National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW)

Expanding the focus for Child Protective Services to include physical and mental health and developmental needs

U.S. Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation

When the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) was conceived in 1997, researchers sought to determine whether America was meeting the needs of children and families in the child welfare system who were involved in abuse and neglect investigations. At the time, the lack of available data about children’s well-being hindered policy development and improvements to child welfare practices.

A 10-year effort led by our experts in social policy and survey data collection, NSCAW studied the cognitive, physical, behavioral, and emotional well-being of children involved with the child welfare system. It also examined the needs of these children and their families and the services they experience while in the system.  

Conducting the Most Comprehensive Child Welfare System Study to Date

As the lead implementer of NSCAW, from 1999 to 2012 we conducted longitudinal data collection with two cohorts comprising approximately 12,000 children and 75,000 variables.

NSCAW selected its sample from all children investigated for maltreatment during the sampling period, whether or not their cases were substantiated, and followed them over time. The first cohort included more than 6,200 children aged birth to 14 years from a national sample of child welfare agencies across the country. The second cohort included more than 5,800 children aged birth to 17.5 years. Children in the first cohort were followed for five to six years; children in the second cohort for three years. 

First-hand reports from the children themselves, their caregivers, caseworkers, and teachers provided information about children’s functioning, risks and protective factors, service needs, and service receipt. Our interviewers received specialized training to address extraordinarily sensitive topics, such as substance abuse, involvement with the law, caregiver experience with intimate partner violence, and child physical and sexual abuse.

Resolving Unique Challenges with Innovations in Data Collection and Quality Monitoring

During the project we tackled a variety of data collection challenges, including obtaining cooperation from families just after investigation and gathering data from individuals with tumultuous lifestyles, children fearful of strangers, and people with language barriers.

One significant obstacle our research team discovered early on was that many of our subjects had unreliable access to a telephone. To resolve this issue, we developed a computerized mechanism that recorded random samples of interviews as an alternative to standard telephone verification procedures. The recordings could then be reviewed as part of our quality monitoring process.

This technology—computer audio-recorded interviewing, or CARI—became an invaluable resource for determining whether questions were asked as intended, probes and feedback to respondents were neutral, and respondent questions were answered correctly.

Massive Data Collection Effort Focuses Attention on Children’s Well-Being Needs

NCSCAW is the only source of nationally representative data on the well-being of children and families in the child welfare system. Data from this project have been used in more than 500 publications, significantly expanding a body of rigorous, empirically based research that barely existed before 1997.

Most importantly, findings from this study have documented the high rates of behavioral and developmental problems among children who are reported for child maltreatment, as well as the gaps between their need for services and their ability to obtain those services. Publications and reports produced through NSCAW have drawn attention to topics such as the high rates of domestic violence among families involved with the child welfare system and the frequency of polypharmacy—the use of multiple psychotropic medications—among children living in foster care.

The people who devote their lives and careers to improving child welfare have used this information to expand their focus from a child’s basic safety to a much more holistic view that includes a child’s well-being, including developmental needs and physical and mental health.

Looking ahead, we will be adding to this body of research under a new project with ORPE, which is expected to support a third NSCAW cohort and to begin data collection in 2017.