Report of Maltreatment: a major risk factor for child mortality

When I joined the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee, I was expecting to review many deaths of children due to child abuse and neglect. Thankfully, that was not the case–or at least there were few cases that were clearly due to maltreatment. But over time I learned that the relationship between child maltreatment and child fatalities was more complicated. I was shocked to discover how many children who died of of natural causes, accident, homicide, or suicide came from families that had previously reported to Child Protective Services (CPS). There has been a spate of new research demonstrating that children who have been the subject of a child abuse or neglect report are more likely to die from many major causes than other children, even when confounding factors are controlled. This increasing body of evidence has major policy implications, including the need to intervene with high-risk infants at or before birth.

Many of the new studies come from California, where researchers linked prior CPS reports with birth and death records. The size of California, with its more than 10 million children, allowed the researchers to obtain statistically significant results despite the relative rarity of child fatalities. Moreover, the researchers could adjust for sociodemographic factors including birth payment method (public vs. private insurance), maternal age, maternal education, race and paternity establishment, birth order, child gender, and child health risk indicators (low birth weight and birth abnormalities). The researchers chose to focus on children with any maltreatment allegation, rather than only substantiated ones, because of the literature suggesting the difficulty of making an accurate finding of past maltreatment, as well as the absence of differences in subsequent outcomes between children with substantiated and unsubstantiated allegations.

In the first study using this approach, Emily Putnam-Hornstein of the University of California Berkeley sought to establish whether children reported for maltreatment were at higher risk of death by intentional and unintentional injury during their first five years of life. She linked CPS, birth and death records for over 4.3 million children born in California between 1999 and 2006. And what she found was striking: after adjusting for socioeconomic and other risk factors at birth, children with a prior report to CPS died of intentional injuries at a rate that was 5.9 times greater than children who were not reported. More surprisingly perhaps, these children died of unintentional injuries at a rate that was twice as high as that for unreported children. In total, children with a prior allegation of child abuse or neglect were fatally injured at a rate 2.5 times higher than children without a prior allegation. Putnam-Hornstein found that a prior report to CPS was the strongest independent risk factor for injury mortality in the first five years of life out of all the risk factors studied. The existence of more unintentional injuries among children with prior CPS reports may reflect the lack of age-appropriate supervision by parents, as Putnam-Hornstein suggests, given that these parents have already been the subject of CPS reports. But she also notes the probability that some of the injuries classified as unintentional may have actually been intentional injuries that were misclassified on death certificates.*

Putnam-Hornstein and colleagues, using the same dataset, also studied how the risk of fatal injury varies by the type of maltreatment allegation, adjusting for baseline risk factors. They found that children with a previous allegation of physical abuse died from injuries at a rate 1.7 times higher than children referred from neglect. Moreover, these children died from intentional injuries at a rate five times higher than children with an allegation of neglect. Yet, these children had a significantly lower risk of unintentional injuries than children with an allegation of neglect. They point out that these findings are consistent with the general conceptual understanding that abuse is an act of commission, while neglect is an act of omission.

In the next California birth cohort study to be published, Putnam-Hornstein and her colleagues sought to establish whether infants previously reported for maltreatment face a heightened risk of Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (SUID), a term that refers to children who die in the first 12 months of life with no immediately identifiable cause or explanation.** They started with the same dataset of all children born in California between 1999 and 2006 with corresponding CPS and death records through each child’s first birthday. Adjusting for risk factors at birth (including low birth weight and late or absent prenatal care), they found the rate of SUID was more than three times greater among infants who had been previously reported for past maltreatment than among infants who had not been reported. The authors suggest several possible explanations for this finding. The existence of a previous CPS report may indicate the presence of risk factors the researchers were not able to measure, such as maternal substance abuse, which has been found to be associated with SUID. In addition, families reported to CPS may be less likely to adhere to safe sleeping guidelines due to the stressors they face and the fact that they have not yet been reached or convinced by public health messaging around safe sleep practices.

To complement the first two studies, which focused on injury deaths and unexplained non-injury deaths, Schneiderman, Prindle and Putnam-Hornstein looked at non-injury, medically-caused deaths of infants in the first year of life. In this study, the researchers used records for the more than 3.4 million children born in California between 2010 and 2016. They found that after adjusting for baseline risk factors (including low birth-weight and preterm birth), infants with one CPS report were almost twice as likely to die of medical causes than infants with no CPS reports; infants with more than one CPS report were more than three times more likely to die of medical causes than those without a CPS report. The researchers also found that among infants reported for maltreatment, periods of foster care placement reduced the risk of death from medical causes by roughly half. The authors speculate that the higher risk of death from medical causes among infants in families with CPS reports is related to these families’ challenges around mental health, substance abuse, and extreme poverty, as well as their lack of social support. Medical neglect may also be more likely in these families given their CPS history. And unfortunately, as described by child welfare analyst Dee Wilson, there is a strong correlation between medical fragility and parental incapacity to care for a child, as parents with little or no prenatal care and those who abuse drugs are most likely to have babies with low birth weight and birth abnormalities. The protective effect of foster care suggests that many foster parents are better equipped to meet the medical needs of fragile infants than the families from which they have been removed.

But it is not just infants and young children previously reported to CPS who are more likely to die of non-maltreatment causes than their non-reported peers. In a newly published article, Palmer, Prindle and Putnam-Hornstein report on their study of CPS history and risk of suicide. Using linked birth, death and CPS records, they followed all children born in California in 1999 and 2000 and all death records through 2017. Using a “case-control design,” they matched each suicide case to four living controls based on demographic characteristics including sex, year of birth, maternal race and ethnicity, maternal age at birth, maternal education, and insurance type at birth. They found that over half (56.5 percent) of children who died by suicide had a history of past allegations of abuse or neglect, as compared to 30.4 percent of the control youth. Children with any CPS history were three times as likely to end their own lives than children without such a history. In a second study, they compared suicide victims with CPS involvement to a matched group of living adolescents with CPS involvement to determine if the nature of the allegation or the child welfare response affected suicide risk. In that study, they found that teens with one or more substantiated allegations were no more likely to die of suicide than teens with allegations that were not substantiated. Moreover, they found no difference in suicide risk between teens who were placed in foster care and those who were never removed from home. They did find increased odds of suicide among teens with more recent CPS reports, allegations of physical abuse, and allegations of sexual abuse.

As I stated in the top of this column, I have observed that many victims of homicide cases reviewed by the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee had a history of CPS reports. Their families had long histories of calls to CPS alleging both abuse and neglect, with school absenteeism being one of the most frequent allegations. Eventually, these young people became involved in violent and illegal activities, ultimately leading to their deaths. There is some relevant evidence from an older study of Washington State children born between 1973 and 1986 who were reported to the state child abuse registry. Matching each reported child to three other children of the same sex, county of birth, and year of birth, the researchers found that children reported to the registry were almost 20 times more likely than the comparison population to die from homicide. These researchers were not able to to control for other variables that might affect homicide risk, including poverty and maternal education, so the differences may be exaggerated but are likely real.

The studies reviewed here show that children who are reported as possible victims of abuse and neglect are at risk for more than “just” further abuse and neglect, but for other bad outcomes, including a sudden infant death and for deaths due to injuries (intentional or unintentional), medical causes, suicide, and homicide. While different factors may come into play for different causes and manners of death, maltreatment allegations generally suggest parents who, even if not actually abusive or neglectful, are not well equipped to protect and nurture their children. As Putnam-Hornstein puts it in her article about injury deaths, these data confirm that “children reported for maltreatment have a truly distinctive risk profile defined by much more than just birth into poverty.”

The research described above suggests that youths who previously reported for abuse or neglect are more likely to die due to their own self-harming behaviors, not just directly through acts of commission or omission by their parents. This is not surprising, as a large body of research links child maltreatment and wide variety of adverse outcomes, including, diminished cognitive and executive function, poor mental and emotional health, attachment and social difficulties, post-traumatic stress, juvenile delinquency, and substance abuse. In a recent commentary, Dee Wilson describes specific pathways by which childhood abuse and neglect lead to early-onset mental health conditions, which in turn result in higher rates of suicide, substance abuse and lethal violence in adolescence and young adulthood.

The growing body of research linking child abuse reports with mortality from causes other than child maltreatment itself has important implications for policy. More intensive supports should be put in place for all children remaining at home after a CPS report, especially infants and young children, who are most vulnerable and whose development is most affected by maltreatment. Such intensive approaches could include supportive housing, residential drug treatment programs where children can stay with their mothers, and high-quality early care and education programs. Older children who are the subject of a report should receive a mental health assessment and access to activities and services that provide them with nurturing relationships and opportunities to develop talents and skills, as Dee Wilson describes in his commentary.

But while one can argue for more intensive services for children with substantiated allegations, the idea of mandating services when allegations are not substantiated is a non-starter at a time when the conversation is about restricting the role of CPS, not expanding it. But the research described above also lends support to the growing chorus of voices that is calling for putting more resources into programs that prevent the occurrence of child abuse and neglect, rather than responding to its occurrence. There is a growing interest in “targeted universal prevention programs,” like Hello Baby in Allegheny County Pennsylvania and Family Connects in North Carolina and Oregon, which reach out to all families but provide a more intensive intervention to the families of children who are most at risk of being abused or neglected. Family Connects has already shown some promising results, reducing CPS referrals and emergency room visits among infants receiving the intervention.

It is important to note that mortality is not the only outcome that matters. Because the definition of death is unambiguous, and death data are collected everywhere, death rates are a good way to calculate risk differentials between groups. But for every child who dies as a direct or indirect consequence of abuse or neglect, there are many more who are seriously disabled or injured or suffering from the kinds of adverse outcomes mentioned above, including poor mental and emotional health, juvenile delinquency, and substance abuse. We need a stronger response to reports of child maltreatment, whether or not they are substantiated or the child is placed in foster care. And we must intervene as early as possible to protect high-risk children, rather than waiting for them to be the subject of a child maltreatment report.

*It should be noted that evidence cited by Putnam-Hornstein shows that death certificates “severely” undercount the number of deaths due to child maltreatment and inflicted injuries, and it is likely that over half of fatalities due to maltreatment may be incorrectly classified as due to accidents, natural causes, or undetermined.

**Ultimately about half of these deaths are classified as caused by sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), a term which connotes a death that remains unexplained following an in-depth investigation.

***Emily Putnam-Hornstein and colleagues found that in California, 82 percent of infants remained at home following their first CPS report. Of these infants remaining at home, only one in ten of their parents received services through an open case, and 60.7 percent were re-reported within five years. Those who did not receive services through an in-home case may have received community-based services but that information is not available.

3 thoughts on “Report of Maltreatment: a major risk factor for child mortality

  1. Great article! How did the researcher get access to this info. Could a university get such info here? I’m specifically wondering about near fatality data from CFSA and Children’s.

    Marla Spindel Executive Director DC KinCare Alliance 202-360-7106 https://www.dckincare.org/

    IF YOU ARE A RELATIVE CAREGIVER RAISING A DC CHILD, CALL OUR RELATIVE CAREGIVER HELPLINE FOR ADVICE ON YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS AND FINANCIAL BENEFITS 202-505-5803

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  2. Thanks for your comment. There is a long-standing interagency agreement between the California Department of Social Services and the Center for Social Services Research at the University of California at Berkeley. The researchers also obtained Birth Cohort files from the Department of Public Health. However, this did not include “near-fatalities,” which is not a term that has a specific definition or is collected by public health departments in general, to my knowledge. It also did not include hospital data. It would be great to replicate such studies in other states and DC in particular but you need to have a researcher who is interested in this and capable of bringing in grant money to make it happen.

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