Cumulative Risk of Child Protective Service Involvement before Age 5: A Population-Based Examination


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. 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. Without data concerning this broader population of children, we are unable to determine whether children with a particular combination of risk factors might have been identified or prioritized for early intervention services to prevent the conditions that led to CPS-involvement.

Fortunately, the linkage and thoughtful configuration of administrative records can provide the necessary data for prevention focused studies. By linking child protection records to birth records from California, it is possible to answer prospective, population-based questions and generate information concerning the likelihood that children will be reported, substantiated, or placed in foster care because of maltreatment. The purpose of the Cumulative Risk project was to generate new knowledge through population-based data linkages and an analysis of county variations in the cumulative rates of CPS involvement throughout California.

Specifically, vital birth records were probabilistically linked to child protective services records to examine the cumulative number of children born in 2006 and 2007 who, between birth and age 5, were: (1) reported for maltreatment, (2) substantiated as a victim of maltreatment, and (3) entered an out-of-home foster care placement. The generation of this epidemiological information furthers knowledge about children involved with child protective services and points to opportunities for being more strategic in our allocation and delivery of early intervention services.

Overview of Findings

Cumulative Count: Of the more than 500,000 children born in California each year, approximately 25,000 babies are reported for maltreatment during the first year of life – before they can walk, before they can talk. By age 5, the cumulative count of children reported grows to more than 80,000 – or roughly 1 in 7 children born statewide.

Burden of Abuse & Neglect: Typically, we focus on the number of children who touch the child protection system annually. But annual rates understate the number of children who are involved with the child protection system throughout their early years. When children are followed from birth through age 5 – we see that the cumulative rate of children who are born in our state and are later involved with the child protection system is roughly triple annual rates of children reported, substantiated, and placed in foster care.

Variable Risk: The risk of abuse or neglect and accompanying involvement with child protective services is not the same for all children. Data document notable variations in involvement with child protective services based on birth payment method, paternity establishment, and maternal age, among other factors. For example, in viewing data for both California and Los Angeles, we see that among children without paternity established at birth, roughly 1 in 3 was reported for maltreatment.

  • Emily Putnam-Hornstein, PhD
    (Principal Investigator)
  • Michael N. Mitchell, PhD
  • Ivy Hammond, BA
    (Student Investigator)
Data and Research Partners
  • February 2013 – October 2014
1150 South Olive Street, Suite 1400
Los Angeles, CA 90015
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