More than 250,000 children go into foster care each year to leave unsafe home situations. But, asks researcher David Crampton, is removing children from their homes always the best solution?

Crampton, associate professor of social work at Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, contributed to a recently released study of 44,000 children at risk for foster care placement in Cuyahoga County and 10 other communities where families and child welfare workers participated in a team decision-making approach as part of the Family-to-Family Initiative (F2F).

“If you get the right people together in the right place for a meeting, the chances of keeping children out of foster care increase with a plan that keeps the child safe and resolves the concerns,” Crampton said. “If children ultimately do go into foster care, this approach allows for a quicker exit.”

This team approach involves family, friends, community members and social service workers. They meet in a community setting and discuss what’s best for the child.  The people involved and the structure of the meeting are key elements to how F2F works.

This strategy bundles parental and family involvement with community, school and social service resources and draws on strengths for the child’s benefit.

With initial support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation 20 years ago, F2F is now in 60 child welfare sites in 17 states.

For this study, data from 2005-08 and from 11 sites with diverse populations and geographic settings were analyzed to ascertain the program’s effectiveness in returning and keeping children in permanent homes. It also examined the role parental involvement had in the process.

The study focused on the outcomes for 17,000 children from large urban areas, as well as 27,000 children from California.

“Team decision-making significantly increases the chances of children returning to a permanent home,” Crampton said. In some cases, children never enter foster care after community resources are mobilized to support the child in the home.

“The more people at the meeting, the better the child’s outcome,” he found.

Crampton said children in foster care who had taken part in the F2F program were more likely to return home within a year and stay there than children who had not been exposed to the program.

The study, “Does Community and Family Engagement Enhance Permanency for Children in Foster Care? Findings from an Evaluation of the Family-to-Family Initiative,” offers information about how these family engagement meetings contribute to the safety, permanency and wellbeing of children who encounter the child welfare system.

“We were interested in exploring the significance of parents attending the meetings and how this relates to reunification of the child with the family or a relative,” Crampton said. Data showed that parents attended about 80 percent of the meetings.

Crampton and his co-authors presented their findings in a special issue of the journal Child Welfare that was devoted to research on how family engagement can advance children’s rights to safety, permanency and well-being, and those rights outlined in United Nations General Assembly’s Convention on the Rights of the Child that give children rights, when possible, to live with their family and in the culture of their birth. Brian Gran, associate professor of law and sociology at Case Western Reserve University, also contributed an article to this special issue.

“Because family engagement practices are potentially useful for protecting children, while maintaining cultural continuity, F2F can support these important children’s rights,” Crampton said.