities with an FSC are less dependent on the front door of the child protection system as a mechanism of child protection. The evaluation supported these assumptions; areas within Allegheny County served by FSCs had fewer maltreatment investigations once the level of social disadvantage and population size were considered.
The evaluation provides evidence that FSCs are associated with lower rates of child welfare investigations. It also demonstrates that FSCs are effective in reaching the highest-risk families in specific evidence-based programming and in helping families develop natural support networks that enhance their stability. These findings alone provide a rationale for continued investment in the FSC network. Nevertheless, additional research is needed to determine the exact mechanisms at work and to assess whether FSCs have a further role to play in reducing the length of child welfare involvement or decreasing the number of subsequent reports of maltreatment.