From Pastoral Care to Prison Pipeline | VOX, CEPR Policy Portal

When child welfare workers determine that a child has been abused or neglected, they must make a tough decision that either the child must be at home or in foster care. Despite the life-changing risks, there is little evidence of the long-term consequences of difficult transactions between family protection and child protection. On the one hand, keeping children in a harmful home environment can have serious consequences for adults. On the other hand, separating children from their families can lead to emotional trauma and instability in their lives.

In the United States, an astonishing large percentage of children experience foster care at some point during their childhood. About 5% of all children, and up to 9% of black children and 11% of American Indian and Alaska Native children are cared for at some point between the ages of 18 (Yi et al. 2020). Especially in light of the dramatic increase in the placement of foster care responsible for the opioid epidemic (Cutler and Glaser 2021, Dalman 2020, Evans et al. 2022, Howe 2022, McLean et al. 2020, Mulligan 2021) it is important to understand the effects of foster care.

In a recent study (Baron & Gross 2022), we estimated the causal effects of foster care placement on adult crime. There is a well-documented relationship between foster care and crime. In the United States, for example, about one-fifth of the prison population consists of ex-foster children (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2016) and about 70% of juveniles who come out of foster care as legal adults are arrested at least once between the ages of 26 (Courtney et al. 2011). ). Decades of research have also shown a positive relationship between foster care employment and crime (Young et al. 2017, 2021), and the media often cites a ‘foster-care-to-prison pipeline’ (Amon 2021, Trivedi 2020). Yet these statistics do not determine whether foster care is a crime because children in foster care differ in many ways from those who are not.

We’ve compiled a detailed dataset linking administrative child welfare and adult criminal trial records in Michigan to understand the impact of foster care on crime in later life. We studied approximately 120,000 child welfare investigations involving children aged 6 to 16 between 2008 and 2016. We use a feature of Michigan Child Welfare Investigations to isolate the cause of foster care that reflects a random assignment: Investigators are assigned to a local field office based on who is next on the list, not specific cases for children or families. Investigators are also prudent about whether to recommend appointments. These decisions are partly subjective, and some investigators are tougher than others. We compare the results of children who were miraculously assigned a strict investigator and those who were placed in foster care with children who were hired a more humble investigator and were not kept.

Studies have shown that foster care reduces crime in later life (Figure 1). More than one-third of unaccompanied children were arrested at age 19 (37%), compared with only 12% of children in foster care. Similarly, foster care children were 28 percent less likely to be convicted by the age of 19 (35% compared to 7%) and 21 percent less likely to be convicted by the age of 19 (26% compared to 5%).

Figure 1 Impact of feeding care on offenders under the age of 19 years

Note:: The difference in results at the 5% level is statistically significant.

We further explored whether foster care further reduced adult crime for a specific group of children. Foster care reduces adult crime for men compared to female children and for younger children (6 to 11 years) compared to older youth (12 to 16 years). We find similar effects for white, black and Hispanic children. After all, suggestive evidence suggests that children who were probably the most severely abused or neglected benefited the most from placement. In contrast, we found no evidence of effects for less severely abused children.

To whom do these results apply?

The lion’s share of child welfare investigations involve children for whom there is no guarantee of employment in foster care. The results of this survey only represent the effect of recruitment for children on the edge of foster care – that is, for ‘candidates’ for foster care, or for children for whom some investigators may recommend recruitment when others will not. Among the candidates who were placed, we found that almost all were initially placed in a family home with relatives or an unrelated family as opposed to a group home, and the most experienced were relatively stable placements, as measured by the number of different placement settings once feeding. Was done. Care They tend to be relatively low in foster care for about one to two years, after which more than four out of five people reunite with their biological family.

What are the ways to reduce adult crime?

We explore the mechanisms for why foster care first reduces the juvenile delinquency by examining the effects on other indicators of a child’s well-being. We see that foster care protects children from subsequent abuse and neglect. Children who are kept are less likely to be confirmed as future victims of abuse, even years after they left foster care.

We are also seeing improvement in the range of other short- and medium-term recovery systems. By linking Michigan’s K-12 public school system and administrative records of post-secondary enrollment across the country, we find that foster care significantly reduces absenteeism from school, improves math test scores, and increases the chances of high school graduates and college enrollment. We also examine the effects of juvenile detention spellings on children’s behavior and find that placement reduces the likelihood of a juvenile being placed in a detention center.

How does feather care placement improve these intermediate results?

We have found evidence that birth parents improve while their children are in temporary foster care. Almost all children on the brink of foster care spend a short time in foster care (one to two years) after which more than 80% reunite with their birth parents. Examining the pattern during the impact on infant outcomes, we show that the benefits of foster care emerge after most infants have reunited and survived. In addition to these trends, there are institutional reasons to believe that foster care can lead parents to improve. After the removal, the birth parents work closely with social workers and receive fully funded services to address their life challenges, such as substance abuse treatment or counseling. A judge must approve that family reunions are safe. Accordingly, we find that birth parents who have adopted children are less likely to abuse or neglect their children in the future.

Key steps for public policy

The results of this study are particularly relevant because the historic changes in federal policy have been introduced in the Family First Prevention Services Act 2019. One of the main goals of this bilateral law is to keep families safe and reduce the burden of foster care. To do this, it allows states to redirect up to $ 8 billion in federal funding from foster care and adoption services to evidence-based prevention-centric programs and services.

We find that abused and neglected children who are not cared for by their parents are more likely than adults to be involved in the criminal justice system. Thus, our results indicate that better efforts will be needed to ensure the well-being of the child at home to reduce the caseload of safe care.

However, child welfare agencies do not have to bear the burden alone. Studies show that broader social policies, such as a stronger social safety net, can also reduce child abuse and neglect (Aizer et al. 2016, Berger et al. 2017, Raissian and Bullinger 2017). Safe foster care is an important frontier for policy and research to identify what works to promote the well-being of children while keeping families intact, to meet the federal goal of reducing caseload.


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Aman, E. (2021), “The goal of the new Washington law is to block the care-to-prison pipeline”, Impressions, August 9.

Baron, EJ, and M. Gross (2022), “Is there a feather-care-to-gel pipeline? Evidence from semi-randomly appointed investigators ”, NBER Working Paper 29922.

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Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) (2016), Prison inmate survey.

Courtney, M, A Dworsky, A Brown, C Cary, K Love, V Vorhies and C Hall (2011), “Midwest Evaluation of Adult Performance of Adult Foster Youth: Results at 26 Years”.

Cutler, D, and E Glaeser (2021), “Understanding the Opioid Epidemic: When Innovation Fails”,, 12 July.

Dalman, S. (2020), “The Impact of Opioid Abuse in Outdoor Children’s Placement”, work paper.

Evans, MF, MC Harris and LM Kessler (2022), “The Danger of Prescription Opioid Outbreaks: Implications for Child Abuse”, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, Upcoming

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Mulligan, C. (2021), “Incidents of Depression and Extra Deaths in 2020”,, 28 January.

Raissian, KM, and LR Bullinger (2017), “Money Matters: Does Minimum Wage Affect Child Abuse Rates?” Child and Youth Services Review 72: 60-70.

Trivedi, S (2020), “Police feed pastor-care-to-jail pipeline by reporting on black parents”, NBC News, 30 July.

Young, J, EC McQuish and R. R. Corrado (2017), “Out-of-Placement Raising: Outrageous Outcomes in Emerging Adults”, Journal of Criminal Justice 53: 46-54.

Young, J., EC McQuish and R. R. Corrado (2021), “What is the consequence of exposure? Probing possible moderate causes “, Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 19 (1): 94-112.

Yi, Y, FR Edwards and C Wildeman (2020), “The Increasing Prevalence of Defining Determination of Certain Abuse and Foster Care for U.S. Children, 2011-2016”, American Journal of Public Healthh 110 (5): 704-9.

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