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Major Grant Will Fund Study to Improve Lives of Kids in Foster Care

By Ilene Fleischmann

Release Date: February 2, 2012

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A grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will allow Susan Mangold to investigate ways to improve the lives of children in foster care.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Making tax dollars devoted to child welfare work most effectively for children is the focus of a promising two-year study led by a University at Buffalo Law School professor.

The study, funded with a newly announced $270,269 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, capitalizes on a rich trove of data from Ohio child welfare agencies. It is being led by Professor Susan Vivian Mangold, co-director of the Program for Excellence in Family Law at the UB Law School. Her co-investigators are Catherine Cerulli, a 1992 UB Law graduate who is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical School, and Gregory Kapcar, legislative director of the Public Children's Services Association of Ohio (PCSAO). The data has been collected by PCSAO for over a decade and includes both funding and child outcome data.

The grant is one of 15 announced Jan. 24 by the foundation's Public Health Law Research Program, whose mission is to promote the effective use of law to improve public health.

Mangold's project addresses the question: Does the source and/or type of funding, not just the amount of funding, affect health outcomes for children in foster care? The study will examine 10 years' worth of data from the 88 counties in Ohio, 45 of which have a dedicated local tax levy that provides flexible local child welfare funding. Eighteen other counties have unusual flexibility in how they spend federal funding for children in foster care, as part of an experiment by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The quality outcomes under study include number of days spent in foster care, days a child waits before he or she is adopted and cases of recurrent maltreatment. HHS uses these factors to measure the quality of child welfare programs and, says Mangold, all of them are "directly related to mental health challenges for kids in foster care."

Already, Mangold says, data analysis has shown that in counties with local tax levies dedicated to child welfare, children in the foster care system experience better quality outcomes. The effect is magnified in counties that also received HHS allocations under the federal Title IV-E waiver program, which gives counties greater flexibility in spending that funding than HHS normally grants. So, Mangold says, in counties with both local and HHS flexible funding, children waited less than a year, on average, for adoption; in counties with just one form of flexible funding, they waited three years; and in counties without flexible funding, they waited over six years.

"Whatever we measured with [flexible funding] as a variable, we found these stunning outcomes," Mangold says. "The question now is, what can we learn from these correlations?

Why does the funding source make any difference?"

To tease out the reason that flexible funding streams lead to better outcomes for children in foster care, investigators will survey the child welfare directors of all Ohio counties, then conduct in-depth interviews with 30 randomly selected directors.

The goal of the study, Mangold says, is not to persuade other counties or states to pass new taxes dedicated to child welfare, but rather that all levels of government will use the results to revise the requirements they impose on how child welfare funding is used -- ensuring that it most effectively benefits young people.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant, she says, not only covers the cost of the research, but includes consultation on its methodology and how to disseminate its results in the community of child welfare scholars and advocates.

Since its founding in 1887, University at Buffalo Law School -- the State University of New York system's only law school -- has established an excellent reputation and is widely regarded as a leader in legal education. Its cutting-edge curriculum provides both a strong theoretical foundation and the practical tools graduates need to succeed in a competitive marketplace, wherever they choose to practice. A special emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, public service and opportunities for hands-on clinical education makes UB Law unique among the nation's premier public law schools.