• August 2003
  • Vol. 4, No. 6

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Evaluation of Family Preservation and Reunification

Short-term gains achieved by family preservation programs do not appear to persist over time, according to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in December 2002. These conclusions are based on the evaluation of four family preservation and reunification programs in four States.

Three States used the Homebuilders model, which provides in-home, short-term services to families in crisis, with an emphasis on changing family behavior. One State used a broader home-based model that focuses on changing how the family functions as a whole and within the community. In each State, the evaluation compared two groups of families whose children were considered to be at equal risk for out-of-home placement. One group received these specialized preservation and reunification services (experimental group); the other received typical child welfare services (control group).

Findings included the following:

  • Rates of placement, child protective services case closings, and subsequent child maltreatment did not differ significantly between the experimental and control groups.
  • Some aspects of family functioning (e.g., economic functioning, household condition, child care practices, caretaker depression, and child behavior) improved, but these improvements often diminished over time.
  • In two States, significantly more families in the experimental group compared to the control group reported seeing "great improvement" in their lives.

Some aspects of the evaluation design may have contributed to the lack of more positive results. For instance, family preservation services were designed for families whose children are at imminent risk of out-of-home placement. However, as indicated by the relatively low placement rate found in the control group, very few families served by these programs were actually at risk of placement.

Based on these findings, the study's authors suggest family preservation programs may want to consider:

  • Shifting the focus from preventing placement to improving family and child functioning.
  • Focusing on specific groups of families (e.g., families with substance abuse problems or young, isolated mothers) instead of serving broad groups of families who are experiencing a wide variety of different problems.
  • Offering a variety of service lengths and intensities to meet the needs of each family.

A full copy of the final evaluation report can be obtained at www.aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/evalfampres94/final.

Related Item

An interim evaluation report from this study was described in "Study Sheds Light on Family Preservation Programs" in the May/June 2001 issue of Children's Bureau Express.

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