Maltreatment that begins during infancy is likely to be chronic in duration and developmentally consequential if the appropriate intervention is not delivered. Repeated reports of maltreatment may signal unmet service needs.
Using administrative records, this study longitudinally followed infants who remained at home following an initial report of maltreatment. The objective was to generate knowledge of infants at high risk of continued adversities (as indicated by repeated reports of maltreatment) to guide more strategic practice and policy responses.
Birth records for all children born in California during 2006 were linked to statewide child protection records through 2012. Infants reported for maltreatment before age 1 were identified and followed for 5 years to analyze re-reporting patterns based on the initial maltreatment report. χ2 tests were used to assess characteristics at birth across initial report dispositions. Multivariable models were developed to adjust for birth characteristics associated with an initial maltreatment report.
First, data indicate that more than half of infants (60.7% in CA; 55.5% in LA) remaining at home following an initial allegation of abuse or neglect were re-reported within 5 years. Although previous research has documented high rates of re-reporting among children with an initial maltreatment allegation, findings from the current analysis represent the highest published estimate to date.
Second, high rates of re-reported maltreatment were observed among infants with unsubstantiated reports following an investigation and among infants whose initial reports were evaluated out prior to any investigation. Data from the present study not only support research indicating the vulnerability of infants with unsubstantiated reports, but also broaden the discussion to include infants who are evaluated out through the CPS hotline.
Third, findings suggest that despite variations in the sociodemographic characteristics of infants by initial report disposition, these factors do not substantively alter the relationship between an initial disposition and re-reporting risk. As expected, across all three models, re-reporting rates by initial disposition were fairly constant, both before and after adjusting for the initial allegation type, mandated reporter status, and factors at birth.
Fourth, these data document how few infants remaining at home following a first report of maltreatment receive formal CPS interventions. High rates of re-reporting following initial allegations of maltreatment invariably raise questions as to whether there are certain high-risk groups of children and families for whom attempts to modify risk are not achievable. As much as this is true, that some children cannot safely remain at home with their birth families, one policy response may be to intervene sooner rather than later so that children can move quickly to alternative forms of permanency, such as adoption. Yet, any argument for an aggressive removal or intervention response presumes that delivered services are unsuccessful at remedying familial risks and protecting children – that the services needed to prevent conditions leading to later reports simply do not exist or do not work. Data from the current study, however, do not provide evidence of failed or ineffective services. Rather, findings align with earlier analyses that underscore just how few infants and families may receive services after an initial report of abuse or neglect.
Expanded efforts to gather and integrate community-based sources of data are critical to better understanding the coordination and effectiveness of programs for families with infants remaining at home following an initial report to child protective services.