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RTI Stories

NSCAW: RTI's Most Challenging Survey of the 1990s

"We were accustomed to dealing with massive data collection on sensitive topics"

In 1996, RTI conducted the first-ever survey of the United States child-welfare system. The impetus was President Bill Clinton's recent welfare reforms, which politicians feared might create economic tensions in families and increase rates of child abuse and neglect. Congress directed the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (now the Administration on Children and Families) to fund the six-year National Survey on Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW), which was since extended and is still a going concern today.

The task facing the Institute was overwhelming. "Small local studies had been done in the past that were not sufficiently large to generalize beyond the local community or county, but nothing of the magnitude needed," says project director Kathryn Dowd. "When child abuse or neglect happens, no one wants to talk about it. No one thought [the study] could be done. Fortunately, we were accustomed to dealing with massive data collection on sensitive topics."

Dowd and her colleagues spent two years designing the intricate survey. The team targeted a sample of 5,500 children, from birth to age 15, who were being served by 97 child-welfare agencies across the country. The youngest children, five years old, were asked relatively benign questions about friends and school, but as the subjects grew up, the questions in repeat interviews involved greater complexity and sensitivity.

"We also interviewed caregivers about the children under their care–how they were progressing and getting along with others and the resources available to them," Dowd says. "And we also asked questions of child welfare caseworkers investigating allegations of abuse and neglect and surveyed teachers and day-care providers by mail."

The resulting data provided an unprecedented view into the physical and mental health, social and behavioral competence, cognitive and academic skills, delinquent behaviors, substance abuse, experiences of maltreatment, and other exposures to violence of children in the child-welfare system. Lack of supervision was the most commonly reported form of maltreatment, and researchers also found that, despite tremendous need, many children received few, if any, services.

In 2018, for their joint work on NSCAW, RTI and the Administration for Children and Families received the American Association of Public Opinion Research's prestigious Policy Impact Award for outstanding research that has had a clear impact on improving policy decisions, practice, and discourse in the public sector.