Abstract: Substantiated Allegations of Failure to Protect in the Child Welfare System: Against Whom, in What Context, and with What Justification? (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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258P Substantiated Allegations of Failure to Protect in the Child Welfare System: Against Whom, in What Context, and with What Justification?

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Colleen Henry, PhD, Assistant Professor, Hunter College, New York, NY
Bryan Victor, PhD, Associate Professor, Indiana University, Indianapolis
Brian Perron, PhD, Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Joseph Ryan, PhD, Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Purpose: Failure to protect (FTP) is a sub-type of neglect that is used by child welfare systems to categorize and substantiate allegations of child maltreatment. More specifically, substantiation of FTP is a mechanism to hold adults accountable for perceived failures to take protective action before, during, or after another individual maltreats children in their care. Scholars, advocates, and caregivers have expressed concerns that FTP is disproportionately used to sanction mothers and people of color for harm perpetrated by others, particularly in the contexts of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Yet to date we have limited evidence about how FTP is used in practice or if substantiation of FTP varies by context across gendered or racialized groups. This study extends our understanding of use of FTP by examining who workers substantiate for FTP, in what context, and the justifications they use.

Methods: Data for this study were drawn from child welfare records in a large, Midwestern county (CY2017). Clinical data mining techniques were used to identify and extract quantitative and qualitative data from a random sample of cases in which FTP was substantiated (n=150). Investigative summaries from each case were reviewed and coded using deductive and inductive procedures. Deductive codes were developed and used to identify the relationship between children and caregivers (e.g., mother, father) and caregiver race. Inductive coding techniques were used to surface the contexts in which FTP was substantiated and the justifications used to support substantiation. Univariate and bivariate statistics were used to describe the distribution of codes within the sample.

Results: Findings indicate that the contexts and rate at which caregivers were substantiated for FTP differed significantly across gendered groups. Mothers were most frequently substantiated for FTP in the contexts of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and domestic violence. Fathers were most frequently substantiated in the context of substance use. In addition, rates of FTP substantiation varied across racialized groups. Black caregivers were substantiated disproportionately across all contexts, while white caregivers were overrepresented among those substantiated in the context of substance use. Notably, justification for FTP substantiation decisions were often not documented in data. When documented, workers most commonly justified substantiation on the basis that adults were made aware of maltreatment, but failed to take action or to prevent harm from occurring again in the future.

Conclusions and Implications: This study provides new understanding of how FTP substantiation is used by workers in practice, highlights gendered and racialized differences in application, and suggests a need for better documentation and training. This study also points to a need for greater clarity in child welfare statutes and policy about the behavioral expectations for non-offending caregivers and how to most effectively promote such behaviors. Together, affirmative expectations and cross-system collaboration may enhance child safety and offer potential to bring greater uniformity to worker decision making, to counter gender and racial biases, and to allow policymakers, practitioners, and the general public to assess the utility and appropriate application of FTP within the child welfare system.