Is There a Foster Care-To-Prison Pipeline? Evidence from Quasi-Randomly Assigned Investigators
Foster care placement is strongly associated with crime—for example, close to one fifth of the prison population in the United States is comprised of former foster children—yet there is little evidence on whether this relationship is causal. Leveraging the quasi-random assignment of child welfare investigators and administrative data from Michigan, we show that foster care placement substantially reduced the chances of adult arrests, convictions, and incarceration for children at the margin. Exploring mechanisms, we find that foster care also improved a range of children's safety, academic, and behavioral intermediate outcomes. A likely reason for children's improvements is that their birth parents made positive changes, as most children in our setting reunified with their parents after a short stay in foster care. In light of recent historic federal policy which prioritizes keeping children with their families, our analysis indicates that safely reducing foster care caseloads will require improving efforts to ensure child well-being in the home.