Child welfare and institutional review boards: The what, why and how

Child Welfare Initiative | Blog | 2 mins.
Written By: Contributor | Posted On: 11/01/2021

by Elisabeth Wilson, MFF Strategic Change and Evaluation Specialist


Data is one of the most important tools in any organization’s toolbelt, but few ever see how the data was collected, who collected it, or take the steps to understand it. Lack of data transparency and communication does everyone a disservice, but it’s especially detrimental in the child welfare system where these processes can’t hide in the background. 

In 2018, the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) stated that child welfare funding would now be tied to the quality of data collected for programs that positively impacts children and families. Thus, once in the shadow, data analysis and methods must now be brought to the forefront of child welfare agencies. 

For two years I ran the Research and Evaluation team at the Indiana Department of Child Services and recently published research on how to improve data collection within state child welfare agencies. As part of MFF’s new and continuing work in the child welfare space, we’re starting and sharing our research into the space. Below we break down the laws, how child welfare agencies can support data collection and ethical research with children and families. 

Why is data needed in child welfare?

It is no secret that the child welfare system needs transformational change. Decades of research shows that children who experience foster care are at greater risk of experiencing several adverse health outcomes. With a field of professionals dedicated to bettering the lives of children and families, how can we improve the lives of the children we serve? That is where data comes in. To fully understand how to improve the child welfare system, we need to know how each program impacts the individual children and families it serves. 

What is the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA)?

To increase the amount of data and research based programs in child welfare, the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) was passed under the Bi-Partisan Budget Act of 2018. This law creates a handbook of standards and procedures on how to research child welfare programs and the level of significance a program needs to be eligible for federal funding. To be eligible for the highest funding reimbursement, programs must show a positive outcome for the children and families that lasts at least one year post program. That is a lot of data. 

What is an Institutional Review Board (IRB) and why are they needed in child welfare agencies?

In order to embark on such a long data collection, researchers need structures in place to make sure that the children and families in their studies are protected. An IRB is required to review all research studies that involve human subjects, and more intense review is needed when studies involve vulnerable populations including children, pregnant women and prisoners. All of these individuals may interact with the child welfare system and their rights must be protected. IRBs are made up of a committee of people including scientists, nonscientists, vulnerable populations advocates and other members of the organization. Traditionally, these committees operate within Universities and are only accessible to researchers affiliated with the University, but this model does not support researchers that conduct research outside of Universities. This is where IRBs and child welfare collide. In order to carry out these ambitious data collection efforts, state researchers must have access to an IRB within the state agency to the people in their studies, and comply with federal law.

For a deeper look at how each state agency can build this resource check out the latest research.