More than half of states have laws requiring child maltreatment reports to be expunged, usually based on the timing of reports and their substantiation status. Expungement is premised on the idea that by a certain time the re-report risk has substantially diminished and that there should be a limit on the length of time caretakers could be penalized for unsubstantiated reports. However, expungement of data can bias child welfare practice and analyses in ways that the field has yet to fully understand. For example, case history is included in the structured decision making (SDM) tools, which many states use to determine a case’s child welfare trajectory and treatment plan. This study explores the suitability of a five-year timeframe for expungement of unsubstantiated reports.
This sample is from one state’s administrative data and consists of all families with an unsubstantiated first maltreatment report between 1/2014 and 1/2019 (n=48,185 families). For caretakers with only unsubstantiated reports, records are expunged from the child welfare database after five years from the last report. Caretakers with any substantiated reports are ineligible for expungement. A four-year survival analysis using the Kaplan-Meier method for modeling time to first subsequent report was run on these last, five unexpunged years. Additionally, an actuarial life-tables approach was applied to the original sample and, as a sensitivity test, a six-year survival analysis was run on families with a substantiated first report (n=10,838).
The survival analysis shows 36% of the sample will have a subsequent report within four years of their initial, unsubstantiated report. The subsequent report rate is highest after their initial report with rates then declining rapidly; 50% would receive their first subsequent report by year one, 75% by year two, 90% by year three. However, subsequent reports continue to accrue through the end of the analysis period. The actuarial life-table approach produced similar results. Comparing the four-year survival curves of unsubstantiated and substantiated first-reports found them to be not significantly different (X2(3,N=44,638)=83.908, p=.000), suggesting that the substantiated sample can be used to analyze a timeframe longer than the five-year expungement period. This six-year, first-substantiated analysis also showed rapidly declining subsequent report rates in initial years, with decreased rates continuing through the sixth year.
Conclusion and Implications:
These results have implications for expungement policies, analyses of subsequent reports, SDM tools, and contribute to research on the relevance of substantiation. Because analyses often depend on prior and subsequent reports, these results show the trade-offs of expungement policies with a narrowing of a non-expunged analysis timeframe. From a policy standpoint, the five-year timeframe identifies most families with a subsequent report, but a shorter timeframe, as some states have, would result in a larger number of expunged families returning without their case history. The similar hazard rates for caretakers with substantiated and unsubstantiated initial reports supports the research suggesting substantiation is not a meaningful designation of caretaker risk. The intent of expungement policies should be clear and balance family privacy against the informative value of prior case history.