Child Separation among Families Experiencing Homelessness

Publication Date: April 27, 2018
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The Homeless Families Research Briefs project, conducted by Abt Associates, is producing a series of research briefs on issues related to the well-being and economic self-sufficiency of families and children experiencing homelessness. Using data collected from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Family Options Study, these briefs build on the data and analysis already being conducted for HUD to answer additional questions of interest to HHS.


This series of research briefs explores issues of family homelessness that are especially relevant to HHS, to state and local decision makers, and for programs. The Child Separation among Families Experiencing Homelessness brief explores child separations among families experiencing homelessness. It builds upon the fourth brief in this series, “Child and Partner Transitions among Families Experiencing Homelessness,” which looked at family separations and reunifications in the 20 months after being in emergency shelter and the association between family separation and recent housing instability following an initial shelter stay. This new brief provides a more detailed examination of these families and their children before and after the initial shelter stay, revealing more extensive and persistent levels of child separation. It gives detailed characteristics of separated children and examines whether future child separation after a shelter stay is related to either housing instability of previous separations.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • One-third of children in families who experienced homelessness were separated from the family at the time of the shelter stay or had been separated at some time in the past.
  • A majority of those separated at the time of shelter stay had been separated from the family for 18 months or more. Most of these separated children were staying with their other parent (44 percent), with a grandparent (25 percent) or with other relatives (22 percent).
  • Separations continued in the three years after a shelter stay. Although overall rates of separation remained fairly constant, families experienced churning, with both separations and reunifications occurring throughout the period.
  • Children with prior separations were more likely to become separated again. Among children who were with the family in shelter and had no previous separation prior to entering shelter, seven percent were not with the family three years later. In contrast, among children who were with the family in shelter but were previously separated prior to shelter entry, 17 percent were separated from the family three years later.
  • Children who were separated from their family three years after the initial stay in shelter were more likely to be from families who experienced continued housing instability after the initial shelter stay. Thirty-seven percent of children who were separated at that time were from families that experienced at least one night homeless during the prior six months, compared to only 13 percent of children who were not separated.
  • About a quarter of families with separated children as of three years after the shelter stay reported that not having a place to live or enough space were factors that made it difficult for their children to live with them.


This research brief takes advantage of data collected for the Family Options Study, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The study involves 2,282 homeless families with children who entered shelter in one of twelve communities across the country. To provide the strongest possible evidence of the effects of the housing and services interven­tions, the study uses an experimental research design with random assignment of families to one of the types of housing programs or to a control group.

While the Family Options Study sample is not nationally representa­tive, it has broad geographic coverage; and study families are similar in age and gender of parents, number and ages of children, and race and ethnicity to nationally representative samples of sheltered homeless families. Therefore, it is a good sample for studying the experience of families that have an episode of homelessness. The study followed the families over the next 37 months and surveyed them again 20 and 37 months after random assignment, collecting a rich set of information about changes to the family’s composition, sources of income, use of benefit programs, and further episodes of homelessness.

The analysis conducted for this brief does not use the experimental design of the Family Options Study. Instead, the brief explores the extent to which children in homeless families were separated from their parents before, during, and after a stay in emergency shelter, regardless of the intervention to which their families were randomly assigned. The brief describes both voluntary and involuntary child separations and also describes the subsequent separation and reunification experiences of children in families who responded to the 20 and 37-month surveys.

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