A reckoning is coming in child protection.
On December 2, the new and increasingly influential Children’s Data Network partnered with the California Child Welfare Indicators Project to release a slew of studies showing that one in seven of all California babies born in 2006 and 2007 had been reported for abuse or neglect by age five.
This is nearly three times the annual rate of child abuse reports in California.
The new research, which was funded by First 5 LA, linked birth records for the more than one million babies born in California in 2006 and 2007 to Child Protective Services records through their fifth birthdays.
The findings build on a small but growing body of data linkage research that is clearly showing that the child maltreatment threat is more prevalent than we as a culture ever knew before. This begs an important question: to what degree are public systems oriented to meet that threat?
“Much of what we know—or think we know—about risk factors for child abuse and neglect is based on point-in-time (cross-sectional) and retrospective studies of children reported for maltreatment,” the Children’s Data Network website reads. “These estimates give the impression that only a small share of children are maltreated or placed in foster care, whereas cumulative estimates demonstrate the true severity of the risks and the resulting public health burden.”
Beyond the prevalence of reported abuse, the rate at which children were confirmed victims of abuse or neglect in the study was higher than most counts. By age five, 5.1 percent of California babies born in 2006 and 2007 had substantiated reports of abuse and neglect. That is 55,881 babies, toddlers and preschoolers.
This is five times the rate one would glean from federal data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, which has consistently reported that about one in 100 children will be confirmed victims of abuse or neglect in a given year.
The Data Network’s latest findings come on the heels of a blockbuster study released in June. Yale University researcher Christopher Wildeman and colleagues — including Emily Putnam-Hornstein, the director of the Data Network — published results after sifting through 5.6 million child abuse records housed in the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.
By age 18, the researchers found, one in eight American children will have the experience of a social worker entering their home and determining that they were abused or neglected.
This all points to a pressing question in the world of child protection.
Cumulative rates of reported and substantiated child abuse and neglect are as much as eight times the annual rates reported by venerable, trustworthy state and national data systems.
This makes it hard to credibly assume that our current child protection system is built to meet the challenge it faces. So how would one go about building a child protection system that could? How would one orient all the public systems that touch children to better address child maltreatment?
These are questions we at The Chronicle of Social Change will explore in more depth. But for now, thanks to the Children’s Data Network, we have an ever-clarifying picture of the scope of child maltreatment.
Fully understanding the problem is an important step towards finding the solution.