To Understand Child Welfare, Involve People Who Know
The impact of Child Protective Services (CPS) on families, children, and communities is a sensitive topic. When a child's health, safety, or welfare is endangered, CPS may ask the court to order the child be placed in foster care. Out-of-home placements disproportionately affect families with low incomes and families of color. For these reasons, CPS systems across the country are looking for ways to provide support earlier on to reduce racial disparities in removals and keep children with their families.
In our P4A project, Hennepin County Health and Human Services, Hennepin Healthcare, and the University of Minnesota are using data to help meet these goals. By linking data about health, human services, housing, and criminal justice, we aim to increase our understanding of risk factors and protective factors for children entering placement by age five. If policy can address risks and reinforce strengths early on, families may never enter CPS systems in the first place.
But statistics are just numbers. They represent just a few administrative data points in the diverse, dynamic, complicated lives of real parents, caregivers, and children. How can researchers make sure they’re understanding the bigger picture?
Stakeholder engagement in research
Given the richness of our data, we realized early on that we had to be especially thoughtful and responsible with how we analyze and interpret data. Charging ahead by ourselves could create too many blind spots. To address this limitation, we combine consultation, advice, and other forms of engagement with people who have experience with CPS to help shape our research and communicate it back to stakeholders.
For a data-focused research team, stakeholder engagement is as time consuming as it is valuable. Making a formal plan can help research teams prioritize and systematically interact with stakeholders. For this project, we created a plan that outlines relationships between researchers and key stakeholders through two steps:
- Set expectations. We want engagement, but we cannot act on every suggestion given to us. Participants deserve to know what we can and cannot act on. For example, because of the tight time frame of our project, we cannot change some aspects of our research methodology, and we must be transparent about this.
- Prioritize key groups. We identified key stakeholder groups that interact with young children who may be at risk of out-of-home placement, including parents and caregivers with experience in CPS, Children and Family Services supervisors, frontline staff, and community members, such as medical staff and early childhood care providers. We chose these groups because of the different perspectives they hold on risk factors and protective factors for out-of-home placement.
We began engaging stakeholders this summer through group discussions and individual interviews in which we asked participants about their professional or personal experience with CPS and what they perceive as risk factors and protective factors for out-of-home placement. During these group discussions and interviews, we took care to use language that would make sense to each group. For example, we used the term “out of home placement” with Children and Family Services staff, but we used the more familiar phrase “foster care” when interviewing other respondents, such as medical staff. Insights from this engagement will help us understand how well our data reflect the lived experiences of families and what information might be missing from our analysis.
For example, supervisors from Hennepin County Children and Family Services alerted us to the importance of social networks. They noted that families with supportive friends and relatives have additional resources to address challenges, making it less likely that they will experience out-of-home placement. The strength of social networks and social cohesion is not easy to measure, but now we know to think about these issues as we interpret our data. If nothing else, we will know that this is a critical point missing from our analysis. We expect to make our full research results available in late 2020 or early 2021.
This engagement must avoid tokenism. Engagement must be about building authentic, trusting, and enduring relationships. We believe people affected by the research results should be central to our efforts. As many people with the lived experience rightfully remind others: “Nothing about us without us.” For this reason, we hope this initial information gathering will lead to ongoing engagement. We plan to invite participants to continue to meet with us at important data checkpoints to discuss what we’re finding, help interpret and communicate results, and plan for next steps.
We are confident that our engagement approach will produce a more holistic, accurate picture of out-of-home placement in Hennepin County and better inform potential policy changes to reduce disparities in involvement with CPS. We also hope our experience developing and implementing our engagement plan will inform similar approaches across Hennepin County.