LAWRENCE — Children with severe emotional or behavioral problems tend to stay in foster care longer than their peers and are less likely to be reunited with their birth parents. New research from the University of Kansas has shown that a parenting skills intervention designed to help reunify this population with their parents is successful at bringing families back together, reducing time spent in foster homes and ultimately saving taxpayer money.
Researchers from the School of Social Welfare implemented and evaluated a parenting skills model throughout the Kansas foster care system. The six-year study focused on reuniting children with severe behavioral or emotional problems with their birth parents. Despite federal law placing an emphasis on the temporary nature of foster care, very little research has focused on identifying effective interventions for reunification, especially with this population of young people. The study, published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, was authored by Becci Akin, associate professor, and Thomas McDonald, retired professor of social welfare.
Not only did families who took part in the program, Parent Management Training, Oregon model, or PMTO, have higher reunification rates, the children spent less time in foster care:
- Families who took part in the parent training intervention had a 6.9 percent higher reunification rate than families who received foster care services as usual. These intervention families also saved an average of 151 days in foster care compared with those in services as usual.
- Families who completed the program increased reunification rates by 13.7 percentage points compared with those in the service-as-usual group and 15.3 percentage points compared with those who did not complete PMTO. Families who completed the program also saved an average of 299 days in foster care as opposed to those who received usual foster care services and 358 days saved on average than those who didn’t complete the program.
The study also focused on a wider age range, ages 3 to 16, than such studies normally consider, and worked with young people with severe emotional and behavioral issues who were placed in foster care for any reason.
“You can look at numerous different studies and a variety of factors emerge,” Akin said. “However, unlike other factors, emotional and behavioral problems consistently predict a longer stay in foster care.”
In fact, data shows that such children are 3 1/2 times more likely to spend three years or more in foster care. Researchers reviewed case records for a random sample of eligible children and families in Kansas foster care who had been in the system for that length of time or longer to determine barriers to reunification.
“We found that nearly all of them had a situation where the parent didn’t have the skills and capacities to parent a child with difficult behavioral or emotional problems,” Akin said.
As any parent can attest, raising children is not easy, especially when emotional or behavioral problems are present in home, school and other settings. And when other family factors are present that can lead to placement in foster care, parenting skills are even more vital. PMTO is a program with 30 years of research and is a progenitor model, meaning a local implementation site can establish its own PMTO specialists, trainers, coaches and fidelity monitoring, thus creating a more sustainable model. The trauma-informed treatment was delivered in home primarily twice per week for six months. Therapists worked with parents first, then provided check-ins on progress and parenting skills coaching, then brought parents and children together for joint sessions.
The Kansas Intensive Permanency Project was one of six sites nationally to examine ways to improve reunification but was the only to focus on young people with severe emotional or behavioral problems.
“We wanted to investigate strategies for reunification among birth families as there are virtually no studies establishing evidence for interventions that promote reunification for this population,” Akin said. “The changes we observed may have been modest, but we still think it’s an improvement, especially since this population of families encounters so many challenges. When we analyzed data on those who completed the intervention, we were encouraged that effects on reunification were even stronger.”
Studies that had looked at this population tended to measure only short-term outcomes such as improvement in behavior instead of the longer-term goal of reunification.
The researchers hope to expand the research to see how effective the program is at keeping kids from re-entering foster care and to apply it to other populations as well. If it continues to be effective in shortening foster care stays, thereby saving resources and helping keep families united, perhaps it could help prevent young people from entering foster care. The current findings add support to guide federal law that emphasizes reunifying families.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of evidence that guides practice toward effective interventions that address the federal law’s emphasis on reunification. This study contributes knowledge to the field by building evidence for an intervention that may work for many families involved in the foster care system,” Akin said. “With robust supports, parents can make improvements and reunify. It takes work, but we’re showing we can make it work for families, kids and the state.”