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This study was conducted between 1989 and 1994 under the auspices of a practice-research partnership between two nonprofit voluntary agencies [Children's' Bureau of Southern California (CBSC) and Hathaway Children's Services (HCS)], the Los Angeles County Department of Family and Children's Services (DCFS), The Stuart Foundations, and the University of Southern California School of Social Work.

The research addressed four major questions: (1) Is there a change in the functioning of abusive/neglectful families over time, and can such changes be attributed to the programs of the two agencies under study? (2) What factors are associated with positive outcomes for families and children participating in the programs? (3) Do ratings of family functioning and change differ when information is collected by practitioners in contrast to research interviewers? and (4) To what extent is participation in the programs associated with decreased need for out-of-home placement?

Study Methods

The study used a modified experimental design with a one-year follow-up, randomly assigning DCFS-referred families to the service group or to a comparison group receiving “regular” DCFS services. Any family thought to have the potential to benefit from family preservation service were referred by DCFS workers; families were eliminated from consideration if they refused service or were totally incapable of participating in case planning. The service group (n=111) was made up of 53 families served by CBSC and 58 families served by HCS, while the comparison group included 129 families.

The Family Assessment Form (FAF) was used to collect information on family functioning. The FAF was completed by workers at the participating agencies at the beginning and at the termination of services. The researchers also converted the FAF into a research interview, lasting between two and three hours, which was designed to collect the parents' perceptions of their family's functioning at all three points in time.

Study Findings

The highlights of our study findings are as follows:

  • There were no differences between the experimental and control groups on any descriptive variable.
  • Generally, HCS provided a shorter and more intensive service than did CBSC. However, the families reported receiving similar amounts of help and had similar perceptions about the outcomes of service.
  • Service families reported receiving considerably more help than families in the comparison group, and reported that they were more likely to receive this help from workers rather than from others.
  • Families in both the service and comparison groups reported to interviewers that they did not have significant problems with family functioning in any of the areas of family functioning measured by the FAF at case opening.
  • Neither factors associated with the service models of the two agencies nor DCFS allegation at the time of referral predicted change in any area of family functioning.
  • Like many other recent controlled studies of family preservation programs, this study found no significant difference in placement rates or types between children in the service and comparison groups during 15 months of the project.
  • Overall, in the service group, factors beyond the worker's control were more likely to account for a child being placed. In the comparison families, a lack of services, coupled with previous involvement with DCFS, aggressive behavior, emotional instability of care givers, and serious problems in family functioning seemed to account for child placements.
  • For the small number of children who did leave care during the project period, 90 percent of those in the service group remained at home for the duration of the project period, compared to fewer than half of the children in the comparison group.


Further Reading

McCroskey, J., & Meezan, W. (in press). Family preservation and family functioning. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

McCroskey, J., & Nelson, J. (1989). Practice-based research in a family support program: The family connection project example. Child Welfare, 67, 574–589.

Meezan, W., & McCroskey, J. (1996, Winter). Improving family functioning through family preservation services: Results of the Los Angeles experiment. Family Preservation Journal, 9–30.


Taken together, our data showed small but significant improvements in family functioning, according to both families and workers, for the service group but not for the comparison group. But clearly, the families and the workers viewed the areas which changed and the timing of the change differently. Perhaps families under DCFS supervision “cannot” admit to problems and therefore do see improvement except in concrete areas after the close of service, while caseworkers “must” see improvement when they have invested themselves in families at the time the case was closed. Clearly, roles and perspectives are important when investigating changes due to service.

In our view, the findings of this study reaffirm the importance of family preservation services as one part of the service continuum. Such services cannot take the place of out-of-home care or adoption for children whose safety and well-being are at risk. They cannot take the place of long-term counseling or substance abuse treatment for parents who need them in order to offer their children a safe and nurturing home. Nor can family support services fully offset the need for family preservation services. One kind of service nor one service model will fit the needs of all families. Services clearly must be shaped to the unique needs of the families using them.

William Meezan, DSW, Professor
Jacquelyn McCroskey, DSW, Associate Professor
University of Southern California School of Social Work


For further information, please contact the authors:

University of Southern California
School of Social Work
Montgomery Ross Fisher Bldg., Rm 214
University Park MC 0411
Los Angles, CA 90089-0411
Tel: 213-740-5883 or 213-740-2004


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