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What is Evidence-Based Practice?

Definition of Evidence-Based Practice

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) defines "evidence-based practice" as a combination of the following three factors: (1) best research evidence, (2) best clinical experience, and (3) consistent with patient values (IOM, 2001). These three factors are also relevant for child welfare.

We have adopted the Institute of Medicine's definition for evidence-based practice with a slight variation that incorporates child welfare language:

  • Best Research Evidence
  • Best Clinical Experience
  • Consistent with Family/Client Values

This definition builds on a foundation of scientific research while honoring the clinical experience of child welfare practitioners, and being fully cognizant of the values of the families we serve.


Institute of Medicine. (2001). Crossing the quality chasm: A new health system for the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Are all of the Programs on the CEBC "Evidence-Based?"

No, they are not. As shown above, evidence-based practice involves three factors and the CEBC’s focus is on reviewing the available published, peer-reviewed research (which is how we define research evidence). The CEBC’s mission is to allow the user to easily see the level of research evidence each program has. To do this, the CEBC research staff searches for all of the research evidence for a practice, and then each practice is reviewed and, if applicable, is rated on a continuum known as the Scientific Rating Scale. The scale ranges from “1 - Well-Supported Research Evidence” to “5 - Concerning Practice.” Ratings of a 1, 2, or 3 on the scale indicate that the program has some level of comparison research evidence with good outcomes. This rating scale allows the reader to individually determine the level of research evidence that is necessary for them to consider a practice prior to implementing it at their organization. To help decide between practices with similar ratings, the CEBC offers a “Selection Guide” in the Implementation Resources section of the website. Over 40% of the practices listed on the CEBC do not have adequate research evidence and are not able to be rated on the Scientific Rating Scale. The rationale for highlighting practices both with and without research is to effectively provide straightforward, unbiased, and reliable information about the level of research evidence currently existing for practices relevant to child welfare.

Brief Overview and History of Evidence-Based Practice

Areas such as medicine, mental health, and youth violence prevention are increasingly relying on the identification and delivery of practices that are supported by strong scientific research. They are also relying on the active integration of research evidence into day-to-day service provision. While some fields have embraced this movement toward evidence-based practice for decades, there is reason to believe that it still takes years to spread scientifically proven practices into everyday practice across the country (Institute of Medicine, 2001).

The Research Base in Child Welfare

Adopting evidence-based practices requires a large volume of scientifically sound research that has been tested in ways that allows for it to be replicated. In fact, the base of solid empirical research evidence on child welfare practices is still in an early developmental state. There are some areas in child welfare that have been heavily researched; yet in many areas, little research has been conducted.

Why Might Using an Evidence-Based Practice Be Important to You?

Members of the CEBC Advisory Committee and Scientific Panel were asked to write why evidence-based practice is important to their role in the Child Welfare field. Click the links below to see their answers in relation to these child welfare-related positions:

Child Welfare Directors and Leadership

Evidence-based practice:

  • Ensures that the best interventions are available and utilized with families.
  • Provides a road map for child welfare workers in their work with families.
  • Structures services to provide every family with the same interventions regardless of where services are provided or who is providing the services.
  • Allows child welfare workers to inform the community about different types of evidence-based services that are available for families and children.
  • Provides assurance to child welfare directors that child welfare workers are trained to provide and refer families to services that are supported by research.
  • Diminishes liability for child welfare agencies when child welfare workers are providing and referring to services based on proven models of practice.
  • Minimizes personal biases of staff.
  • Provides the ability to evaluate practices to ensure they meet the Federal and State targets for the outcomes of safety, permanency and child/family well-being.

Debby Jeter
Deputy Director
Family and Children's Division
San Francisco Human Services Agency
San Francisco, CA

Front-Line Workers and Supervisors

Evidence-based practice:

  • Ensures that families are referred to the most effective and efficacious programs that the community provides.
  • Helps child welfare workers and supervisors empower families in crisis to resolve their own conflicts, using well-tested programs.
  • Allows child welfare workers to refer families to services that have been scientifically researched and proven effective, which in turn may cause the families to make a greater commitment to participation.
  • Provides child welfare workers with a better understanding of the range of programs available so they can make informed choices when referring families to services.

Deborah Reeves, ASW (former CEBC Advisory Committee Member)
Humboldt County Mental Health, Clinician I
Humboldt County Health & Human Services
Eureka, CA

Community Providers

Evidence-based practice:

  • Helps community providers understand what programs and interventions "work" (i.e., under what conditions, when, and why?) for diverse child welfare populations.
  • Is used for resource development (e.g., grant writing) as well as program development in diverse agencies and systems.
  • Contributes to policy development and advocacy both in local communities and throughout California.
  • Helps systems and cross-systems initiatives identify appropriate outcome targets and avoid the perils associated with "reinventing the wheel."
  • Provides a template for results that have been yielded from specific interventions; but they also provide a template for needs for innovation and improvement that communities can develop from the "outside in."

Michael A. Lawson, MS (former CEBC Advisory Committee Member)
Parent Led Assistance Network
Community School Solutions of California, Inc.
Child Abuse Prevention Center of California
North Highlands, CA


Evidence-based practice:

  • Provides instructors and trainers with the assurance that what they are teaching is supported by research.
  • Informs the student/trainee of the best evidence available for practice.
  • Will be disseminated broadly within the field as a result of being taught in Regional Training Academies.
  • Allows trainers to advocate for further study of a particular practice that may improve outcomes for children.

Chris Mathias
California Social Work Education Center (Cal-SWEC)
University of California, Berkeley
School of Social Welfare
Berkeley, CA


Evidence-based practice:

  • Has its foundation in the late 1600s and early 1700s, when the early founders of modern child welfare science strongly believed in and propagated for child welfare change and betterment based on scientific knowledge.
  • Is dependent on academia to generate high quality evidence on what works and what is harmful.
  • Allows for child welfare scientific advancement, which depends heavily on experimental research that can only meaningfully be conducted in relation to qualified practice.
  • Needs to be taught to students who are new to the field, which will allow them to make decisions that are in the best interest of the families they will serve.

Haluk Soydan, PhD
Research Professor
University of Southern California, School of Social Work
Co-founder and Chair of the Campbell Collaborative
Los Angeles, CA