The ability for parents to care for children is influenced by proximal and environmental challenges. Parents living in poverty often struggle to balance basic financial demands, such as the cost of food, accommodation, transportation, clothing, special-needs healthcare, material, and educational needs. Combined, the presence of these proximal and environmental risk factors for families in situations of poverty creates greater socioeconomic vulnerabilities that may impede family functioning and the reunification of families with placed children.
Across North America, child protection services are structured around basic legal and social tenants encouraging interventions that avoid out-of-home placement if safe to do so, but when children must be placed in out-of-home care, family reunification becomes the primary goal of intervention. However, reunification requires the resolution of multi-faceted risk factors at both the individual-level and environmental-level that result in socioeconomic vulnerability, and temporary out-of-home placement is meant to be used by parents to address the risk factors that lead to child protection service engagement. For example, in a case leading to the substantiation of neglect, a decision to reunify a family may come when parents complete support programs (e.g., parenting classes, addiction, or mental health treatment), demonstrate the use of supportive community services (e.g., food banks, employment and skills development programs), and make other efforts to improve case specific risk factors such as housing quality or security. These types of risk factors are important for child wellbeing but they are also emblematic of systemic socioeconomic vulnerabilities that are not within child protection mandates or capacities to solve [1
]. Many jurisdictions have implemented community supports and resources to reduce stressors for socioeconomically vulnerable families and children. However, at present, these resources may not be enough to counteract the multifaceted risk factors associated with socioeconomic vulnerabilities. Previous research by Esposito and associates [3
] has shown that socioeconomic vulnerabilities decrease parents’ ability to provide safe and adequate environments for their children, leading to a higher risk of out-of-home placement for children of such families. While it is well established that socioeconomic vulnerability increases the likelihood of placement, the effects of socioeconomic vulnerability on reunification is less clear, as is the extent to which the multi-faceted risk factors of vulnerable families and children vary based on the availability of jurisdictional prevention services and resources.
Socioeconomic vulnerability and its impact on family reunification has received little focused attention in the past two decades compared with the more fulsome body of work analyzing the relationship between socioeconomic vulnerability, child protection service involvement, and placement in out-of-home care, particularly as it relates to neglect and chronic stress [2
]. In a previous study, Esposito and associates [19
] found that neighborhood socioeconomic disadvantages, combined with individual-level and case-specific factors, were associated with a decreased likelihood of reunification. However, this previous study did not take into consideration the effects of psychosocial services offered to support child protective services—e.g., referrals for services aimed at improving parenting and family functioning—or government social service spending per child capita on mental health services, one of the primary concerns here. In general, little is also known about the extent to which psychosocial services might mitigate the influence of socioeconomic vulnerability on parents’ ability to ensure the adequately safe environments needed for family reunification. The current study seeks to fill this gap by examining the extent to which jurisdictional variations in socioeconomic vulnerability, psychosocial services, and social services spending impact reunification, after controlling for individual-level risk factors and jurisdictional latent differences in delivery of child protection services. While we expect to find jurisdictional variation in reunification based on the concentration of socioeconomically vulnerable families, the nature of the relationship between social spending, socioeconomic vulnerability, and psychosocial spending is exploratory in nature.
Poverty is defined as insufficient financial resources to meet some level of basic need [20
], and the condition of poverty can be measured at the household-level. However, poverty more broadly contextualized is associated with numerous other factors that negatively affect the overall wellbeing of children and families and create socioeconomic vulnerabilities. Poverty (as measured by financial resources) have been linked to an increase in family stress [21
] and vulnerabilities in health and wellbeing based on observable disadvantage [22
]. In the child protection arena, poverty has been associated with investigation and placement, most often for neglect [7
]. Beyond insufficient financial resources at the household-level, the concentration of poverty within neighborhoods [24
], stressors related to lone parenting, the feminization of poverty and the prevalence of female-headed families amongst the poorest families [28
], as well as the compounding effects of educational attainment, substance misuse, and poverty’s detriments to the physical and mental health of caregivers [7
], all influence child protection decision-making.
Poverty also matters in reunification. Delfabbro and associates [36
] identified poverty, which in their study was measured by the absence of housing and presence of financial problems, to be among the most consistent factors relating to delays in reunification outside of caregiver death or child abandonment. The effects of financial limitations on family reunification are also demonstrated by Wells and Guo [29
], who found welfare reforms that reduced the monthly income of parents, slowed reunification. Hook and associates, [37
] concluded that parents with children in out-of-home care had difficulty meeting both the demands of employment and child welfare mandates, which increased stress and added risk factors that again slowed reunification. It is possible that similar problems are faced by parents with children in out-of-home care in Quebec, as they are required to make financial contributions to their children’s out-of-home care needs [38
], which may reduce the income needed to secure basic necessities, increase stress levels, and as a result, delay reunification.
Where the studies above focus on the influence of income and income-related supports, others find poverty related vulnerabilities to be of greater significance than lack of financial resources alone. Wulczyn, Chen, and Courtney [16
] studied the reunification rates in and across jurisdictions comprised of female-headed, single parent, impoverished families living in racialized urban communities with high rates of children in care. The results indicated that poverty rates were insignificant for reunification, however almost every other measure, such as single parent/female-headed families, overall placement rates, and proportion of racial minority families in the population had overall slowing effect on reunification. Johnson-Reid, Drake, and Zhou [11
] found that Black children reported for neglect lived in areas with a high concentration of poverty, and come from families with a longer history of poverty than White children reported for neglect, suggesting that ecological context matters in child welfare investigation. Marcenko, Lyons, and Courtney [13
] provide a descriptive template for ecological risk factors beyond insufficient finances that delays reunification. The authors describe poverty as the most acute problem faced by the caregivers within the sample, however housing instability and lower rates of access to social services, as well as individual-level caregiver factors such mental health/psychiatric disorders, and recent (within 12 months) substance misuse was also found to delay reunification.
These studies provide converging evidence suggesting that while poverty matters in reunification, understanding and reducing the proximal and environmental vulnerabilities surrounding families in situations of poverty is also important in reunification efforts. However, what is not clear from prior evidence is the extent to which psychosocial services and social service spending may mitigate the likelihood of reunification among socioeconomically vulnerable families. Additionally, and as will be examined closely here, prior studies have not differentiated between the youngest children and the oldest, thereby masking age-specific clinical differences associated with reunification. The present population-based longitudinal multilevel study, therefore, makes an unique contribution by examining the extent to which jurisdictional variations in socioeconomic vulnerability, psychosocial services, and social services spending impact the likelihood of reunification, after controlling for individual-level risk factors and jurisdictional latent differences in delivery of child protection services.