The Influence of Race, Income, and Risk on the Substantiation Decision in Child Welfare

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Children and Youth Services Review

This study uses data from the Texas child welfare system to identify the factors that contribute to disparities in substantiating allegations of child neglect or abuse. The analyses in the study control for the effect of family income, as well as other factors related to maltreatment in order to better understand whether race plays a role in substantiating allegations.  

Findings show that when family income is controlled, race is not a significant factor in the substantiation decision. However, when also controlling for a caseworker’s perception of risk, race emerges as a stronger explanatory factor. This could suggest that there is an important relationship between income, race, and risk assessment.

Results from the study also show the effect of racial bias on decision-making remains an important factor to consider when trying to understand the overrepresentation of African-American children in the child welfare system. African-American children represent 30 percent of all children in foster care, even though they make up just 15 percent of all children in the general population.

Although research has been effective in documenting the disparities in the child welfare system, it has been less effective at being able to document the factors behind them. For instance, some studies have shown that race is a significant factor at various decision-making points, while others have shown that it is not a factor.

The report notes that more than 96 percent of children who are placed in out-of-home care are involved in investigations in which allegations of mistreatment are substantiated.

The study shows that data from the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect (NCANDS) released in 2000 showed that abuse and neglect cases involving African-Americans from five states were more likely to be substantiated than those involving Caucasian children from the same five states. In addition, research found that African-American children were three times as likely to be involved in a substantiated case prior to their 10th birthday than Caucasian children were.

Although poverty does not ultimately cause maltreatment, a considerable amount of evidence shows that maltreatment does occur disproportionately among more poor families. Findings show that children in low socioeconomic status families experience some form of mistreatment at a rate of more than five times that of other children.

Research suggests that the more risk factors are controlled for, the less likely it is that studies looking at racial disparities will be able to find evidence of racial bias.

Abstract, free; full eight-page report, $19.95,