Study: Why Child Abuse Investigations Don’t Help Kids

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Child welfare agencies have a thankless task: investigate reports of child maltreatment and determine, first, whether they are true or false, then whether more damage will be done by a) leaving children in a potentially harmful environment, or b) ripping them away from the only parents they know and placing them in a new family that may or may not be better.

Now a new study published Monday suggests that child abuse investigations do not result in long-term improvement in family functioning or child behavior, and in fact are associated with increased depression among mothers. An editorial accompanying the new study proclaims: “Child Protective Services [CPS] Has Outlived Its Usefulness.” (More on Time.com: Side Effect of the Recession: An Increase in Child Abuse)

The study and editorial were both published in the most recent edition of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The research examined data on 595 at-risk children who were already involved in a study about the long-term causes and consequences of child maltreatment. It compared children whose families were investigated by CPS — about 28% of the sample — with those who were not.

The study did not investigate the effects of foster care placement: researchers looked only at cases where the child had the same maternal caregiver at age 4 and again at age 8, although those who spent some time in foster care were not excluded. Since about 80% of child maltreatment cases do not result in child removal, the results would probably apply to the majority of children in the CPS system.

According to lead study author Dr. Kristine Campbell, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah: “Over a long-term view, between ages 4 and 8, there was no evidence within this sample that a CPS investigation changed certain modifiable risk factors such as education, poverty and social support [for these families.] There was no change in family [functioning or child behavior problems] where a CPS investigation occurred, and for maternal depression symptoms there was actually a worsening.”

Campbell notes that the research couldn’t determine whether being investigated for child abuse caused depression among mothers — but it would obviously not be surprising if it did.

“I don’t think we should be surprised by [the findings] and I don’t think that it’s role of CPS to fix poverty. But we do spend lot of money on investigations. They’re mandated by law. If we are going to go through this process as a society and say that it’s important to do investigations, we should look at it as an opportunity to prevent future problems,” Campbell says. But her research suggests that that opportunity is currently being missed. (More on Time.com: Cyberbullying? Homophobia? Tyler Clementi’s Death Highlights Online Lawlessness)

That’s why editorial author Dr. Abraham Bergman, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, proposes a radical solution. He suggests leaving investigations of physical abuse to police, turning prevention and treatment services over to public health nurses and leaving CPS with a narrower role as intermediaries when courts must be involved with child abuse.

He says that what CPS does now “is mostly investigation and not much support and it’s an overwhelming task given to people who don’t have much training and tremendous turnover.” In the editorial, he cites a 2003 GAO investigation that found that only 28% of CPS workers even had undergraduate degrees in social work (15% had a bachelor’s and 13% had a Master’s) and that most workers had spent two years or less on the job.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR), thinks the research illustrates obvious problems with the system, but believes different solutions are needed.

My first reaction to the study is simple,” he says. “They had to do a study to figure this out? This study simply confirms what NCCPR has been saying for years: Child Protective Services won’t be effective until it becomes Child *Poverty* Services.”

He adds, “That doesn’t mean you have to eliminate poverty to eliminate child maltreatment — though whoever does the first will come closer than anyone else to doing the second. You can make enormous strides simply by ameliorating the worst effects of poverty.”

Wexler thinks that much of the problem with CPS has to do with the way families are approached when trouble arises. “It’s almost always a cookie-cutter ‘service plan’ requiring lots and lots of ‘counseling’ and ‘parent education’ while the actual problems of poverty are ignored. So the ‘services’ only add more burdens to this family,” he says.

For example, a single mother who cannot afford daycare might leave her child home alone — telling the mother that this is a wrong-headed choice won’t help her if she needs to work and has no safe place to leave her child. As a result, it’s not surprising that CPS investigations don’t produce change.

I don’t think we know how to solve this problem,” says Dr. Bruce Perry, senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy (full disclosure: Dr. Perry and I have co-authored two books). “A lot of times the situation calls for the formation of a healing relationship and so the very act of going there in an investigatory mode impairs the ability to form a meaningful relationship in which parents can be open, ask for and get help.”

Eighteen states are currently experimenting with an approach that offers services rather than investigations to families in which the risk of severe abuse or neglect is not high. Wexler suggests that this “differential” or “alternative” response might make a real difference. “If you go into a home where the allegation is a typical case of neglect, extending an open hand instead of a wagging finger, you are likely to get more cooperation from the family,” he says.

With research suggesting that the bad economy is increasing child abuse — and with no sign that extra funds to help will be forthcoming — it’s more important than ever to determine which approaches work and target scarce dollars accordingly.

(Note: The Federal Administration for Children and Families, which is in charge of the Obama Administration’s child welfare policies, did not reply to a request for comment before the deadline for this article.)

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