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Program design and evaluation for at-risk children and youth: pre-venting developmental impairment


Background. The effects of risk family contexts and of institutionalization of children have been largely debated and reviewed (Bullock, Little, & Milham, 1993; Little, & Mount, 1999; Valle, 1998), since the early works of Spitz (1945) and Bowlby (1951). Nevertheless, the fact that, at a national level, political decision-making has delegated to second plan the necessary political decisions in this social intervention domain has led to the break of child protective services and to the lack of effective answers to the problem (Calheiros, 2006) and to the absence of cost-benefit analysis of the implemented programs. Further, in the majority of the cases, due to long-term permanence within risk contexts, children suffer from several developmental disorders, especially in early childhood. Thus, the purpose of this work is to, framed by a broader policy-scientific approach (McLaughlin & Jordan, 2004), present an evaluation methodology for social intervention programs in the field of child protection, as a way of assessing the evidence-base of intervention for vulnerable children and their families.


General goals. 1) To study an evaluation methodology for social intervention programs in the field of child protection, framed by a broader policy-scientific approach (McLaughlin & Jordan, 2004); 2) To design and implement new programs to achieve better outcomes for children with specific needs (Wholey, Hatry, & Newcomer, 2004).


Specific goals. 1) To improve the conditions for at-risk children; 2) To implement new methods of assessment of children's needs and new programs for these children in a coordinated way; 3) To promote new ways of thinking and the use of common language, criteria and methods in the services directed at children at risk; 4) To evaluate the outcomes of these services and compare them with the outcomes of the services that are already available.


Methods. This methodology was tested in two major child protection institutions in four different services. A logical model tool was used for the assessment of the programs with different elements of analysis: program delivery (resources, activities, outputs), customers, and results from the program (short-term, intermediate and long-term outcomes) (Wholey, 1987). Data collection included several sources such as international benchmarking, literature review, documental analysis, legislation review, interviews and focus groups with political decision-makers, institution managers/leaders and technical staff. The results of the assessments made with Dartington's practice tools of Matching Needs and Services (2001) were also considered. The sample included the last 100 children admitted in each of four services (N= 400), selected in a retrospective manner.


Key findings. The results indicate the following primary characteristics of the current programs which need improvement: 1) Lack of discrimination in the programs related to different types of problems and age of children; 2) Lack of program planning based on the child's specific needs; 3) Inadequate dimension, architectural typology, and number of children per technical staff; 4) Institutionalization as a default procedure without considering alternatives; 5) Slow and burocratic legal procedures for adoption; 6) Lack of professionals and lack of specific skills and training; 7) Elevated costs of services; 8) Lack of systematic evaluation of the services provided, and absence of longitudinal studies comparing child development in different risk contexts and intervention settings; 9) Lack of theoretical logical models as a framework to the programs.

The obtained results emphasize several questions regarding the definition, organization and design of intervention programs in the area of child protection, as well as the identification of ways to improve those evaluated programs and, ultimately, overall child development and well-being. With this methodology we can: 1) Improve the quality standards for inspection and quality control applying these outcome measures and the criteria creating guidelines and regulations; 2) Contribute to a clear definition of the planning aims and functions of residential care for at risk children; 3) Fundament decision-making during the selection process, the evaluation and integration, with explicit criteria that contribute to the achievement of the goals of the services; 4) Diversify the services offered to children at risk, with different functions, tailored to the multiple and diverse needs of the children; 5) Train professionals in the development of a technical and relational set of skills adequate to the methodology required by these services.


Key references

Bullock, R., Little, M., & Milham, S. (1993). Residential care for children. A review of the research. London: HMSO.

Little, M., Madge, J., Mount, K., Ryan, M., & Tunnard, J. (2001). Dartington's practice tools of Matching Needs and Services. Dartington-i Academic Press.

Wholey, J., Hatry, H., & Newcomer, K. (Eds.) (2004). Handbook of practical program evaluation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Contacts: Maria Manuela Calheiros, Affiliation: ISCTE - Higher Institute of Social Sciences and Business Studies, CIS - Research Centre for Social Research and Intervention, Address: Departamento de Psicologia Social e das Organizações. Instituto Superior de Ciências do Trabalho e da Empresa (ISCTE). Avenida das Forças Armadas. 1649-026 Lisboa Portugal, E-mail: maria.calheiros@iscte.pt, Phone: +351961869200


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