Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 30, Number 1

Research + Government = Increased Collaboration and Capacity
to Reach Better Child Welfare Outcomes
By Elisabeth S. Wilson, Terry J. Stigdon, and Heather H. Kestian

In 2018, the child welfare field drastically changed with the passing of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA)(2018). This new law not only dictated how federal Title IV-E funds can be used in child welfare, which fundamentally changed the billing process but set a precedent on the value of research within child welfare. In order to draw IV-E prevention services funding, a program provided to the family must be rated as at least “Promising” by the Prevention Services Clearinghouse (FFPSA, 2018). As part of supporting and building the evidence base of interventions and programs within child welfare, each jurisdiction must include a well-designed and rigorous evaluation strategy for each service if the state intends to draw Title IV-E prevention funds. What is approved as a well-designed and rigorous evaluation strategy is dictated within the context of law, even going so far as to require Randomized Control Trials (RCT) or Quasi-experimental designs (QED), setting the tone for the type of research that must be conducted in order to pull federal funding (Wilson et al., 2019).

With research and high-level evaluation now being the epicenter of child welfare, jurisdictions must evaluate how to undergo a rigorous evaluation, on multiple programs, all while operating under normal agency procedure. The evaluations required by FFPSA are highly technical and the techniques often taught in graduate level research programs, making the overlap of professionals working within child welfare jurisdictions and individuals with the skills to run an extensive evaluation very small. Instead, agencies often rely on external collaborations with universities, nonprofits, and consulting firms. These external collaborators are invaluable to the agencies and jurisdictions in which they serve; however, the singular model of contracting for research outside of the agency will soon become unsustainable under FFPSA.

Historically, child welfare agencies have been decentralized nationally and run according to individual state or county guidelines. This means that each program, from each jurisdiction, will need a rigorous evaluation in order to pull federal funding. Thus, the need for research within these agencies will quickly outpace the capacity of not only internal implementers, but external evaluators, with the law offering little relief on how to fund these changes. Title IV-E prevention services reimbursements are designed to cover a portion of the costs of providing the prevention service and administrative costs (FFPSA, 2018). However, full cost is not covered, which leaves agencies with a choice: spending money on research, finding external funders for research, or funding service programs.

Many disciplines already have provided the framework that promotes expedited research and increased ability to collaborate across disciplines, and that is building internal research capacity. In 1976, Congress passed the National Science and Technology Policy, Organization, and Priorities Act, which set up the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) under the executive branch (National Science and Technology Policy, Organization, and Priorities Act, 1976). This task of placing research positions within government agencies is continuing to extend to local levels, with several fellowships opening to place scientists in state agencies to inform policy and directives at organizations including the Missouri Science and Technology Policy Fellows Program (MOST) (MOST Policy Initiative, 2020), the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) (CCST Science Fellows, 2019), and the North Carolina STEM Policy Fellowship (NC STEM Policy Fellowship, 2020).

At the discipline level, agencies are hiring internal research teams. In the health care industry, collaboration among different industries and specialties is commonplace. Manufacturing and engineering consistently have contributed to the advancement of the practice of medicine to promote both prolonged quantity and quality of life. There is a science that is fundamental to caring for the physical needs of others. In order to know what may or may not work requires the analysis of data. It is not just the nurses, paramedics, physicians, among others who spend the majority of their time evaluating the data outside of the vital signs, laboratory, and pathology results. Stepping back and finding connections between data points and supporting those who can evaluate such data is what leads to breakthroughs in patient care.

The Indiana Department of Child Services has taken a similar position and built an internal research team within the department that not only increases the capacity of internal stakeholders to run their own rigorous evaluations but increases the collaborative capacity across agency implementers and external evaluators. While it takes someone who understands the work to interpret the data at a primary level, a data analytics team with researchers is necessary to arm an organization with information that leads to positive change.

While you may think it is counterintuitive to argue for increasing collaboration by bringing in a team with similar expertise, research takes a village, and pulling data from state repositories—well, that takes two villages. The need for multiple individuals is evident when looking at any academic publication; rarely do we see only one researcher gracing the byline, but anyone involved with this final product knows that the names on the byline scratch the surface of those involved.

The historical barriers between implementers (CPS agencies) and evaluators are language differences. Those who are trained in evaluations have immersed themselves in the technical language of their field. For example, p-value, power analysis, and statistical design easily roll off the tongue in casual conversation. Implementers are trained in the language of their individual data systems—a truly unique language—and navigating red tape. An internal research team can serve as the liaison that assists both parties in navigating the differences and propels a project forward. With these internal liaisons we begin to shorten the barriers between disciplines and allows for the flow of knowledge both ways. Child welfare sits on a mountain of data so vast that no one person, team, organization, university, or partner could ever comb through alone. Bringing more researchers into the fold strengthens the community, collaborative capacity, and amount of learning that can be done. Child welfare has much to learn, increasing the number of eyes on the data truly gets us closer to the vision of FFPSA to promote evidence-based programs in child welfare (Wilson et al., 2019).

To read the rest of this article, login as a CWLA member or download this issue of Children’s Voice here.

Elisabeth S. Wilson is an interdisciplinary researcher with experience in both natural and social sciences. She has worked to understand how policies and practices impact agriculture, child welfare, and human subjects research. Elisabeth specializes in building research capacity within state governments and nonprofit agencies.

Terry J. Stigdon is the director of the Indiana Department of Child Services. In her first year in her new position, Stigdon has implemented changes aimed at offering the best service to Hoosier children and families. As a result of her efforts to provide the right care to the right child at the right time, the state has seen a decrease in children in residential treatment and foster care. Her leadership has also led to decreased staff turnover, resulting in better continuity of care for families involved in the child welfare system.

Heather H. Kestian is the Deputy Director for Strategic Solutions and Agency Transformation (SSAT). In this role, she works with quality service assurance, continuous quality improvement using Lean and Six Sigma principles, research and evaluation efforts, policy development, child welfare permanency initiatives, the Birth Parent and Shared Parent Advisory Boards, real estate, cultural affairs, and federal compliance, as well as safe system implementation. She graduated cum laude from the University of Toledo College of Law in May 2008 and is licensed to practice law in Indiana.