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Globalization and child welfare: lessons from a cross-national study of children in out-of-home care


The research aims and methodology. Globalisation is (appropriately) having an impact on child welfare policies as well as on related policy areas such as anti-poverty strate­gies. The advantages of learning from others are clear, but the potential pitfalls associated with incorporating research findings and practice interventions from one country into the policy and practice of another are often ignored. Alongside peer-reviewed research, routinely-collected administrative data can provide necessary context for these cross-national debates and initiatives. But even with these large data sets, inappropriate comparisons between apparently 'successful' outcomes in different countries can lead to misleading conclusions and inappropriate policies and practices.

The aim of the research which is the starting point for this paper was to identify sources providing routinely collected data on children in out-of-home public care in countries with broadly comparable economies and welfare systems. A scrutiny of web-based data and published reports from 28 States in 14 countries was followed by interviews with researchers, policy makers and practitioners in most of the countries. This proved essential in order to clarify terminology, to seek to ensure, as far as possible, compara­bili­ty of the data and to tease out explanations for differences between 'in care' popula­tions.

Findings. Substantial differences were found in the rates of children in care (ranging from 17 per 10,000 children in Japan and over 100 per 10,000 in Alberta and Denmark). A range of variables was considered as providing possible explanations for these differences.

Social contexts, attitudes towards the family and willingness to sanction more coercive state interventions; political ideologies (notably views held about the value of providing family welfare services; the perceived benefits to the child and family of out-of-home placement; policies on 'mandatory reporting' of child maltreatment) were all considered. Family support services and services for offenders or disabled children and parents could be seen to impact on the characteristics and rates of children entering care in any one year, showing up a different pattern than that for the 'in care on a specified date' populations. In particular, whilst, in some states (for example Denmark, Japan and Sweden) both short and longer term care was seen as part of the family support service (with voluntary entry to care being the most usual legal route) in others (for example Canada, the USA and, to a lesser extent, France) the service was essentially a response to child maltreatment or neglect, with most care entries being required by the courts or similar administrative decisions.

Rates for care entrants varied between 6 per 10,000 (Japan) and 18 (Norway) to 42 per 10,000 in Washington State). Whilst around 40% were under the age of 5 when coming into care in Australia and the USA (and almost 50% in Japan), the population served by the out-of-home care service in Scandinavian countries was weighted towards teenagers, with over 40% of those entering care being aged 15 or over (compared with 8% in Australia and only 4% in England). Some countries such as France, Germany and New Zealand have more balanced age distribution for care entrants. Placement choices also impact on length of stay and routes out of care.

Within countries, some minority ethnic populations (but not all) were over -represented, indigenous children being far more likely than majority white populations and most immigrant groups to be over-represented.

Limited data on what might be described as 'service' outcomes (number of placement moves, length of time in care, routes out of care) were available on the total in-care populations for very few countries. Although not the main focus of the research, these, together with research reports on outcomes, were considered for each country when available. It was concluded that differences in the characteristics of children entering care, and differing placement patterns, impacted on reported 'outcomes' for total populations.

Administrative data have to be complemented by detailed research on sub groups, for example, children entering care when under the age of 2 and placed in some countries with long term foster parents or kin, and in other countries with adoptive families; young people entering care who already have severe behavioural difficulties or records of offending.

Research studies from different countries which consider outcomes for these discrete sub-groups appear to reach more similar conclusions. Whilst outcomes are generally good for those who enter care when young and are placed with adoptive families or are provided with stable foster family care until adulthood, all countries seek, but often fail, to provide placement stability and a loving family home to those entering care when already troubled. Of particular concern also is the smaller but very worrying group who enter care when young, often after experiencing maltreatment, who are further damaged by multiple placements or disruption of adoptive or planned long term foster family placements.

Conclusions. The paper argues for the routine collection of robust administrative data on child welfare populations to complement summative (what works?) and formative (why does it work and with whom?) research studies.

It argues that, while much is to be gained by learning from apparently successful policies and interventions across State and national borders, care has to be taken to ensure that the contexts in which the services are provided, and the characteristics of the children served, are similar.

Whilst progress can be made in improving outcomes for vulnerable children by studying research data and evaluations from other countries, the conclusion drawn from this study is that adaptation is likely to be needed to suit local contexts, and that 'off-the-peg' solutions may lead to costly failed experiments.

Key references

Thoburn, J. (2007). Globalisation And Child Welfare: Some Lessons From Cross-National Study Of Children In Out-Of-Home Care. Norwich, UEA Social Work Monographs (www.uea.ac.uk/swk).

Contacts: June Thoburn, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, University of East Anglia,

Norwich, England NR4 7TJ, Tel. 00 44 (0) 1603 592068, j.thoburn@uea.ac.uk


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