Main Page
This Issue
Next Article

2007 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 12, No. 3
June 2007

How Do NC’s Rural and Urban Child Welfare Agencies Compare?

Rural areas face challenges that urban areas do not. These include greater poverty, a narrower range of employment opportunities, and scarcity when it comes to transportation, child care, and practitioners in specialized health and human services (Templeman & Mitchell, 2002; Macro International, 1999). These are real, empirically verified problems that rural human services providers—including child welfare professionals—must overcome every day.

Given these handicaps it might seem reasonable to assume that rural areas would also lag when it comes to outcomes for families and children. Yet evidence of such a difference between urban and rural is conspicuously absent from the research literature. This is somewhat understandable. Studies of this type are more difficult due to statistical problems created by the small numbers of consumers of child welfare services in counties with small populations, and because of possible cultural pressures in rural communities to avoid involvement with the public services system.

Yet the question of whether there is a difference in the outcomes achieved by rural and urban child welfare agencies is not an academic one. Differences of this kind may have implications for funding, policy, training, and practice decisions that can have a very real impact on children, families, and practitioners.

Accordingly, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Rural Success Project decided to look into the matter by examining similarities and differences in child maltreatment and placement outcomes for rural and urban counties in North Carolina. Its analysis involved a search for rural patterns in different geographic regions of the state and used data from each of our state’s 100 county DSS agencies. What follows is a brief description of some preliminary findings.

Experiences of Kids in Care
Rural Success Project researchers began by looking at the experiences of children in foster care. Thanks to the pioneering work of Dr. Charles “Lynn” Usher at the UNC-CH School of Social work, the NC Division of Social Services maintains a longitudinal data base that tracks the experience of cohorts (or groups) of children as they enter placement authority for the first time. These “experiences data” are posted to the web <> so agencies can use them for planning and analysis.

Because most rural counties have the smallest populations and sometimes very small numbers of children in care, project staff used a 3-year cohort (as opposed to a 1-year cohort) so that it would have more meaningful numbers for analysis.

For this phase of its rural/urban comparison the project looked at four child outcomes. In two of these—”percent of children ever placed in non-family (group) care” and “average number of placement spells (re-entry)”—it found no difference in the experiences of children from urban and rural counties. For the other two, however, there was a difference.

Fewer Placement Moves in Rural Counties. We learned that during the period under study, the more rural the county, the fewer times children were moved from one placement to another during their first spell of placement. The project’s analytical model predicted an average of 2.2 placements in the first placement spell for children in completely rural counties and 2.6 placements for children in 100% urban counties. Overall the difference was fairly small, but for a child the difference between 2 placements and 3 placements can feel very large.

Shorter Stays in Care in Rural Counties. In addition to having more stability in their placements, children in rural counties leave the system earlier, either to be reunited with parents or to adoptive or other permanent homes. The difference is most stark between the most urban counties and all others. After about 2 years, children in 100% rural counties are clearly less likely to remain in care than those in more urban counties. Figure 1 summarizes this finding by comparing the median number of days of placement.

North Carolina’s CFSRs
In the next phase of the comparison, project staff conducted a secondary analysis on data from reviews the NC Division of Social Services conducts on each county DSS. These reviews, formerly called the biennial reviews but now called Child and Family Services Reviews (CFSRs), assess county agencies according to seven outcomes: 2 around safety, 2 around permanence, and 3 around child well-being. These outcomes are scored either “in essential compliance” or “not in essential compliance.” Nested under these seven outcomes are 23 process indicators that are scored as “needing improvement” or left blank.

An analysis of review data from state fiscal year (SFY) 2003-04 and 2004-05 found that rural counties were more likely to be “in essential compliance” with outcomes and less likely to “need improvement” in the 23 indicators. Figures 2 and 3 illustrate how counties at different places on the rural/urban continuum performed on the CFSRs during these years.

It is important to note that on most indicators, rural and urban counties had similar successes. However, rural counties outperformed urban counties on the following process indicators:

Item 1. Timely respondes to maltreatment reports
Item 2. Low level of repeat maltreatment
Item 17. Needs met/services for child, parents, foster parents
Item 18. Child and family involvement in case planning
Item 19. Worker visits with child
Item 20. Worker visits with parents
Item 22. Physical health needs of the child [met]
Item 23. Mental health needs of the child [met]

The conclusion reached by UNC-CH’s Rural Success Project is that, on average, North Carolina’s rural child welfare agencies are doing as well or better than urban agencies in terms of outcome and process measures. Although more research in this area is needed, this conclusion suggests that at the very least, urban communities could learn from the strategies and successes of rural communities.


References for this and other articles in this issue