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Do new laws aimed at creating greater stability in out-of-home placement work?

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The Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI) has initiated a long-term project to evaluate the impact of three new acts aimed at introducing greater continuity and stability in out-of-home care for children and youths, and motivated by the hope that this in turn will lead to greater well-being for this vulnerable group.

A growing body of research, both in Denmark and abroad, has documented that the lives of children, and particularly youths, placed in out-of-home care are marked by unstable placements. One recent study* of Danish teenage placements shows that of the 225 youths and 367 placements in the sample, in the period 2004–2008, 44% of the youths experienced a breakdown and 33% of the 367 placements ended in breakdown. Placement instability has been linked to the poorer development of those in out-of-home care, especially children, and for their negative life outcomes as measured by a range of parameters such as education, employment and delinquency. One intervening factor in this linkage is the lack of a positive peer and, in particular, adult support network, which results from the placement instability.

Findings like these formed the backdrop for the legislative reform enacted by the Danish Parliament in January 2009, which included three acts, each aimed at introducing greater continuity and stability in out-of-home placement for each of the three groups in care. The first act gives the municipal authorities the power to place infants below the age of one in care for a period of up to three years without recourse to appeal. The second applies to those being returned home, and legally binds the municipality to give a ruling and to determine a preparatory period of up to six months prior to the return. The third permits the municipal authorities to extend an out-of-home placement indefinitely if a child or young person is particularly attached to a place and has lived there for a period of at least three years.

SFI’s evaluation, which uses a quasi-experimental design, has three parts: 1) Identifying the children and young persons treated or eligible for treatment under the new acts in the period July 2010 - December 2012 and a comparison group from the period 2006-2008, 2) describing the implementation of the new acts in municipalities across Denmark, and 3) estimating the short-term and long-term effects of the new acts.

Each of these parts presents different challenges for the evaluation team. For instance, in the first part, researchers will use detailed administrative data to target not only those to whom the new acts were applied in the given period (the ‘primary treatment group’) but also those to whom the acts could have been applied (i.e. they were eligible) but were not (the ‘secondary treatment group’).

In the second part, focusing on policy implementation, the researchers will describe and explain the variation in the application of the new acts across a subset of the country’s 98 municipalities, using different methods (e.g. focus-group interviews, telephone interviews) to collect data from different levels of the municipal hierarchy (caseworkers, middle-level managers).

In the third part, SFI researchers will attempt to answer the big question -- have the new laws achieved their aim? They will do this by comparing the children and youths subject to the new acts to a similar group treated under the old laws. Using both administrative and survey data, the three groups will be compared at specific ages over the period 2010-2020 on the basis of a series of short-term outcomes (e.g. stability of placement) and long-term outcomes (e.g. psychological, social and economic well-being) as well as on the basis of their own assessments of placement in care.

For further information about the study, contact project manager Siddhartha Baviskar, sib@sfi.dk.

* Olsson, M., T. Egelund and A. Høst. 2011. Breakdown of teenage placements in Danish out-of-home care. Child & Family Social Work 17(1): 13-22.

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