• By Michael Little
  • Posted on Friday 01st April, 2011

Orchid in the woods

Every now and then, ambling through the woods of scientific orthodoxy that populate a conference like SRCD, one comes across a beautiful orchid. They are rare finds.Jane Costello’s natural experiment to test the effect of higher family income on the mental health of children in the Smoky Mountain Longitudinal Study was a great example. It is many years old now, but it stays in the mind.Jane’s colleague at Duke University Ken Dodge provided another on the first day of the SRCD Conference in Montreal, Canada today.Dodge has been experimenting with a series of community wide interventions to reduce child maltreatment. I think of this kind of initiative as the future of child protection. The story in Prevention Action describes the details. [See: Child Protection: the shape of things to come?"]The orchid in the woods is the evaluation strategy used by Dodge and his colleagues. It is commonplace to have insufficient resource to provide every family with additional, largely unproven interventions. Faced with this problem, and looking for a fair way to proceed, Dodge got the communities in which his interventions would be tested to agree that babies born on birth dates with an even number would get extra help, while those born on a birth date with an odd number got services as usual.Later, a team asks the parent of one child born on each day of the year to participate in a descriptive child development study. Of course, half will have been offered extra help, and half will not.In this form of random allocation, the date becomes the identifying factor. One does not need a name. That means that in say 10, 20 or 30 years, if researchers or policy makers want to examine administrative data to find out if the extra help translates into better school outcomes, or less incarceration or delayed parenting, they need only know the birth date of the study participants. Not their names.Beautiful.

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