Social welfare researchers win grant to improve foster care

Mon, 10/07/2013

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LAWRENCE — While some children who enter foster care have experienced some form of trauma, there currently is not a system for caregivers to identify such trauma and determine how to help them. University of Kansas researchers have won a $2.5 million grant to develop a system to help screen foster children for trauma, develop treatment plans and monitor their progress as they grow.

Becci AkinBecci Akin, assistant professor of social welfare, and Alice Lieberman, professor of social welfare, are co-principal investigators on a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the Children’s Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. During the first phase of the grant they will collaborate with KVC Behavioral Healthcare Inc. and St. Francis Community Services Inc. — the foster care contract agencies in Kansas — to determine the most appropriate, evidence-based, trauma-informed screening and assessment tools for use with this population. In subsequent years, they will work to universalize the use of the tools within the agencies and evaluate the subsequent well-being of those children.

Alice Lieberman“They’re agreeing to use the same screening and assessment tool for all children that enter foster care in Kansas, which will provide much more consistent and useful information about their social and emotional functioning,” Akin said. “By using the same tool we’ll be able to see how kids across Kansas are doing and evaluate that over time.”

Children entering foster care commonly experience all manner of trauma including extreme neglect, physical and emotional abuse, substance abuse by family members, death of a family member and being removed from their home. There hasn’t been a common, standard method to determine the impact of that trauma on mental health and how care providers should incorporate that into their treatment plans.  The tools will enable social workers to assess children’s social and emotional well-being as well as family functioning. Beyond making improvements to screening, assessment and case planning for individual children, the project will develop an outcomes tracking mechanism that permits statewide, systems-level progress monitoring.

Research has demonstrated that foster children who suffer trauma often experience significant problems later in life, including substance abuse, hospitalization, homelessness, unwanted pregnancy, violent behavior and severe emotional disorders. Recognizing and treating such trauma early has the potential to not only help children, but enable cost savings for the state and society at large by reducing the need for hospitalizations, incarceration and other associated costs, Lieberman said. Few states in the nation have universal screening and assessment tools in place to deal with trauma in young children, she added, and the Kansas system could prove to be a national model.

During the grant project’s second phase, researchers will evaluate the system and ensure an evidence-based service array fully meets the needs of foster children and their families. Akin and Lieberman will also track well-being as well as permanency and safety outcomes for children who have entered foster care during the grant period. Throughout the project social workers across Kansas will be trained in the use of screening and assessment tools, as well as in interventive methods that have been proven effective.

“We want to use tools whose validity and reliability have been well-documented and help social workers put them to use to help children,” Lieberman said.

The assessment tool will be especially helpful for children age birth to 5 years old. While very young children are often more likely to be adopted, the effects of trauma regularly don’t show up until later in life. And for older children, recognizing and treating trauma will help make them more likely to be adopted.

“It seems obvious to us now, but unfortunately screening for trauma has not been happening for all children coming into foster care,” Akin said.

The grant program will not only evaluate the well-being of foster children over time, but will continuously evaluate which interventions are effective, judging both by outcomes for the children and from a financial efficiency standpoint. And as the new system tracks progress and well-being of children in foster care, researchers will have focus groups with foster families, adoptive families and youth who have aged out of foster care to learn more about their experiences and how the current system could be changed to better meet their mental health needs and promote stable adoptions.

The researchers said they look forward to helping children and social workers who serve them, but they are grateful to be able to serve the state as well.

“Our vision is to address the gap between research and practice,” Akin said. “When researchers collaborate with practitioners, we maximize our potential to develop more effective services and policies.”

“I truly hope we are helping the state serve children currently in foster care who have been freed for adoption,” Lieberman said. “If we are successful, these kids are going to have a better shot at a good life.”



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