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James Bell fou​nded JBA in 1979 after completing 5 years with the Joseph Wholey's Program Evaluation Studies Group at The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., where he helped develop new approaches to planning and implementing evaluations that inform program management and decision-making. The Group's innovations spawned the widespread use of logic models and "evaluability assessments," fostered greater involvement by stakeholders and clients in research and evaluation, and influenced the development of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act.

JBA's first project, Baltimore Blueprint, examined reforms in community social services, education, health, and housing initiated in response to needs expressed by neighborhood leaders in Baltimore's disadvantaged communities. This experience led to projects in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the District of Columbia that focused on performance monitoring and evaluation for childcare, welfare reform, access to health care, and refugee resettlement programs. JBA also began a series of projects for the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Department of Health and Human Services, that included short-term or rapid response evaluations related to public health issues, such as the potential advantages and disadvantages of private-sector support for clinical trials sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

By the mid-1980s, JBA had begun a series of evaluations for NIH focusing on biomedical and behavioral health care research infrastructure and administration: protections for human research subjects, shared-use biomedical instrumentation, and clinical research resources. During this same period, JBA started evaluating demonstrations of managed care approaches to financing and delivering primary care and behavioral health services for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Assistant Secretary for Health, United States Department of Defense. For example, the Medicaid Program Evaluation included the first applied field studies of primary care case management, which allowed states with Federal waivers to offer Medicaid recipients an assignment to a single primary care provider that serves as the "gate-keeper" for medical services.

In 1988, Elyse Kaye joined JBA to establish a child welfare practice area. By 1990, in collaboration with Westat, Inc., JBA's child welfare practice area completed the first national study on the impact of adoption subsidies on children with special needs and their adoptive families, developed national estimates of the extent of abuse and neglect among handicapped children and children from substance-abusing families, and assessed the effectiveness of Children's Justice Act grantees in meeting the legislation's objectives. During this time, JBA independently evaluated the performance of Adoption Opportunities Program grantees in recruiting adoptive families and fostering adoptive placements for minority children and launched the National Survey of Current and Former Foster Parents.

By the early 1990s, JBA developed national estimates of the number of infants residing in hospitals beyond the date of medical discharge and prepared a Report to Congress as required in the Abandoned Infants Assistance Act of 1988. The work in child welfare extended into the area of family preservation and family support through the Evaluability Assessment of Family Preservation Programs, which involved a national random-assignment evaluation design. In 1994, JBA began the Implementation Study of Family Preservation and Family Support Services, which continued into the next decade when the program was reauthorized as the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program.

The 1990s also saw the continuation of projects for NIH, further expansion in the child welfare and child development arenas and new assignments from private foundations and charitable organizations on the use of outcome measurement approaches. In addition, JBA began what is now a 12-year involvement in evaluating integrated interventions for persons living with HIV/AIDS and co-occurring psychiatric and addiction disorders. Since 2000, JBA's portfolio has expanded into evaluation technical assistance, primarily for State child welfare agencies and community-based organizations. There also has been a heightened involvement as a coordinating center and data repository for multi-site studies and random assignment controlled clinical trials, including studies in the areas of diabetes self-management, HIV medication adherence, home visiting, and child maltreatment prevention.
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