Families and Child Welfare Caseworkers Disagree about Service Needs

Public child welfare systems struggle to address the problems facing the families they serve in part because of the myriad reasons families come to the attention of the child welfare system. Child welfare agencies must make decisions about how to allocate scarce resources, including which types of services to provide to families.  These decisions are often complicated by a lack of information about the populations served and the efficacy of different types of services. At a time when public agencies are increasingly being held accountable for family outcomes, it is imperative that the system gain a better understanding of who is served and how their needs can best be met.

What We Did

The State of Wisconsin contracted with Chapin Hall Center for Children and its partners at the University of Wisconsin to evaluate the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare (BMCW). As part of the evaluation, we conducted two sets of surveys. One set of surveys focused on families served by BMCW’s in-home family preservation program (Safety Services; N=480).  The other set of surveys focused on families served by BMCW’s Ongoing Services program (N=494), which serves families whose children have been removed from their home as a result of child maltreatment. We surveyed parents, children, BMCW case managers, and substitute care providers within one month of case opening and again one year later. Surveys began in fall 2000 and continued through spring 2003.

What We Found 

  • Families served by BMCW are of very limited means. This is particularly true for Ongoing Services families; four in ten had reported annual incomes of $5,000 or less.
  • Ongoing Services families had a broader array of service needs and were more likely to  report a need for concrete services than Safety Services families.
  • Parents tended to report a higher number of service needs, both for themselves and for their children, than case managers.
  • Discrepancies between case manager and parent service recommendations tended to be more pronounced for Ongoing Services families, but the discrepancy in recommendations for concrete services was evident for both groups of families.
  • Higher scores on a measure of parenting skills were associated with a lower likelihood of reinvestigation (i.e., future reports of child maltreatment) and a higher likelihood of reunification.
  • A history of homelessness and a history of child neglect were both associated with a lower likelihood of reunification.

What It Means

  • Poverty and material hardship may be significant barriers to reunification.
  • The predictors of reinvestigation and reunification point to the need for greater collaboration between child welfare agencies and other social service systems.
Recommended Citation
Zinn, A. E., & Courtney, M. E. (2008). Are family needs and services aligned?: Evaluating the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.
Are Family Needs and Services Aligned