Children and Youth with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System: An Overview

By Lightfoot, Elizabeth | Child Welfare, March 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Children and Youth with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System: An Overview


Lightfoot, Elizabeth, Child Welfare


While there have only been a few studies examining the demographic patterns of maltreatment and child protection involvement among children and youth with disabilities, all studies have indicated that these children and youth experience higher rates of maltreatment and are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system. The precise numbers are very difficult to ascertain for several reasons. First, until the reauthorization of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 2010, state child welfare systems had not been required to report disability information regarding children, youth, or other family members with disabilities. Because there were no federal requirements until recently, the majority of states did not collect disability data (Shannon & Agorastou, 2006). Those that did collect data had radically varying prevalence rates, with some states reporting very few or no children with disabilities at all within their foster care systems (Bruhn, 2003). States now are required to collect data on children and youth with disabilities in the child welfare system by CAPTA, and this new requirement for states will greatly increase our knowledge nationally about the prevalence and demographic patterns among children and youth with disabilities. Another reason for the lack of information of children and youth with disabilities is the lack of knowledge and training of child welfare workers regarding disability. States that have required reporting on disability have often relied on child welfare workers for identifying disabilities, and these workers often have not received training on identifying or assessing disabilities. However, there is a small but growing body of evidence about children and youth with disabilities in the child welfare system, and this information can only be expected to expand and increase in accuracy as states begin collecting disability data more uniformly.

The most comprehensive national data on the prevalence of child welfare involvement of children with disabilities comes from a now dated national study of children in the child welfare system conducted in 1992, when Westat, collaborating with the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN), collected data from 35 randomly selected child welfare agencies nationally (Crosse, Kaye, & Ratnofsky, 1992). This study found that the prevalence of substantiated maltreatment among children with disabilities was 1.7 times greater than for children without disabilities. This study is likely an undercount of substantiated maltreatment, as it relied on child welfare worker assessments of identifying disability, though it remains the only nationally representative sample of prevalence of substantiated maltreatment of children with disabilities in the child welfare system. Epidemiological studies can give a more accurate estimate of maltreatment, though are less instructive for ascertaining the prevalence of children and youth with disabilities that are actually involved within the child welfare system.

The most comprehensive epidemiological study was done by Sullivan and Knutson (2000) in Nebraska. In this study, the researchers merged electronic records from hospitals, foster care, law enforcement, and schools to estimate prevalence of maltreatment. The researchers found that children with disabilities were 3.4 times more likely to be maltreated than children without disabilities. This is twice as high as the amount from the Cross and colleagues (1992) study, and is likely more accurate. A recent international meta-analysis by Jones and colleagues (2012) of 17 studies examining both prevalence of maltreatment and child welfare involvement of children with disabilities had similar findings to that of Sullivan and Knutson. In their meta-analysis, they found that children with all types of disabilities were 3.68 times more likely to experience any maltreatment than children without a disability.

Studies using administrative records of child welfare agencies can provide information on how states are identifying disability and how children with identified disabilities are served within the child welfare system. …

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