Wisconsin Study Finds Foster Care Besting Reunification on Education Outcomes
Permanency, especially reunification with birth parents, is the priority for most child welfare systems. But reunification may be associated with lower educational achievement, according to a recent study based on Wisconsin data.
Researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Wisconsin found that young adults who aged out of foster care had “significantly higher odds” of graduating high school and enrolling in college than those who reunified, and that earnings were equivalent across all exit types, including adoption and guardianship.
Adopted youth showed the greatest academic achievement, with 84 percent finishing high school and 41 percent enrolling in college. Aged out youth and youth who left care through guardianship were second, with 68 percent of each group completing high school and nearly 30 percent attending some college. Reunified youth trailed behind the other three exit types, with just over half of youth graduating high school and less than a quarter continuing to college.
“Contrary to conventional wisdom, youth who age out of foster care fare no worse in terms of education and earnings than do those who are reunified with their families of origin,” the study concluded. “After accounting for differences in children’s experiences during foster care, aged-out youth tend to fare similarly (with regard to earnings) or better (with regard to education) than children who reunify or who exit to guardianship and other arrangements.”
“It’s portrayed in the media a lot … that kids [who age out] are so much worse off than other kids in foster care, and we’re saying they’re really not,” said the study’s lead author Sarah Font, a sociology professor and member of the Child Maltreatment Network at Penn State, in an interview with The Chronicle of Social Change.
“Reunification or adoption [or kin care], those things can be a way to help kids achieve well-being, but they might not be enough,” Font added. “Instead of thinking about permanency as the outcome, it’s one of many outcomes we should really be looking at for these kids.”
Font said she was particularly surprised to discover that longer stays in foster care prior to aging out were correlated with increased educational achievement and base earnings.
“Longer duration in care isn’t necessarily going to have good outcomes for all kids,” Font said, adding that the connection may not be a causal relationship. “We’ll definitely need replications in other states before we can be really confident that this is not a Wisconsin-specific finding.”
Font’s research is not the first to associate reunification with negative outcomes. In a 2015 paper, University of York professor Nina Biehal found that British foster children reunited with their birth families had lower scores on well-being than those who remained in care, and were more likely to be re-abused.
"Clearly, these findings do not mean that maltreated children should not be returned home — the rights and wishes of children and parents prevent this,” Biehal wrote. “Honesty between worker and family about what needs to change, careful assessment and monitoring of progress in meeting agreed goals and the provision of effective services to support the return for as long as they are needed are important ingredients for a successful outcome.”
Font likewise recommended a longer period of support and supervision for reunited families, equal to what children who leave foster care through adoption and kinship care receive.
“If we are able to provide high quality, evidence-based services, I think we’d be more likely to see positive outcomes from reunification,” she said.
Font received funding from the National Institutes of Health, which awarded her university a $7.7 million grant for a five year “capstone” project on child abuse. Her Wisconsin study analyzed the earnings and educational trajectories of nearly 8,500 foster youth statewide using logistic regression with “county fixed effects,” thereby accounting for the local variation in child welfare systems.
Wisconsin is unique for its “really extensive administrative database,” Font said, which helped her team track youth across multiple government agencies.
Previous research has compared youth aging out of foster care to their peers among the general public, an approach Font said is less effective. “It’s really difficult to separate out what’s the effect of being in foster care versus the effect of everything they experienced before entering foster care, like child abuse and neglect,” she explained. “By looking within the population of foster care, we can start to understand how we can make sure that the foster care system produces better outcomes for more kids.”
The Wisconsin study is also unusual for its longitudinal view of kids in care. However, measuring outcomes for foster youth past age 18 led to a sample of youth who predominantly entered care at older ages and eventually reunified or aged out. Thus the “consistently positive” associations with adoption may have resulted from the small number of youth with that exit type, the study noted.
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