A Philanthropic Partner for Building the Family First Arsenal

Image: University of Chester

The Family First Prevention Services Act paves the way for more federal investment in programs with a solid base of evidence of helping children and families. But this exposes an elephant in the room when it comes to child welfare: there aren’t many models that fit the bill.

While the feds will cover some of the cost for further research and evaluation, the high price tag of quality studies still threatens to stifle growth in the child welfare evidence base. That’s why governments and nonprofits alike should take notice of the new offer made by a relatively new philanthropic player in the field.

Arnold Ventures, formerly the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, is actively seeking applications to fund evaluations of child welfare-related services, with an emphasis on programs that could be funded under the new law.

“We are very interested in more proposals in this area,” said Jon Baron, vice president of evidence-based policy for Arnold. “We are especially interested in programs that could be funded through Family First because the law provides a potential pathway to scale.”

Family First opens up the Title IV-E child welfare entitlement to cover services aimed at helping families in crisis without the use of foster care. But the law limits this new funding to services that meet strict evidence requirements. The Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse, created to rate candidates, has reviewed a dozen programs so far, with another 16 reviews in the pipeline.

The clearinghouse has been criticized for the slow pace of its approvals, but that is not the primary barrier here. Of the 482 interventions cataloged by the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare, which has similar evidence standards, just 35 meet its criteria for being “Well Supported” by research.

Under the law, states will not be able to access federal matching funds for evidence-based prevention programs until they have submitted and received approval of a five-year prevention plan. These plans must include evaluations for any services that do not meet the law’s highest evidence standard.

The Children’s Bureau announced in October that it will cover half the cost of these evaluations, but the remaining expense may be a barrier for some states. Baron said that Arnold Ventures would be willing to help cover these expenses if the studies are sufficiently rigorous.“We have funded randomized controlled trials that are also partly funded by the federal government,” he said, citing previous projects in K-12 education. “We could do so in child welfare.”

The foundation is considering new submissions on a rolling basis, and the Request for Proposal can be accessed by clicking here.

Arnold’s interest in Family First is consistent with a broader shift in its strategy, which is now focused on achieving system-level change. Founded as the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in 2008, Arnold has so far invested about $50 million in more than 75 studies intended to build evidence across a range of social services. It announced early results for four of the projects last month. [Full disclosure: I have received funding from Arnold in previous years related to the Social Innovation Research Center, which I founded.]

Arnold has already funded five projects that are child welfare-related, with grants ranging from about $260,000 to $2.5 million (see below column for details). The largest grant is for a replication study of Child First, a home-visiting program that was already backed by a well-conducted randomized control trial.

The new replication study, if successful, would boost its evidence rating. “This study is designed to get the highest rating in the clearinghouse,” said Meghan McCormick, the principal investigator on the project for MDRC, a New York-based evaluation firm.

How can other projects make it into this pipeline? “We typically work with organizations to raise funding to support research and evaluation,” McCormick said.

Earlier-stage programs may want to be cautious, however, before they make the leap to a randomized trial, warned Elysia Clemens, deputy director of the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab, which is overseeing two Arnold-funded evaluations.

“Family First is an incredible opportunity to up our game on evidence,” she said, “but it can incentivize researchers to jump ahead to a randomized trial too early,” said Clemens. “If we jump to rigorous causal studies too fast, they are likely to fail, and we may lose the momentum and practitioner interest in building the evidence,” she said.

In addition to initial testing of promising programs, it is also critical to build the knowledge base on how some well-established models translate to different races or age groups.

“Subgroup effects are really important,” said Heather Taussig, principal investigator for the Fostering Healthy Futures for Teens project. “Not every intervention will be equally effective across every demographic or risk profile.”

Building the Evidence Base

Five child welfare-related evaluation projects underway with Arnold Ventures support.

Child First Replication Study: $2.5 million study on the replication of a previous study of Child First, a home-visiting program for families with young children at high risk of child maltreatment

Educational Liaison (EL) Program for High School Students in Foster Care: $500,000 study of Check and Connect, a dropout prevention program for middle and secondary school students in the foster care system.

Fostering Healthy Futures for Teens: $550,000 study of an adaptation of Fostering Healthy Futures, a mentoring program for preadolescent maltreated children (ages 9-11) in foster care.

Fostering Opportunities Program: $266,000 study of a dropout prevention program for 7th- to 10th-grade youth in foster care that uses a youth advocate to reduce or prevent school transfers.

Rapid Responders for Runaway Youth: $388,000 study of a rapid response case management program intended to refer runaway youth and their caregivers to evidence-based services.

Patrick Lester is a research and evidence-based policy columnist for The Chronicle of Social Change, and the senior consultant at the Ahlquist Center for Policy, Practice & Innovation at Children’s Home & Aid.

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