Academic journal article Journal of Health and Human Services Administration

Disproportionality at the "Front End" of the Child Welfare Services System: An Analysis of Rates of Referrals, "Hits," "Misses," and "False Alarms"

Academic journal article Journal of Health and Human Services Administration

Disproportionality at the "Front End" of the Child Welfare Services System: An Analysis of Rates of Referrals, "Hits," "Misses," and "False Alarms"

Article excerpt

The disproportional representation of minority children in the child welfare system has been a topic of concern for many years, dating back at least to the work of Billingsley and Giovanni (1972). Nearly forty years after the issue was raised, neither scholars nor practitioners have reached agreement about the precise nature, extent, or causes of racial and ethnic disproportionality or the most appropriate measures for addressing the problem, despite the substantial body of research that has and continues to grapple with the question (e.g., Ards et al., 2003; Barth, 2005; Casey Family Programs, 2006; Chapin Hall Center for Children, 2008; Courtney & Skyles, 2003; Derezotes et al., 2005; Fluke et al., 2003; Hill, 2006; Needell et al., 2003; Shaw et al., 2008; U.S. General Accountability Office, 2007). Many advocates and researchers attribute disproportionality to some form of discrimination, either at the individual or institutional level. In counterpoint, some, such as Bartholet (2009), have argued that if Black children are disproportionately victimized by maltreatment then they should appropriately be removed to foster care at rates proportionate to their maltreatment rates, which will be disproportionate with respect to the overall population.

Theories about the root causes of disproportionality have been categorized into those that emphasize three types of factors (Chibnall et al., 2003; Hill, 2006): parent and family risk factors (giving rise to disproportionate needs), community risk factors (living in high-risk neighborhoods that lead to increased surveillance), and organizational and systemic factors (including biases in decision making, cultural insensitivity, and structural racism.) According to Barth (2005), four dominant models have been proposed to explain racial disproportionality in the child welfare system: the risk, incidence, and benefit model; the child welfare services decision making model; the placement dynamics model; and the multiplicative model. Courtney and Skyles (2003) observed that two general types of mechanisms contribute to disproportionality. A racial or ethnic group may enter the child welfare system at a rate that is disproportionate to its presence in the overall population; this is the "front end" (i.e., child maltreatment reporting, substantiation, etc.) of the problem. Similarly, a racial or ethnic group may exit the child welfare system at a slower rate than other groups; this is the "back end" (i.e., family reunification, adoption, etc.) of the problem.

The present paper focuses on decisions that are made at the front end of the problem--disproportionality in reporting and substantiation. It takes a molar perspective; the analyses make use of national level data and data from a single large state, California.

The analysis relies on binary classification techniques based on signal detection theory (Green & Swets, 1966) to address the following questions, among others:

* What is the best estimate of the probability that instances of child maltreatment will be detected by child protective services (CPS) agencies? Are there differences among racial and ethnic groups in the probability of detection?

* What is the overall accuracy of the child welfare screening system? How accurate is the system with respect to maltreatment? How accurate is the system with respect to non-maltreatment? Are there differences among racial and ethnic groups in accuracy?

* What are the error rates in the system? What is the rate of false negatives (failing to detect maltreatment when it is present)? What is the rate of false positives (identifying cases as potentially involving abuse or neglect when they do not in fact involve such maltreatment)? Are there differences among racial and ethnic groups in the rates of false positives and false negatives?

* What is the probability that allegations of child maltreatment will be substantiated? …

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