The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Frequency and Predictors of Concurrent Child Protection and Criminal Investigations in Child Maltreatment Cases

Friday, January 18, 2013: 8:00 AM
Nautilus 4 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Theodore P. Cross, PhD, Research Full Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Arlington, MA
Jesse J. Helton, PhD, Research Specialist, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
Emmeline Chuang, PhD, Assistant Professor, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA
Background and Purpose. In some cases in which intrafamilial child maltreatment is reported, child protective services (CPS) and police both investigate.  Criminal justice involvement is consequential because it can lead to prosecution and because it can both challenge and facilitate child protection interventions.  However, there is little research on how often and in what circumstances law enforcement also investigates when there is a child protection investigation.  This presentation examines frequency and predictors of police investigation in a national probability sample of child protection investigations.

Methods. This analysis used two cohorts of cases (1999-2001 and 2008-2009) from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being, a national probability study of children involved in CPS investigations. Two-stage random sampling was used in each cohort, each including over 5000 randomly sampled cases from over 90 communities randomly sampled across the U.S.  Investigating caseworkers were interviewed at NSCAW baseline, 4 to 5 months following the close of the investigation. Interviews asked about case characteristics; about caseworkers’ assessment of harm and evidence of maltreatment; and about whether law enforcement also investigated.  The local child welfare agency directors from each community were also surveyed about characteristics of child welfare practice in the sample of communities.   

Results. Across cohorts, criminal investigations co-occurred in 21% to 24% of all child protection investigations, 47% to 49% for sexual abuse cases, 24% to 27% for physical abuse cases and 15% to 18% for neglect cases.  The mean is misleading, however, since the rate of police investigation varied dramatically between communities, ranging from less than 2% to greater than 60%. For the one cohort (2008-2009) for which appropriate statistical weights were available, a multi-level logistic regression was conducted examining both case and agency level predictors of criminal investigation. Police investigated more often when caseworkers reported greater harm to the child and greater evidence, but case characteristics like child age and race-ethnicity did not predict criminal investigation. Criminal investigation was more likely when CPS and police had a memorandum of understanding (MOU) guiding multidisciplinary practice.  Which community the case came from was a significant predictor of whether or not police investigated, over and above type of maltreatment, levels of harm and evidence, and local agency practice, and independently explained 7% of the total variance.

Conclusions and Implications.  Police investigations co-occurred in a range of different CPS investigations, most commonly in sexual abuse cases. Not surprisingly, police investigation was more common with greater harm to the child and evidence of abuse.  Memoranda of understanding between CPS and law enforcement may increase police involvement, though we cannot necessarily infer a causal effect for MOUs from these correlational results. The substantial variation between communities in the rate of police investigation, even when differences in case and agency characteristics were accounted for, suggests important differences in community practice that need further exploration and raises questions about equity for children and families across communities.