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Protecting children: New child welfare center finds “what works”

April 5, 2011

A new research center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison promotes child and family well-being through interdisciplinary research and enhanced collaboration and communication among the researchers, policymakers and practitioners seeking best practices in preventing child maltreatment.

The Center on Child Welfare Policy and Practice, a joint initiative of the School of Social Work (SSW) and the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP), provides a home base for longstanding efforts on behalf of vulnerable children in Wisconsin and the Midwest and the infrastructure needed to expand that work.

Taking the lead in establishing the center were Kristen Shook Slack and Jennifer Noyes, both of whom have affiliations with SSW and IRP and bring a wealth of expertise in child welfare research and administration. Slack and Noyes, who are serving as center co-directors, say the center’s objectives are to conduct and disseminate rigorous research, ensure state-of-the-art academic curriculum and enhance provision of technical assistance.

Center researchers identify “what works” in child abuse and neglect prevention and intervention and share that empirical evidence with individuals and groups vested in reducing the incidence of child maltreatment and improving the circumstances of children and families served by child welfare systems. They are building on IRP and SSW researchers’ past collaborations, which, between 2005 and 2010, were supported by just under $5 million in child-well-being-related research grants from federal, state and private stakeholders.

IRP director Tim Smeeding and Jan Greenberg, director of the School of Social Work, note that, “Past research and current collaborations between the IRP and SSW researchers have made great strides in understanding the causes of child maltreatment and have begun to test new approaches for both preventing child maltreatment and for intervening once it occurs. However, there is much to be learned in both the policy and practice arenas. IRP is pleased to join SSW to formalize and further expand past efforts by creating the new Center on Child Welfare Policy and Practice.”

The center will work closely with the School of Social Work’s Title IV-E Child Welfare Training Program, which provides financial support and training for students who are committed to careers in the public child welfare system. Currently, 25 students are participating and former graduates of the program are now providing public child welfare services in 20 counties throughout Wisconsin.

Slack’s research is already in use in by local child protective services officers and policymakers, who consult the center’s first publication, the report “Child Maltreatment Prevention: Toward an Evidence-Based Approach.” Prepared by Slack and her students in a graduate course on child abuse and neglect, the report was motivated in part by a request from administrative staff of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families for information from SSW and IRP researchers about “what works” in the field of child maltreatment prevention. The report provides evidence-informed answers.

Another publication, “Child Maltreatment Prevention: Where We Stand and Directions for the Future,” was written by IRP Graduate Research Fellow and SSW doctoral candidate Katie Maguire-Jack and Cailin O’Connor, graduate of the School of Human Ecology, and published by the Wisconsin Children’s Trust Fund and the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

The Department of Children and Families, as the state’s umbrella agency responsible for receiving and investigating child maltreatment allegations, produces an annual report on child abuse and neglect, which reveals that child maltreatment represents a considerable public health problem in Wisconsin. In 2009, 56,619 reports of alleged child abuse or neglect were made and 45 percent of them, 23,751, were screened-in by child protective services agencies for further assessment. Of the total allegations, 5,207 were substantiated as maltreatment. Twenty-three children died from substantiated maltreatment in 2009.

In addition to the grave consequences of child maltreatment for victims are the toll such abuse takes on society, its long-term impact, the specter of next-generation victimization and the costs it exacts for administrative services and systems and child treatment services, the co-directors say.

The center is intended to serve as a counterweight to the statistics by further extending SSW and IRP efforts to provide the policy and practice knowledge that will enhance child maltreatment prevention and intervention and help promote family well-being.