Does CPS Lead to Incarceration?

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Melissa Johnson-Reid and Richard Barth

Child Abuse and Neglect, April 2000, Vol. 24, no. 4, pgs. 505-520

Free from Dr. Jonson-Reid, 1 Brookings Dr., Campus Box 1196, St Louis, MO 63130

Everyone knows that the child welfare system is overwhelmed, and that children are harmed as a result. The purpose of this study was to find out why kids in the child welfare system are twice as likely as kids in the general population to end up incarcerated.

This was a well-designed study of the almost 160,000 school-age children in 10 counties in California who had their first investigated report of abuse or neglect sometime between 1990-95, and were followed through 1996. The counties included urban, suburban, and rural counties, which tended to have more Hispanics and fewer African Americans than other communities in the U.S.

The study included children who were over the age of six at the time of their contact with child protective services (CPS), and focused on the most serious offenders, who were committed to the California Youth Authority, the state juvenile corrections system. Children in local county juvenile halls, camps, and wilderness programs were not included.

Eight of every 1,000 kids with CPS-investigated reports were incarcerated, and African-American kids were more than twice as likely as Hispanics, who were more than twice as likely as whites. The incarceration rate for girls with investigated reports was three times as high as for other girls in the state. Incarceration usually occurred less than three years after the report.

However, foster care seemed to help African Americans, boys, older children, and victims of sexual abuse, and to hurt girls. Girls in foster care were more likely to later be incarcerated than were girls who were not put in foster care after their abuse allegations were investigated. In contrast, African Americans who had in-home or foster care placement were less likely to be incarcerated than African Americans who had investigated reports but were not placed outside their homes. There was a similar trend for Hispanics.

Age was also important. Children from 7 to 11 were more frequently served and placed into foster care, and were the least likely to become incarcerated; however, that may have been related to the relatively short duration of the study. When other traits were statistically controlled, children who were 14 or older when they first had an investigated report of abuse or neglect were most likely to later be incarcerated. Foster care tended to reduce the likelihood of incarceration for the oldest kids (who were 14-17 when first reported) but not for the younger ones.

If there was a second CPS report of maltreatment that differed from the first, the child was more likely to be incarcerated later. This was even more likely if the first report was for neglect, rather than physical or sexual abuse. (Since neglect usually has to be especially serious before it results in a CPS report, these girls may be at particular risk.) However, children having more than three reports were not more likely to be incarcerated than other girls.

Despite these unsettling findings, the researchers were pleasantly surprised that kids from child welfare comprised only 19 percent of the incarcerated kids. However, they pointed out that the proportion would probably have been higher if they had included kids who had investigated child abuse reports under age six, and if they had included children in other correctional facilities, such as juvenile halls, camps and wilderness programs.

This study has important implications for youth workers in California, because of the differences related to age, race, and gender. It is impossible to tell what the implications are for youth in other states, but certainly these are issues that need to be evaluated everywhere.