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Beth Gifford Takes Data-Driven Approach to Social Policy

October 25, 2017

By Adam Beyer

Beth Gifford takes a data-driven approach to studying education and criminal justice policies affecting children and their families.

She joined the Sanford School in July as assistant research professor of public policy, after being part of the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy (CCFP) since 2005.

“It’s exciting to have so many colleagues thinking about policy from so many angles, Gifford said. “I’m looking forward to getting to know my colleagues and working more with them.”

Gifford received her Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in health policy and administration, as well as demography, and did her undergraduate work at Cornell University.

Beth Gifford

Getting access to good data is critical for Gifford’s research. At CCFP she holds the new position of director of data initiatives, which puts her at the helm of the North Carolina Education Data Research Center and the Durham Children’s Data Center.

Previously, she was director of program evaluation services and led several research projects. In one case, she evaluated a statewide program that put nurse-social worker pairs into 100 schools to help students with challenges they faced in their home environments. In another, she lead an evaluation of the work of a national non-profit—America’s Promise Alliance.

She has taught the Methods class in the Child Policy Research Certificate program and regularly advises students doing independent studies.

Recently, Gifford received a grant from the National Institutes of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study how decisions made by the criminal justice system affect children’s health. This work followed a study of how parental participation specialty courts affected children’s outcomes. 

“We looked at how drug treatment courts may improve both the arrestee’s outcomes and their children’s outcomes,” she said. “In general, we did not find that they were improving the children’s outcomes in the short-term but we could see that there was a high need among that population.”

These courts serve only a small segment of the population. More commonly, parents who have substance use issues come into contact with the criminal justice system by being arrested and possibly prosecuted, and convicted.

How do those interactions affect children? That’s the area her team has been researching over the past several months, combing datasets from a variety of sources, including Medicaid and court records.

The study indicated that researchers could identify children who would be at risk before CPS intervened, making it easier to target support services to them ahead of time. Such supports might be able to decrease the trauma or bad experiences children have, Gifford said.

“The goal is to leverage existing data so the policymakers can make informed decisions with empirically-based information about how this is going to affect the population,” Gifford said.

Over the years, Gifford has developed strong working relationships with various state and local agencies as she seeks the necessary permissions to use data. Gifford credited Duke’s Office of Information Technology for helping to create a secure protected portal for the data.

She is also the scientific leader for social and economic factors in the Children’s Health and Discovery Institute, a new multidisciplinary children’s health research initiative based in the School of Medicine.