In the past several years, there has been increased attention to the use of data and information to improve performance in public child welfare administration, policy development and direct service provision. Child welfare research is a process that helps turn data into information and practical knowledge. This contrasts with information management, which focuses on developing systems to manage the input and output of data. In public child welfare, research can influence policy and inform the decisions made to improve outcomes for children, youth and families. The value of research and the role of public child welfare administrators as leaders and partners in these endeavors cannot be overstated. Research is designed to gather valid information and is central to informing decisions regarding specific questions. Research has great value to administrators and policy makers when it helps to:

  • Clarify what the problems actually are.
  • Make inferences about intervention processes and outcomes. 
  • Plan for action based upon the results.

Characteristics of good research include: objectivity, formulating and testing hypotheses and the use of appropriate methodologies determined by the characteristics of the subject, the questions and the available resources. For research to be useful, it must meet certain basic standards related to reliability, internal validity and generalizability.


The focus of research activities is to inform policy development and improve practice; therefore, certain conditions are essential within an agency to advance research practices. These include motivation, resources, knowledgeable staff, objectivity and time. A lack of investment in any of these areas will diminish the full value of the results of research. This will, in turn, keep research from developing in a way that assists the child welfare community by providing valuable information from within agencies, across agencies and nationally.


This Guidance Provides Answers to These and Other Questions:


  • How should child welfare directors maximize their agency’s use of research to identify best practices? How may they
  • encourage production of research that will inform the agency?
  • How does a new child welfare director respond to requests to participate in research that informs the field? What common barriers do agencies face in achieving their research goals?
  • What are effective research strategies? What are effective research practices?
  • What are the components of a research plan? Who should be involved? What is the process? What is needed to implement valuable research plans?
  • When should the agency engage in research activities?

Why is This Critical Area Important to the Field of Public Child Welfare?

As agencies prepare to conduct specific research activities to understand correlations between program interventions and improved outcomes with clients, and to measure agency performance through fiscal analysis, contractor performance and other administrative practices, there are several central issues to understand before a research plan can be adopted. These are:

  • Impact to the agency / building knowledge of the field. 
  • The impact of research funding.
  • Research quality.

Impact to Agency / Building Knowledge of Public Child Welfare Field

As agency leaders identify the urgent need for a more effective use of research to evaluate and improve agency performance, they are also responsible for examining how data, information and research can influence policy and build a body of knowledge. Child welfare agencies serve both sides of the “building knowledge” continuum, as producers and consumers of research. This g idance

asserts that it is important for agencies to consider participation in research to advance broader knowledge of child welfare

services even when the results will not immediately clarify the activities in, or implications for, local agencies. The field cannot evolve as rapidly as needed without broad participation in local and national research studies.


Public child welfare agencies can establish a research plan to guide their involvement with national and local research. The process of developing a plan is likely to lead to a greater understanding of the complexities of this field and the myriad perspectives. An agency’s research plan is a focused method of learning from and about practices through basic steps, i.e., formulating a question, gathering preliminary information and analyzing the information into key findings. Research affects agency administration and operations and improves knowledge in the public child welfare field for three main purposes:

  • To improve performance in individual agencies as they work to improve outcomes for children, youth and families. 
  • To inform the child welfare field at large about emerging best practices and advance the field through the study of conventional and new interventions that are rigorously examined.
  • To inform systems of care providers about the impact of multiple systems involvement on children, youth and families.

Agencies will have roles as both producers of research and consumers of research. Leaders should strive to engage staff and other stakeholders in shedding light on the complexities of child welfare and the interpretation of research findings to inform decision making.


Impact of Research Funding

In order to pursue a full research agenda, agencies will need to devote resources to research efforts. A separate research budget and office certainly has the potential to strengthen research capacity. Also, when requesting funds to initiate new programs, agencies should secure appropriate resources to evaluate programs (through a prescribed research technique). Generally, the typical allocations that have been provided to study programs (about 10% of the program budget) are not sufficient, although there is no easy formula to determine what the “right” amount is. This depends on the existing research infrastructure (e.g., the completeness of the routinely collected data on service use, processes and outcomes) and the appropriate research design to answer the question at hand.


Resources are not abundant in this field, but there are some funding streams that have been quite useful in supporting research in the child welfare field. These can be found in the key processes section here.


Agency leaders should recognize the importance of research and strive to secure resources to conduct research when it is needed. Research should be conducted in the context of delivering quality services to children, youth and families. Although several funding streams are presented later that support child welfare research, the key point is that agencies need to demonstrate their commitment to research through investment of the time and attention of leadership so that the agency is engaged in research activities to the extent that is feasible.


Research Quality

Agency leaders should understand the complexities in developing research designs and implementing research that minimizes threats to the validity and reliability of the findings and results. Those who commission research studies are responsible for assuring that research is well designed and executed to garner the credibility a study deserves. Sometimes agencies encounter research studies or engage a researcher who may have a bias in conducting of the research or in reporting the findings. If a researcher has a personal stake in the results of a particular study, the entire effort will lack objectivity -- a basic tenet of a quality research study. Even in the best of evaluations, bias may be contributed inadvertently. To address the adverse influence of bias, agencies are advised to develop a standing research advisory group or develop one on an ad hoc basis for specific studies. This will help provide an independent assessment of the objectivity of the work being conducted. Use of an advisory committee can also resolve the natural concerns that often arise about whether findings are motivated by considerations extraneous to the objective conduct of the research.


How Will Outcomes be Achieved For and With Children, Youth and Families?

  • Effective research in child welfare provides knowledge about mediating factors and change levers that will lead to long-term, positive outcomes for children, youth and families.
  • Effective research in child welfare provides an evidence base for the development of appropriate programs and policies in the field.
  • Effective research in child welfare enables the workforce to make inferences about interventions and outcomes desired plan of action for achieving these outcomes.
  • Effective research enables agencies to implement system improvement strategies as well as quality assurance practices.

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