Evaluation Finds Improvements in the Long-Term Well-Being of Children and Families in the Child Welfare System
Washington, D.C. – There are more than 680,000 U.S. children in foster care and nearly a third (31 percent) are age three or younger. All children in foster care are at risk for poor developmental outcomes, but these risks are heightened for the youngest children. Therefore, it is crucial to identify effective approaches that reduce the time spent in foster care, support families to prevent the recurrence of abuse or neglect, and help child welfare systems overcome the challenges they face.
ZERO TO THREE (ZTT) created The Safe Babies Court Team™ (Safe Babies) approach, which aims to reduce the time a child spends in foster care before reaching a permanent, safe home, and supports the long-term well-being of children and families. The approach, implemented at the local level, includes a specially trained judge, a Safe Babies community coordinator, and two local teams that all work together to support babies and their families.
A new evaluation from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) provides evidence that using the Safe Babies approach can improve outcomes for children in foster care. The Safe Babies Court Team Evaluation: Changing the Trajectories of Children in Foster Care, funded and conducted by AIR, found that babies whose cases were randomly assigned to judges that used the Safe Babies Court Team approach exited foster care sooner than cases assigned to judges who were not trained in the approach (control judges).
The study also found that fewer than one percent of babies assigned to the Safe Babies approach experienced a recurrence of abuse and neglect, which is lower than the rates for cases assigned to control judges in the study.
“Foster care is designed to be a bridge for a child and family in crisis. The sooner a child can be placed in a safe and permanent home and exit foster care, the better their prospects for the future,” said Ann-Marie Faria, AIR principal researcher, who led the study. Our study found that using the Safe Babies Court Team approach does, in fact, help children achieve a safe and permanent home more quickly.”
“This study is important because rigorous evaluations in the child welfare world are rare and it is an area in critical need of evidence-based solutions,” she said.
“We’re taking a public health approach with our work, helping communities build the needed supports for families so that children can remain at home safely. However, if children must be removed, we treat families with kindness and focus on their protective factors. When they are treated like caring human beings, it’s incredible what we can do together,” said Janie Huddleston, director of ZERO TO THREE’s National Infant-Toddler Court Program. “The Safe Babies Court Team exists to support children and caregivers in need of help, and we’re proud of the results we’ve seen across the country. We sincerely hope that this study helps to build the evidence that this approach strengthens families and heals the trauma they have experienced.”
About the Study
AIR conducted a mixed-methods experimental evaluation of the approach in three locations: Little Rock, Arkansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Des Moines, Iowa. The approach had already been in operation in these locations when the evaluation began. Researchers compared the time children spent in foster care and the likelihood of recurrence of abuse or neglect across three groups:
- 123 cases that had access to the entire Safe Babies approach, including the community coordinator, a Safe Babies-trained judge, the family team, and community level supports;
- 598 cases that had access to a Safe Babies-trained judge but not to the community coordinator, the family team, or community-level supports; and
- 1,120 cases that moved through the child welfare system in the usual way (control).
The courts randomly assigned cases to either a Safe Babies-trained judge or a judge who had no training in the approach. An Active Community Team, including the judge, a child welfare leader, and other stakeholders from agencies and early childhood systems, works together to improve outcomes for very young children in foster care, or at risk of removal, and their families. They do so by making systems improvements with practice and policy changes, and advocates for supportive community services that can help prevent maltreatment in the first place.
Among the findings in the study:
- Safe Babies Court Team approach cases exited foster care about four months sooner than control cases.
- Cases with access to the full Safe Babies approach had lower rates of recurrence of abuse or neglect—one percent with the full court team versus about 7 percent in cases with just the trained judge or control judge—a difference that while not statistically significant, is practically meaningful.
- Long-term follow up interviews also suggested that Safe Babies children and families were doing well after they exited foster care, reporting high levels of child and family well-being for up to two years after case closure.
- All but one of the program core components were present at each site, and implementation was dependent on the resources and needs present at each site.
- The community coordinator was a core and critical component in supporting the approach’s key Active Community Team members and using their community expertise to make the approach work within the context of their site.
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of education, health and the workforce. For more information, visit www.air.org.
About ZERO TO THREE
ZERO TO THREE works to ensure all babies and toddlers benefit from the family and community connections critical to their well-being and development. Since 1977, the organization has advanced the proven power of nurturing relationships by transforming the science of early childhood into helpful resources, practical tools and responsive policies for millions of parents, professionals, and policymakers. For more information, visit zerotothree.org.