A simulation that tests how child welfare programs work in the real world

What if you could test how a policy will impact kids? A new model from RAND Corporation looks to do just that.
What if you could test how a policy will impact kids? A new model from RAND Corporation looks to do just that.
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A swath of reforms could save the country's child welfare systems some $12 billion, according to a new report by the nonprofit RAND Corporation.

The think tank, based in Santa Monica, built a model using data from 24 million children born between 2010 and 2014. With it, they simulated how investments in various types of programs could impact child welfare outcomes. The team of researchers is expected to present its findings to the Congressional Caucus on Foster Care in Washington D.C. on Tuesday. 

The report found investing in child abuse prevention services and support for family members who take in foster kids collectively have massive benefits for children and the system as a whole.

Researchers simulated investing $4.4 billion nationally into such programs for the group of children and the model showed lower rates of child abuse, fewer children entering foster care, and improved job prospects and social outcomes for foster kids—and ultimately cost savings to the system. 

"No one approach is going to achieve all these goals," said Dana Schultz, a senior researcher at RAND. "There needs to be a balanced approach to what happens before entering the system and once you get into the system."

Prevention services, in particular, could have a substantial impact, the report found.

Researchers focused on two types of programs that target families statistically at risk of maltreatment. One sends nurses to visit families at home during pregnancy and early childhood.

L.A. County's Nurse Family Partnership has been up and running for decades, with good results, said Cindy Chow, the nurse manager for the program at the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

The program currently serves about 650 women with a range of complexities in their lives, from histories of abuse to histories with sex trafficking. But as many as 20,000 people could qualify for the program in L.A. County, Chow said.

Funding, which comes from a patchwork of federal, state, and local pots, has gone up and down over the years, but the program has persisted because the county kept it alive, she said. 

"It's a great program," Chow said. "We would love to expand."

Parent education programs were also listed as particularly effective tools, as well as once kids are in foster care, focusing on placing them with family members who are well supported by services.

Increasing the quality and quantity of those programs in the simulation had measurable impacts on the number of kids entering foster care, as well as later in life, the children's likelihood of becoming homeless, being convicted of a crime, being underemployed, and abusing substances. 

Researchers hope to use the simulator going forward to test the likely outcome of a variety of foster care programs and policy changes. 

The full report is available here