Study Finds Immigration Status Not a Risk Factor for Child Maltreatment

By Sandy Lo

Immigration status does not increase the risk that Latino children will be confirmed victims of child maltreatment, according to a study published in September 2014 in the Children and Youth Services Review.

Very little is known about the differences between Latino children and families involved in the child welfare system, especially with regard to parental immigration status—states and counties seldom collect such data. As a result, most research in the child welfare system has erroneously treated this demographic as a homogenous population.

In Los Angeles County, where cases involving Latino children comprise nearly 60 percent of all substantiated child maltreatment cases, these results could have big implications for maltreatment surveillance and service distribution policies throughout the county—especially when results show that immigration status could be viewed as a protective factor.

The study estimated the proportion of Latino children with non-citizen parents involved with the child welfare system and identified how their household, community and maltreatment characteristics may differ from children with parents who are American citizens. Additionally, the study was focused on isolating immigration status as a risk factor.

Using data drawn from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-being, researchers from various schools of social work found that immigration status played no role as a risk factor for child maltreatment. Instead, Latino children with immigrant mothers were less likely to be referred for maltreatment and substantiated as victims of maltreatment than children with U.S.-born mothers.

“This finding [is] important because there had been a lot of speculation that children in immigrant families were likely to be at greater risk of maltreatment because of all of the stressors associated with immigration,” said Alan J. Detlaff, one of the co-authors of the study and an associate professor at the University of Texas, Arlington. “This study demonstrated that this was not the case, and in fact, found that children in U.S.-born families are subject to greater risk factors than children in foreign born families.”

On average, Latino immigrant families had a higher proportion of two-parent families, lower teenage childbearing, and lower drug use and alcohol abuse. The study suggests the low prevalence of these risk factors may act as buffers against maltreatment. Moreover, there were no discernable differences between the documented and undocumented parents for most of the other maltreatment risk factors, such as domestic violence, excessive discipline and a history of abuse.

According to Detlaff, “[These families] are also more likely to have many strengths related to their cultural values and connections to their country of origin that likely erode over time among US born families.”

The study also showed that immigrant families tend to experience greater poverty and economic hardships than many of their native-born counterparts. However, despite higher rates of poverty, Latino immigrant parents also have much lower rates of reliance on public assistance. This can be attributed to a number of issues that include language barriers, a lack of awareness of assistance and fear of deportation.

While children of undocumented families are less at risk for child maltreatment, they are still affected by other disparities. Non-native Latino families continue to face difficulty in receiving adequate health care, safe supervision, and food security for their children. Many also report much worse child health outcomes at age 5 than their U.S.-born counterparts.

“Policy can address the need for more thorough and culturally responsive assessments of Latino families, particularly as it relates to nativity and immigration status. The assessment process should include a discussion of families’ cultural values, their beliefs about discipline and maltreatment, and a discussion of their nativity and immigration status and how they might impact potential risk factors for maltreatment,” said Detlaff.

“Overall, I think that there needs to be more awareness that there are differences within the Latino population that caseworkers need to understand and be responsive to.”

Sandy Lo is a graduate student of public policy at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. She wrote this story for the school’s Media for Policy Change class.

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Christie Renick, Southwest Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Christie Renick, Southwest Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 119 Articles
Tucson-based southwest editor and vice president of Fostering Media Connections. Reach her at or follow @christiejrenick.