HHS through the Office of Planning Research and Evaluation (OPRE) has released a report that takes a closer look at Child and Family Transitions among Families Experiencing Homelessness. It’s the fourth in a series of studies that uses HUD-funded Family Options Study data to look at families’ experiences in the 20 months following a shelter stay. The study involves 2,282 homeless families with children entering shelters between late 2010 and early 2012 in one of twelve communities across the country.

The authors emphasize that housing and family instability are related, and families who stay in emergency shelter have dynamic family structures. They also suggest that policymakers and practitioners seek to better understand parent-child and parent-partner separations and reunifications within families experiencing homelessness. They found:

  • About 30 percent of sheltered homeless families reported a separation from at least one family member.
  • Family transitions continued in the following 20 months, with 10 percent of families experiencing new child separations and 8 percent reporting reunifications with children who had not been with the family in shelter.
  • Formal out-of-home placements were rare for children while families stayed in shelter but grew over time.
  • The separation of a child from the family while in shelter was associated with continued housing instability 20 months later.
  • Similarly, continued housing instability after a family’s initial shelter stay was associated with a child being separated from the family 20 months after that initial shelter stay.

In regard to foster care they found less than 1 percent of families reported a child in foster care during an initial interview conducted while the families were in emergency shelters. Twenty months later, about 3 percent of families reported that at least one child had been placed in foster care during the past 6 months.

Citing earlier research that families in shelter care may have a higher instance of foster care, researchers went on to say:

 “In qualitative interviews with a small sample of study families, some parents reported that staff of a shelter or another homeless assistance program had raised with the parent the prospect of “CPS” (Child Protective Services) (Mayberry et al., 2015).

 Alternatively, the increase in proportion of families with foster care placements may simply reflect the continued poverty and housing instability of families following an episode of homelessness and the greater amount of time elapsed during which an out-of-family placement could have occurred. However, as described below, housing stability was related to out-of-family placements as well as to other measures of family transitions, suggesting that the passage of time was not the only influence on foster care placements.”