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Families First Executive Summary

Evaluation of Michigan's Families First Program
Executive Summary


Michigan's Families First Program was created in response to growing public concern over the statewide increase in child abuse, neglect, and delinquency cases. The Michigan Department of Social Services (MDSS) implemented the program in 1988 as an innovative alternative to traditional protective services treatment such as Foster Care. The program provides families in crisis - those in which abuse, neglect, or delinquency is most likely to occur - with a broad range of support services on an intensive, short-term basis. Families First attempts to stabilize the family by addressing the underlying sources of stress that often lead to neglect and/or violence. Many program services are offered in the home, allowing caseworkers to strengthen, empower, and preserve families, rather than protecting children by removing them from their homes.


University Associates, a Lansing-based research firm, conducted an assessment of the Families First Program to determine its effectiveness and to compare its cost and case outcomes with those of Foster Care placement. The evaluation compared a group of 225 children that was participating in the Families First Program to a similar group of 225 children receiving Foster Care services. This study spanned five years and yielded the following results, each of which is supported by multiple data sources.

  1. The Families First Program is a consistent and cohesive family preservation program.

    Families who have children at imminent risk of removal from their homes are referred to the Families First Program by MDSS Protective Services staff. A Families First caseworker makes contact with the family in an average of 28 hours. Over the next four to six weeks, the family receives intensive services in areas such as parenting, financial management, transportation, and job skills. These services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To ensure the program staff can offer the level of help needed, caseworkers are generally assigned only two families at a time.

  2. The Families First Program has the support of MDSS Protective Services staff, Families First Program staff, and families participating in the program.

    Confidential surveys of referring workers, Families First staff, and participating families revealed a high level of satisfaction with the program; 100% of referring workers said they would use Families First again in the future; ratings of program staff members show a high degree of satisfaction with their jobs; over 90% of program staff rated the program as effective or extremely effective. In addition, 82% of participating families reported behavioral changes such as improved communication, appropriate discipline, and better care of children as a result of Families First intervention; 92% said they were "very satisfied" (the highest possible rating) with their overall interaction with their caseworker; and 98% said they would recommend Families First to another family in a similar situation.

  3. The Families First Program is effective in preserving families by enabling children to remain with their families, thus averting out-of-home placement.

    When compared to a matched group of 225 children previously placed in Foster Care, 225 Families First children evidenced a consistently lower out-of-home placement rate at 3, 6, 12, 18, 24, and 30 months following intervention. Using the MDSS management information system, out-of-home placements were documented for each child in the matched comparison group. For all children in the comparison, out-of-home placement rates for the Families First children compared to Foster Care children were:


      Families First Foster Care
    3 months 7.1% 12.4%
    6 months 15.1% 26.4%
    12 months 23.6% 35.1%
    18 months 27.1% 37.8%
    24 months 28.9% 41.3%
    30 months 31.1% 42.7%

    All but the 3-month comparison were statistically significant. When delinquency and family reunification cases were removed from the analysis, the differences were even more pronounced. The out-of-home placement rates for Families First children compared to Foster Care children referred for abuse or neglect (186 children in each group) were:


      Families First Foster Care
    3 months 5.4% 12.4%
    6 months 12.9% 25.8%
    12 months 19.4% 36.0%
    18 months 23.1% 38.7%
    24 months 25.3% 42.5%
    30 months 27.4% 43.5%

    These differences were statistically significant at all six intervals.

  4. The Families First Program is highly cost-effective when compared with Foster Care Services.

    During a 6-month evaluation period, 626 families were referred to Families First. According to MDSS referring workers, 96% of these families had children who were at imminent risk of placement without Families First intervention. If this estimate is correct, averting Foster Care placement for 96% of the children referred to Families First over the program's six-year period (n=26,392) could have saved the State of Michigan more than $219,343,000 for the first year following intervention. Even if more conservative estimates of the actual percentage of children at risk are used, the savings produced by the Families First Program remain substantial. If Foster Care placement were prevented for 85% of the 26,392 children by Families First, savings to the state would amount to $185,000,000 the first year after intervention.


Results of this comprehensive evaluation of Michigan's Families First Program substantiated a well-defined model of service delivery which was highly effective at both protecting children and preserving families. The Family First Program addressed a severe social problem which was costly in terms of both human misery, and the expenditure of large amounts of public funds. Evaluative results determined that Families First was effective at treating families with children at risk of removal by empowering families while protecting the safety of their children. Not only was the Families First Program effective at attacking the severe social problem of treating families experiencing child neglect, abuse, and delinquency, but it also saved the State of Michigan many millions of dollars by reducing the need for Foster Care services.



  1. Maintain Model Integrity. As the program expands, continuously assess fidelity to the Families First model that has proven so effective.
  2. Monitor Outcomes for Various Case Types. As other types of cases (such as delinquency cases and family reunifications) are covered by the expanding program, assess outcomes by type of referral to ensure that the program model does not become weakened.
  3. Monitor the Effectiveness of the Service Period. Evaluate the length of the service period by assessing outcomes such as families' continued use of community resources for support of behavioral changes, recurrence of abuse or neglect, and removal of children from homes.
  4. Be Vigilant to the Possibility of "Netwidening." Ensure that those being served by the program are those most in need of services.
  5. Conduct Continued Follow-up Using MDSS Management Information System. Outcomes for the Families First and Foster Care children studied in this evaluation should be monitored at six-month intervals over the next several years to provide long-term data about the effectiveness of the two programs. This can be accomplished using the computer program developed specifically for this evaluation.