Child welfare policy in the United States is based on the assumption that strengthening and preserving families serves the long-term welfare and safety interests of children. Family preservation and reunification programs are short-term and intensive interventions intended to help parents whose children are in imminent danger of abuse or neglect. They attempt to stabilize a crisis, teach families new problem solving skills, and break the cycle of family dysfunction. Their primary goal is to remove the risk of harm so that the child does not have to be permanently removed from the home. This essay discusses the history of family preservation programs and the services provided by them, as well as debates about the effectiveness of such programs.
History of Family Preservation
Historically, the child welfare system has struggled to reconcile the sometimes competing goals of child protection and family unity. With the passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272), the goal of family preservation became the guiding principle. The 1980 act, sometimes referred to as the “Reunification Act,” requires that states, as a condition of receiving federal child welfare funding, make every “reasonable effort” to rehabilitate abusive parents and keep families together.
The Family Preservation and Support Services Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-66) and the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (P.L. 105-89) changed and clarified a number of policies established in the Reunification Act, subtly moving federal policy away from preservation as the overriding concern. Although family unity remains an important long-term goal, the 1997 law explicitly established child safety as a “paramount concern” and encouraged expedited permanency decisions for abused children.
Social Services Provided
Family preservation and reunification programs are based on the assumption that parents whose children have been removed from the home, or who face the possibility that their children could be removed, will be open to receiving services and learning new behaviors. Specific programs vary by state, but typical services provided include behavioral training for parents (including appropriate and inappropriate discipline techniques), child development issues, conflict resolution, and various other household issues related to family stress, neglect, and abuse (e.g., budgeting, housekeeping). States may also coordinate referrals on any of a number of other needs, including medical or psychological treatment, emergency financial assistance, housing information and assistance, daycare assistance, and substance abuse treatment.
The oldest and most thoroughly researched family preservation program is Homebuilders, which began in Washington State in 1974 and has now been implemented in various locals across the country. The Homebuilder model calls for small caseloads (typically two to three families per caseworker), intensive home-based services (10–20 hours per week for 4–6 weeks), and 24-hour-per-day availability of caseworkers. Like other preservation and reunification services, Homebuilders is based on the assumption that families in the midst of a crisis are amenable to change. In addition to child protection and family preservation, the goals of Homebuilders include providing social support; improved family functioning, school, and job performance; improved living conditions; and increased adult and child self-esteem.
Debate about Family Preservation Programs
There is considerable debate about whether family preservation programs are effective in successfully rehabilitating abusive parents. Proponents of the family preservation model maintain that children can be safely left in their homes if their communities offer vulnerable families the social services and training they need. Other defenders of family preservation assert that needy families need to be protected from the strong arm of the state. The real problem facing abusive families, they argue, is lack of resources. In less serious cases of abuse, where poor, young, stressed, and needy parents are likely to benefit from social services, family reunification should be the goal, and supportive intervention should be the means to achieving that end.
Critics maintain that family preservation is “single minded.” While acknowledging the sanctity of the family unit, they argue that family preservation and unification goals too often put children at risk. Several highly publicized child deaths in recent years serve as a reminder of the potential dangers of reuniting children with parents who have a history of abuse. An overcommitment to reunifying families also sometimes leaves children in temporary settings for a long time, which is rarely in the best interests of the child.
At the center of the debate is the question of whether preservation services effectively strengthen families or prevent abuse. Initial evaluations of Homebuilders and other programs produced positive results, leading to considerable enthusiasm in the 1980s and 1990s. However, more methodologically rigorous experimental designs, which randomly assign families into experimental and control groups, have been disappointing. The most influential study, funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), evaluated preservation programs in four states (Kentucky, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania). Three of the states had implemented the Homebuilders model. Researchers examined a variety of outcome variables, including foster care placement rates and improvement in family functioning, and found no differences between the experimental and control groups. This research is compelling because it focused on four independent evaluations in four different states.
Defenders of preservation programs maintain that several methodological problems make the results less than definitive. These methodological problems include a smaller than desirable sample size, marginal differences between the experimental and control groups (i.e., even the control group families received some services), and problems with the specific programs selected for the study (e.g., none of the programs strictly adhered to the Homebuilders model). It is also worth noting that the authors of the DHHS report did not interpret their findings to mean preservation services should be abandoned. Instead, they interpreted the results as a challenge to work harder to find programs that are effective.
- Gelles, R. (2005). Protecting children is more important than preserving families. In D. R. Loseke, R. J. Gelles, & M. M. Cavanaugh (Eds.), Current controversies on family violence (2nd ed., pp. 329–340). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2002). Evaluation of family preservation and reunification programs: Final report. Retrieved February 1, 2006, from http:/ / aspe.hhs .gov/hsp/evalfampres94/final/
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