Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Johnson helps states, counties keep children safe

Kristen Johnson Kristen Johnson

1996 alum Kristen Johnson has spent decades researching how to keep foster children safe after they are reunited with their families.

The senior researcher for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency has evaluated programs and tested assessments for cities and states across the United States and in Australia and Canada to help them figure out how best to prevent child maltreatment.

"An early effort for the state of Michigan was a quasi-experimental study of using a structured decision-support approach with strong implementation to increase the likelihood of family reunification or other permanent placement after a child has been in foster care," Johnson says. "Our findings helped Michigan implement support systems for child protection workers and the families they serve. We found that adding decision-support tools helped state workers increase the number of children returned home within federal timeframes, improved the effectiveness of Michigan foster care services and did not increase the likelihood of those children having to re-enter care."

Johnson has also worked on projects related to juvenile justice, adult corrections and adult protective service agencies. In addition to the impact evaluation of Michigan foster care case management services, she has analyzed racial disparity for child welfare and juvenile justice agencies, and conducted numerous process evaluation and risk assessment validation studies. "I have thought of Karen Holden often," says Johnson, who took program evaluation from the now-retired professor.

Johnson practices what she learned at La Follette: turning research findings into the practice of sound public policy. "The idea of using evidence-based practice to shape public policy has been around since 2001 and since then we have seen it transform how states use their limited resources," Johnson says. "For example, we recently collaborated with the state of Michigan and Casey Family Programs to identify evidence-based and promising practices for ensuring child safety in foster care." The goal of the project was to help Michigan identify how it could better ensure the safety and well-being of children in foster care."

Johnson came to what was then the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs a few years after she graduated in sociology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Originally from New Hampshire, Johnson was accepted at two schools and decided to stay in Wisconsin. While getting her degree, she served as a program analyst with the university's Department of Family Medicine for a randomized control trial of a brief physician's intervention for the Center for Addiction Research and Education. Through La Follette, she earned a fellowship that supported her work at Travelers Aid International in Washington, D.C., writing policy briefs and conducting research on homeless shelters.

All these experiences let Johnson further hone her statistical skills. Because of her undergraduate training in the Sociology Department's Concentration in Research and Analysis, she only had to take refresher statistics course. "In her applied statistics course, professor Maria Cancian emphasized that we would be best served by ensuring that we knew how to learn statistics, how to read and interpret methods manuals as well as interpreting results."

After graduating in 1996, Johnson joined the Madison office of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Starting in 2004, she reduced her workload and started working on her Ph.D., which she earned in 2010 from the university's Department of Human Development and Families Studies. She now is an affiliate of that department's Center for Child and Family Well-being.

The La Follette Institute's emphasis on turning research findings into practice through clear writing has been invaluable, Johnson says. "The practice of writing fast and well, directly and in active voice is critical."

Johnson is now giving a La Follette School student the opportunity to practice those skills — building on methods and findings from an initial data analysis by other La Follette School students. Second-year student Sierra Fischer is continuing her internship at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Her next project is to work with a dataset that will help policymakers understand the odds of a youth who has been in foster care becoming homeless.

Johnson and Fischer's analyses are part of a new pilot program, Paths to Success, a statewide initiative to reduce homelessness and aging out of foster care among youth in or exiting from Wisconsin's foster care system. "Homelessness among youth age 14-25 is a growing concern, and ensuring they have a home is critical to successful adulthood," Johnson says. Wisconsin is one of 18 states to receive a planning grant from the Administration of Children and Families to fund this effort, and hopes to be one of five states to receive further funding to reduce homelessness among youth in or exiting from foster care."