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Welfare Reform and Families in the Child Welfare System (WP-02-08)

Morgan B. Ward Doran and Dorothy E. Roberts

Past research establishes an association between welfare receipt and involvement with child protection services. Leaving welfare to enter the workforce, the primary goal of the 1996 welfare reform, holds the potential both to improve children’s welfare by increasing poor families’ income and to increase child maltreatment by throwing families into economic uncertainty. Many welfare recipient families have experienced a number of adverse life events that make them more vulnerable to charges of child maltreatment. In addition, the new behavioral requirements that welfare reform imposes as a condition of receiving benefits affect the parenting experiences of recipients who are concurrently involved with the child welfare system. These families are at the intersection of two state institutions that seek to modify the behavior of poor parents.

This paper uses the findings of a qualitative study to explore the convergence of these two behavior modification programs in the lives of poor families. Our study focused on families who both received welfare and experienced involvement with the child welfare system — so-called “dual-system families.” We conducted in-depth, face-to-face interviews with a subset of 16 dual-system parents drawn from the larger pool of families participating in the Illinois Families Study (IFS). The IFS tracks a random sample of 1,362 Illinois families who received welfare benefits in 1998 for a six-year period. Our goal was to examine the impact of welfare reform on the experiences of families in the IFS who are also involved with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Our interviews confirmed that the convergence of these two behavior modification programs places competing demands on poor parents, making it difficult to meet the expectations of either program. As a result, dual-system families are uniquely burdened by excessive and, at times, contradictory social welfare policies.

Morgan B. Ward Doran, School of Law and Program in Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University

Dorothy E. Roberts, School of Law, Northwestern University

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