Concerns about police brutality and anti-Black racism have triggered social justice movements which seek to defund the police in order to reallocate funding to social services to address the need for systemic change. What defunding the police would look like in child protection practice has been controversial, as some social workers reject the calls to replace the police as their roles are similarly oppressive, especially towards Black communities. This paper examines child welfare investigations where there is also police involvement to better understand the characteristics of families at the intersection of law enforcement and child protection.
The Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (OIS) is the only source of comprehensive, aggregated provincial data on children and families investigated for child protection concerns. The OIS-2018 used a multi-stage sampling design to select a representative sample of child welfare agencies across Ontario. An estimated 158,476 children 0-17 years of age were investigated by a child welfare authority in Ontario in 2018 for a child maltreatment-related concern. This analysis focused on maltreatment investigations where police were the referral source or where there was also a police investigation (resulting in a final estimate of 97,185 investigations). Comparisons across child age, caregiver characteristics, and primary form of investigated maltreatment were conducted using a four-level police involvement variable: no police involvement, police referral only, police investigation only, and police referral and police investigation. We also examined characteristics of cases where there was a police investigation in addition to the child welfare investigation.
Among investigations where maltreatment has been alleged in Ontario, just over 34% were referred by police or had a simultaneous police investigation. Of the 26,119 child maltreatment investigations where there was also a co-occurrence of a police investigation, 44% resulted in criminal charges. There were statistically significant differences across age, race/ethnicity, caregiver and perpetrator characteristics, investigation reason, and investigative decisions. Investigations involving Indigenous, Black, and nearly all other racial/ethnic groups were more likely to have police involvement than those involving white families. Investigations where the secondary caregiver had substance abuse or mental health concerns or where the primary investigation reason was exposure to IPV also had high rates of police involvement. Notably, while investigations involving Black families were more likely to have simultaneous police involvement, they were less likely to be criminally charged.
Conclusion and Implications
These findings foster queries regarding the nature of the co-occurrence of police involvement in child maltreatment investigations, especially in instances where their presence may not necessarily be helpful and sometimes deadly for interventions related to mental health and wellness checks. The frequency of police involvement in cases of Black families is also concerning given the historical and ongoing issues of systemic anti-Black Racism and police brutality.