Preventing child neglect: the role of state discretion in child maltreatment statutes in the U.S.

Johnson-Motoyama, Michelle, Ginther, Donna, Sattler, Patricia and Damman, Jeri (2018) Preventing child neglect: the role of state discretion in child maltreatment statutes in the U.S. In: 22nd Annual Conference, the Society for Social Work and Research Conference, January 10-14 2018, Washington, D.C., USA.

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A longstanding controversy in child protection concerns the range of conditions for which state child protective service (CPS) agencies should have responsibility among economically vulnerable children and families. States have substantial discretion in specifying a range of parental behaviors and conditions that define a child as neglected under the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. Currently, 36 U.S. states and territories explicitly exclude children from a CPS response when behaviors defined as neglect occur for financial reasons only. This form of gatekeeping at the point of CPS intake has multiple implications. On the one hand, states with restrictive definitions based on financial capability are able to prioritize limited resources for willfully or intentionally neglected children. On the other hand, children who otherwise meet definitions of neglect for reasons of poverty may not be able to access needed supports, thereby placing them at inordinate risk of harm when other community-based resources are unavailable. The purpose of this study was to estimate the effects of variation in state definitions based on financial capability on child neglect reports, the substantiation of neglect reports, and removals from home for reasons of neglect.

Child neglect variables were drawn from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) (2005-2015). Control variables included the presence of universal mandated reporting laws, which were drawn from the Children's Bureau (2016), and state population and poverty rates, which were drawn from the U.S. Census Current Population Surveys. The logarithm of child neglect and foster care cases were regressed on the log of population, the log of poverty, and year. Estimates were performed using STATA 14.2 and all standard errors were clustered on state.


After adjusting for universal mandated reporting laws, population size, and state poverty rates, preliminary estimates indicate that states which exclude financial reasons from definitions of neglect have a large increase in the number of children placed in foster care for reasons of neglect. States with more nuanced definitions of neglect have more reports, victims, and more children placed in foster care. Thus, more specific maltreatment definitions that specify a range of conditions are associated with increased neglect caseloads and foster care placements.

This study contributes to the limited body of research that has examined the relationship of child maltreatment policy to child welfare outcomes using national data. Findings suggest that states with more restrictive definitions based on a caregiver’s financial capability serve more children in foster care when compared to other states, and states that specify a broader range of neglect conditions serve more children at multiple points along the child welfare continuum. Additional research is necessary to determine the impacts of neglect definitions on state CPS agencies and on economically vulnerable children, and the CPS trajectories of neglected children initially excluded from CPS responses for financial reasons.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Schools and Departments: School of Education and Social Work > Social Work and Social Care
Subjects: L Education
Depositing User: Deeptima Massey
Date Deposited: 14 Sep 2018 13:41
Last Modified: 14 Sep 2018 13:42
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