Academic journal article Child Welfare

What Is Driving Increasing Child Welfare Caseloads in Ontario? Analysis of the 1993 and 1998 Ontario Incidence Studies

Academic journal article Child Welfare

What Is Driving Increasing Child Welfare Caseloads in Ontario? Analysis of the 1993 and 1998 Ontario Incidence Studies

Article excerpt

Rates of substantiated maltreatment documented by the 1993 and 1998 Ontario Incidence Studies of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect doubled between 1993 and 1998. Although increasing public awareness and changes in investigation procedures appear to account for part of this change, the increase also reflects a significant shift in the types of maltreatment agencies are investigating and substantiating. Exposure to spousal violence has increased eightfold, and the proportion of neglect cases has more than doubled, whereas cases of sexual abuse are decreasing. The field requires a differentiated response to address the maltreatment-specific challenges underlying child welfare caseload increases in Canada.

Rates of reported child abuse and neglect have been increasing across Canada. Between 1998 and 2002 in Ontario, Canada's largest province, the number of substantiated investigations increased 37% and the number of children in care increased 32% (Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, 2002). Between 1994 and 1999, the number of investigations in Alberta increased by 19%, and the number of children in care increased by 67% (J. McDermott, personal communication, December 13, 2001). During the same period in British Columbia, the in-care population increased by 50% (R. Minshall, personal communication, November 28, 2001). Researchers have noted similar increases in the past, most notably in the mid-1970s as a result of the introduction of reporting laws and in the mid-1980s as a result of growing awareness of child sexual abuse (Levitt & Wharf, 1985). The current increase comes after a period of relative stability in Canadian child welfare caseloads (Trocmé, 1991). In contrast, child welfare services in the United States experienced a period of dramatic increases in the 1990s, with rates stabilizing and in some cases decreasing since 1998 (L. Jones & Finkelhor, 2001; Wang & Harding, 1999).

Three types of hypotheses can potentially explain changes in rates of reported and substantiated maltreatment: (1) changes in the actual rates of maltreatment in the population, (2) changes in reporting practices, and (3) changes in child welfare agencies' responses to reports (A. M. Jones, Finkelhor, & Kopiec, 2001). The first hypothesis is difficult to explore without access to trend data tracking rates of maltreatment reported through direct surveys, such as the Family Violence Surveys Straus and Celles (1986) conducted in the United States. One can support arguments for the real change hypothesis by pointing to changes in risk factors (Steinberg, Catalano, & Dooley, 1981) or the effect of prevention programs (A. M. Jones et al, 2001; Peters et al., 2000). The potential effect of changes in economic conditions for families is a particularly compelling argument given the evidence that rates of reported maltreatment are strongly correlated to poverty rates (Drake & Pandey, 1996; Garbarino, 1992). Although the period from 1995 to 1998 was marked by economic expansion in many areas in Canada, the depth of poverty-as measured by the gap between poor and middleclass families-has increased (National Council of Welfare, 2000; Yalnizyan, 1998). Changes in risk factors are at best, however, only an indirect means of supporting the change in the actual-incidenceof-maltreatment hypothesis, a hypothesis that researchers can only fully test using general population surveys.

Changes in reporting practices, the second hypothesis, are the most commonly accepted explanation for the overall increase in rates of maltreatment over the past four decades. The three National Incidence Studies (NISs; Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996) track the rate of cases identified by professional working with children that are not investigated by child protective services (CPS) in the United States, although the studies do not indicate whether failure to investigate is due to cases not being reporting or to CPS screening them out. …

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