Chronic maltreatment: A blind spot for child welfare

A CPS supervisor in St. Louis City once told the author about something he called “the 500 families.” When asked what this meant, he said that this referred to the small group of families that we see in the city again and again over many years, and sometimes over generations. They consume most of the time of workers and eat up most of the money available to the agency. These are the FE [frequently encountered] families.

L Anthony Loman, PhD., Families Frequently Encountered by Child Protection Services

It is a fact universally acknowledged that some families are reported to child protective services (CPS) again and again over a period of years. Many or most of these referrals involve some type of neglect, but there are often allegations of physical and sexual abuse as well. But in many cases, CPS fails to recognize families that are experiencing chronic maltreatment and when it does provide services, they may conclude with little or no change in the parents’ behavior or the children’s situation. As a result, children suffer lifetime damage, sometimes extending the cycle of maltreatment to the next generation, and sometimes the maltreatment even results in a child’s death. Sadly, today’s climate of anti-interventionism, combined with the reluctance to spend money and the lack of public concern about maltreated children, makes it unlikely that any relief for these at-risk children is forthcoming in the near future.

What is chronic maltreatment?

Every child welfare social worker seems to know families who have been reported to CPS repeatedly over a period of years. Dee Wilson, a former child welfare worker, supervisor and administrator who writes an essential child welfare blog called Sounding Board, asks participants in his training classes to tell him the highest number of CPS reports they have ever seen on one family. For almost 20 years, he has heard no answer less than 30 in any group of caseworkers, and he has received answers as high as 90 or 100 on several occasions.1 

There are different ways of describing those families who are frequently reported to CPS. The most commonly used term is “chronic neglect,” but this term can be misleading, as Anthony Loman explains. While these families usually have multiple reports of neglect, they often have reports of physical and sexual abuse as well. Loman uses the term “frequently encountered families,” meaning families who are reported again and again to CPS, and Jonson-Reid et al write about “chronically reported families” to refer to the same group. Dee Wilson prefers to focus on chronic multitype maltreatment, which he defines as maltreatment that is both chronic and includes more than one maltreatment type, such as neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. But all of these writers are talking about the essentially the same families, as discussed below.

The case histories of frequently reported families consist of a sequence of reports followed by diverse outcomes. Some reports are screened out by hotline staff. Others receive an investigation or alternative response. Some investigated reports are substantiated, others are ruled as “unfounded” or “inconclusive.”2 The substantiated reports may result in the opening of an in-home case or the removal of.a child or children, or no action may be taken if the children are deemed safe or not at risk. New reports often come in and are investigated even while a case is open. An in-home case may turn into a foster care case based on a new incident or a new investigation. Removed children are returned home and the cycle continues, with new reports, investigations, case openings, and removals. Loman calls this the “replay cycle.”

There is a surprising lack of research about frequently encountered families, and most of it is over two decades old. Loman, in his magisterial study, used a sample of 33,495 Missouri families who were reported to CPS for the first time between July 1997 and June 1998 and followed for five years after that first report. He defined “frequently encountered families” as those that received five or more reports in five years. He also used a smaller sample of 797 families from one Minnesota county who were selected in 2001 or 2002 and tracked for 27 months; for this sample he defined frequently encountered families as those with three or more reports. Jonson-Reid et al used a longitudinal study of children reported for maltreatment in a midwestern metropolitan area in 1993 or 1994. They limited their sample of 6,412 children under the age of ten at the time that they were first reported to CPS to allow a follow-up period of at least seven years. While there are a number of studies that examine maltreatment recurrence, I found no others that focus on families classified according to the number of reports received.3

The limited research available suggests that frequently reported families are a significant part of the population of families known to child welfare. Loman reports that of his sample of 33,395 Missouri families with screened-in CPS reports, one-fifth had five or more reports in five years. Of this group, nearly half had five or six reports during the five-year follow up period, a quarter had seven or eight reports, and the remaining quarter had nine or more reports. It is important to remember that these families were followed for only five years, and that they could have received many more reports after the follow-up period was over, perhaps as high as the 90 or 100 reports some social workers described to Dee Wilson. In their study, Jonson-Reid et al found that 27 percent of their sample had four or more reports by the end of the seven-year followup period.

Using their entire sample of over 33,000 Missouri families, and defining twelve different types of abuse and neglect. Loman found that the type of maltreatment alleged in the first report on a family is not a reliable predictor of the allegations in subsequent reports. In terms of the broad categories of “abuse” and “neglect,” many family histories showed reports of abuse interspersed between neglect reports, and much diversity in the type of abuse and neglect alleged in different reports. It is often observed that neglect by a single mother opens the door to abuse by her boyfriend, especially when he is caring for her children. And indeed, Turner and her co-authors, using 2011 and 2014 responses from 7,852 children or their parents to the National Surveys of Children’s Exposure to Violence, found that both physical and supervisor neglect were “strongly associated with risk of other maltreatment and most other forms of victimization.” These findings suggest that “chronic neglect,” “frequently encountered families,” and “chronic multitype neglect” refer to mostly the same families.

Using mostly his smaller but richer Minnesota dataset in which “frequently encountered” meant three or more reports in 27 months, Loman was able to compare frequently encountered families to those families that were reported less frequently. He found that frequently enountered families were more likely than others to be in extreme poverty and to have no employed adults. Younger parents, younger children, larger numbers of children, domestic violence, substance abuse, children with mental illness and disabilities, and caregivers with low self-esteem were more prevalent among frequently encountered families. Not surprisingly, these are the same factors that are associated with having any re-report or recurrence of maltreatment after the first report, and they are also associated with child maltreatment in general.

As might be expected, frequently encountered families account for a disproportionate share of child welfare spending. Loman found that the one-fifth of families in his Missouri sample that were defined as frequently encountered accounted for half the spending on families over a five-year period. The majority of these expenditures was for foster and group care and residential treatment. Case management and administrative costs for these families, which were probably disproportionate as well, were not included in this estimate.

Source: I Anthony Loman, Families Frquently Encountered by Child Protection Services, Institute of Applied Research, 2006,

What are the consequences of chronic maltreatment?

Many studies show that exposure to maltreatment is linked to multiple adverse outcomes, and several have found that children exposed to chronic maltreatment tend to experience worse outcomes than those exposed to a single incident.4 In The Science of Neglect, the Harvard Center on the Developing Child explains how chronic severe neglect–defined as “the absence of sufficient attention, responsiveness and protection that are appropriate to the age and needs of a child” –can produce “serious physiological disruptions that lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and health.”

It is also important to note the relationship between reports of child maltreatment and mortality from all causes, which I wrote about in an earlier commentary. There has been a spate of new research demonstrating that children who have been the subject of at least one child abuse or neglect report are more likely than other children to die from many causes, including childhood injury, sudden unexplained infant death, medical causes, suicide and homicide, even when confounding factors are controlled. As a member of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee, I have observed that children who die of all these causes often have long family histories with CPS. For example, the families of many young victims of homicide had a history of CPS reports often starting in the infancy of their first child. Many of these case histories reveal numerous calls to CPS alleging both neglect and abuse, with school absenteeism and lack of supervision being among the most frequent allegations. Eventually, many of these young people became involved in violent and illegal activities, ultimately leading to their violent deaths. There is no evidence of whether chronic maltreatment has worse effects on mortality than a single episode, but common sense suggests that is the case.

In discussing the consequences of chronic maltreatment, it is important to bear in mind the relationship between chronic maltreatment and the placement crisis that is currently plaguing child welfare agencies around the country. Many of the young people currently sleeping in offices and hotels, housed in psychiatric wards after being ready for discharge, and sent out of state, are undoubtedly victims of chronic maltreatment. Because they were allowed to stay in their toxic environments for so long without intervention, they developed cognitive, emotional or physical problems making them difficult to care for in a foster family; some are too hard to handle for most group homes and residential treatment centers and end up being rejected or expelled from those facilities as well.

How does CPS respond to chronic maltreatment?

CPS often fails to respond to chronic maltreatment in a family early enough to help parents make changes in their behavior and prevent serious harm to children. As Dee Wilson describes, many families referred to CPS several times for less serious neglect often receive no services until maltreatment is so ingrained that opportunity for effective early intervention has been lost. Wilson blames CPS’ tendency to focus on the incident alleged in the last report rather than the pattern revealed by a family’s history of reports over time.

And even when CPS responds, the response is often inadequate. The “replay cycle” described by Loman – with repeated reports, case openings, case closures, foster care removals and reunifications – continues because parents’ mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence or parenting style remain problematic. And indeed, research suggests that even when a family receives services as a result of a substantiated report, these services are generally too brief and do not result in behavior change. Chaffin et al, studying parents in home-based child welfare services, found that chronically maltreating parents tend to enter services with high levels of problems and do not improve much as the result of participation in services. They concluded that the “episodic and reactive service model characterizing traditional child welfare services” may be a “mismatch” for chronically matreating families.

Another reason for the “replay cycle” in some jurisdictions may be that at least one of the allegations being investigated must be substantiated in order for the agency to open a case. As a member of the Child Fatality Review Team in the District of Columbia, I have observed that many children who later died were assessed to be at high risk by the CPS investigator but were left at home with no support or monitoring when the allegations were not substantiated. When asked why this happened, agency representatives invariably explain that social workers are not allowed to open a case if an investigation did not result in substantiation of at least one allegation.

Similarly, accounts of child abuse or neglect deaths in states like California and Kansas have revealed that these children were assessed to be at high risk by CPS investigators one or more times but were left at home with no support or monitoring. Again, one reason was the requirement that an allegation be substantiated before a case can be opened.5 In the wake of the horrific child abuse death of Yonatan Aguilar in Los Angeles County, who was kept in closets for three years before he died, after four unsubstantiated allegations, the Office of Child Protection analyzed 1,225 referrals investigated by DCFS between 2012 and 2016 involving a child was later seriously injured or killed. They found that as in the case of Yonatan, more than half of the fatalities and near-fatalities occurred when the allegation was not substantiated. Yet we know from research that whether a report has been substantiated is a poor indicator of future behavior among parents who have been reported to CPS.6 Requiring substantiation to open a case ensures that some at-risk children will remain unprotected.

How can agencies respond better to chronic maltreatment?

There may be some social problems that we know how to solve but cannot do so due to financial or political constraints. But chronic maltreatment is not one of those problems. There are no easy answers to chronic maltreatment. But one thing is clear. The system itself must stop neglecting chronically maltreated children by leaving them at home without monitoring or support. Different commentators have supported different policies and some of these are discussed below.

Early Identification and support: Loman suggests that many families that will go on to become frequently encountered can be identified after the first or second report. These are the families that have many risk factors for child maltreatment and few protective factors against it and therefore score high on risk assessments. Ideally, child welfare agencies would identify these families after the first or second report and intervene to prevent their becoming chronically maltreating families. But, realistically, this is not going to happen in the current ideological climate, which favors restricting rather than expanding the role of child welfare services. However, it should be possible to offer all of these families a referral to high-quality childcare that includes family support services and staff trained to spot signs of abuse or neglect. For example, Educare, a nationwide network of birth-to-five schools, provides high-quality early childhood education, family support services, and links to needed services in disadvantaged neighborhoods around the country. At least in the Washington DC location, children are checked daily for signs of abuse.

Standards for removal based on age: Dee Wilson contends that the requirement of “imminent danger” for child removal is inappropriate in light of what we now know about the damage that long-term maltreatment causes to children’s developing brains and its contribution to mortality from all causes. He suggests considering developmental harm to children, rather than the narrow criterion of imminent danger, in the decision of whether to place the youngest children (those five and under) in foster care. Conversely, he suggests that children aged six to 17, unless they are in extreme physical danger if they remain at home, should be placed out-of-home only when a child welfare agency has a known therapeutic resource for that child, or when there is an extended family member, family friend or professional with whom the youth has a good relationship and who is committed to the youth. But removing more children at any age is unlikely to gain support in today’s ideological climate, which perceives child removal as punitive “family policing.” Removing fewer older children as Wilson proposes may leave many in harm’s way, especially those who might be in danger of self-harm from emotional abuse. Nevertheless, these ideas are worth further attention and exploration.

Reducing the role of substantiation/mandating services: Jurisdictions where substantiation of an allegation is required in order to open a case can consider changing that requirement. Los Angeles’s Office of Child Protection, in the report referenced above, spoke to experts who supported placing more emphasis on risk (instead of on allegation dispositions) when making case decisions, and on offering services and supports to families that may help to reduce this risk. However, agencies may need to do more than “offer” such services. Children who are assessed to be at high or intensive risk and in families that have multiple reports of maltreatment should not be left in their homes without monitoring. When there are three or more reports, and a child or children are found to be at high or intensive risk, a case should be opened for services and a court petition should be filed if the family refuses to participate. Court petitions should also be used more often during in-home cases to oversee parents’ compliance and incentivize their cooperation with services in in-home cases.

Services for Parents

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of interventions that have been found to be effective for parents with histories of chronic child neglect, especially when accompanied by substance abuse and mental health disorders, as well as parents displaying multiple types of maltreatment. Such families need a variety of services to address all of their risk factors, and the services must be sequenced so as not to overwhelm the parent or to provide certain services before a parent is ready for them. Drug treatment and mental health services are major needs for these parents. They also need services to address their financial need and employability, as research has shown that poverty and financial stress make child maltreatment more likely. Adequate housing will have to be provided for some families. Also needed, as Loman describes, are services to bolster protective factors like social supports, for example by trying to reconnect a family with an estranged relative.

Case management itself should be considered one of the most important services that cna be provided to frequently encountered families. Given the serious issues of these families, case managers need to have lower caseloads or work in teams. Dee Wilson recommends the creation of case management teams consisting of a CPS caseworker, substance abuse assessment specialist, mental health therapist, a public health nurse and a parent advocate to work with these families. Another approach is to assign one case manager with a smaller caseload to such families. The District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency implemented chronic neglect units but they were dropped after barely a year. Case managers or teams should be allowed to work with families for at least a year, or even longer when a parent is mentally ill or cognitively impaired. Deep-seated problems that are often multigenerational cannot be solved in a matter of months.

Serving Parents and Children Simultaneously

Therapeutic childcare: An intervention that has not received enough support is therapeutic childcare, such as that offered by the relief nurseries in Oregon. Relief nurseries seek to prevent the cycle of child abuse and neglect through comprehensive and integrated early childhood therapeutic and family support services. Seattle’s Childhaven used to operate a similar model, combining therapeutic childcare with coaching parents in how to interact with their children. Such therapeutic childcare addresses many of the issues with chronic maltreatment. Quality care with family support can replace some of the missing interaction that is so essential to healthy child development, while at the same time training parents to interact this way themselves. Reducing the hours that a child spends alone with the parent, and enabling observation by staff trained to spot signs of abuse or neglect, increase child safety. Stress on parents is reduced by family support and availability of childcare. It is hard to think of an approach that addresses child maltreatment through so many pathways. As mentioned above, high quality childcare should be offered to families reported for the first time and at every subsequent report. But therapeutic childcare designed for children who are the victims of maltreatment should be mandated for those who have an open in-home case.

Residential Services: Keeping parents and children together while parents get treatment can keep children safe while not disrupting the parent-child bond. Drug treatment programs where children can stay with their parent are one approach that deserves more funding. Dee Wilson, in another helpful commentary about in-home services, also suggests trying out the concept of Shared Family Care, widely used in some Northern European countries, in which whole families with a substance abusing or mentally ill parent are placed with resource families.

Services for Children

Mentoring: Every school-aged child with an in-home case or in foster care should be matched with an adult mentor7 providing both another set of eyes on the child and some of the nurturing that the parents may not be providing. Mentors can be volunteers or employees of a professional mentoring program like Friends of the Children, which aims to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and has a special concentration on children in foster care or involved with child welfare. Credible Messengers is a quickly-spreading model that uses people with similar life experiences to mentor youths involved with juvenile justice, and the District of Columbia’s child welfare agency has begun using it in foster care as well.

Creativity and Mastery: As Dee Wilson suggests,7 agencies managing the cases of abused and neglected school-age children should invest as much in their talent development as in their mental health treatment. Developing a child’s talent in arts, sports or another arena provides multiple benefits, including the psychological benefits of mastery of a skill, and in the case of the arts, the opportunity to process and understand trauma, as described in an Imprint article about an arts programs for incarcerated youth.

Specialized Education: Some public education models are designed to support children with child welfare involvement. Haven Academy in the Bronx is a public charter school that is open to all students but prioritizes admitting children whose families are involved with the child welfare system. Their model integrates family support services with the academic program. Some school-aged children who are candidates for foster care may do well in a boarding school that takes them away from their homes for much of the time while their parents receive needed services. Monument Academy Public Charter School in the District of Columbia is a weekday boarding school designed to serve students who have experienced significant adversity, including involvement or risk of involvement in the child welfare system. The school works to provide its students with the “academic, social, emotional, and life skills to be successful in college, career, and community.”

Coordination with other agencies

Shared Data: The families that come back again and again to every child welfare agency are probably the same families known to other agencies that work primarily with the poor–such as income support, mental health, juvenile justice and probation. The schools probably know these families as well because of their children’s issues with absenteeism, behavior, and disabilities. With a database shared between these agencies, families with issues could be identified early and helped in a more coordinated manner, perhaps allowing earlier intervention (and not always by CPS) with chronically maltreating families. But privacy and other concerns are often used to block any attempt at information-sharing between agencies. In a future commentary, I will discuss how such concerns ended San Francisco’s Shared Youth Database, a successful and award-winning data sharing project.

Shared Case Management: Another way to coordinate services between agencies would be to actually merge case management for child welfare and income support programs, returning to something more like the model that existed when cash welfare was administered by social workers who monitored parents to ensure that they were meeting the needs of their children. This model was phased out between 1968 and 1972 after criticism that it was coercive and also to save money, and it is unlikely to get a good reception in today’s ideological climate. But returning to a shared case management arrangement for cash welfare and child protective services would have many advantages. It would make the receipt of benefits contingent on taking proper care of one’s children and provide an incentive for families to cooperate with their case plans.

Recognizing when to give up on birth families: Finally, child welfare agencies must recognize when it is time to remove a child from a toxic family environment or when the prospect of reunification should be given up for good. It is not appropriate to close an in-home services case or to reunify a family if there is no indication that the parents have changed their behavior, and yet this happens all the time. Many of the most egregious child abuse and neglect deaths have been associated with startling failures to remove a child after long histories of abuse, or incomprehensible reunifications with parents who are clearly dangerous. Social workers and judges should be more rigorous about demanding evidence of change before putting a child in harm’s way by closing a case or sending a child home. When starting work with frequently encountered families, social workers should immediately seek out relatives or family friends who could serve as sources of support as the parents try to improve and as alternative caregivers if the children must be permanently removed.

Dee Wilson provides several reasons why there little motivation to find effective responses to the problem of chronic maltreatment. There is certainly no great public concern with the emotional and developmental damage to children from growing up with chronic abuse and neglect. Child welfare commentators in the spotlight today are clamoring for a narrower standard for child welfare intervention, not a broader one. And finally, understaffed and underfunded child welfare agencies are not looking to expand their services to maltreating families, although paradoxically many of them apparently want to expand their mission to encompass prevention of maltreatment among the group of families not yet known to them. The combination of public indifference, resistance to government spending (traditionally the province of the right wing) and resistence to any sort of “family policing or regulation” regardless of the danger to children (now the province of the left wing), is particularly toxic. Nevertheless, those who care for children must keep raising our voices, hoping one day that those in power will understand the need to protect the most vulnerable children and thereby interrupt the transmission of chronic maltreatment from generation to generation.


  1. Dee Wilson, email to this author, November 29, 2022.
  2. Substantiated means that there is credible evidence that abuse or neglect has occurred. Unsubstantiated or unfounded generally means there is not credible evidence concluding that abuse or neglect has occurred. Some states have an intermediate finding of “inconclusive” or “indicated” meaning that there is some evidence that maltreatment has occurred but not enough to substantiate the case. See Children’s Bureau, Child Protective Services: A Guide for Caseworkers 2018, p. 8-0.
  3. Jonson-Reid, M., et al. (2010). Understanding chronically reported families. Child Maltreatment, 15 (4):271-281. Jonson-Reid et al were able to find only one study (the Loman study) that focuses on these chronic cases. To determine if there were any such studies later, I went through the list of articles citing the Reid et al paper and found no more estimates of the proportion of families that are chronically reported by any definition.
  4. English, D. J., Upadhyaya, M. P., Litrownik, A. J., Marshall, J M., Runyan, D. K., Graham, J. C., & Dubowitz, H. (2005). Maltreatment’s wake: The relationship of maltreatment dimensions to child outcomes. Child Abuse and Neglect, 29,597-619; Ethier, L.S., Lemelin, J.P., and Lacharite, C. (2004). A longitudinal study of the effects of chronic maltratment on children’s behavioral and emotional problems. Child Abuse & Neglect, 28, 1265-1278; Jaffee, S., and Malkovich-Fong, A.K (2011). Effects of chronic maltreatment and maltreatment timing on children’s behavior and cognitivec abilities. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(20, 184-194; Lemmon, J. H. (2006). The effects of maltreatment recurrence and Child Welfare services on dimensions of delinquency. Criminal Justice Review, 31, 5-32.
  5. See my commentary, Risk not substantiation should drive services to families. But not all jurisdictions require substantiation in order to open a case for in-home services or foster care. In Washington State, an allegation does not need to be substantiated for an agency to file a neglect petition in court; the purpose of filing a petition is to “prevent harm” and there is no need to prove that harm already occurred. Nevertheless, we know from Dee Wilson that despite this possibility, families continue maltreating long enough to accrue 30 or more reports, so clearly it is not the only answer. In Michigan and Minnesota, a case can be opened or a child removed because of “threatened harm,” which can be substantiated as a type of maltreatment.
  6. See Drake, Jonson-Reid, Way, & Chung, Substantation and Recidivism; Kohl, Jonson-Reid, and Drake, Time to leave substantiation behind: Findings from a National Probability Study; Putnam-Hornstein et al., Risk of re-reporting among infants who remain at home following alleged maltreatment.
  7. Dee Wilson, Email to the author, December 21, 2022.

3 thoughts on “Chronic maltreatment: A blind spot for child welfare

  1. Thank you, Marie, for this excellent blog. All this needs to be said. Future generations will have to deal with these chronically maltreated and damaged children. I was an attorney who represented children in child abuse and neglect cases for twenty years. I got so frustrated by these cases that I took to writing them up using my “Legacy of the Family Preservation Movement” outline. I sent each one to the state commissioner in charge of the agency overseeing the child protection system. The outline included:
    1. Prior to removal from the home, the number of referrals and accepted referrals (reports), disposition (substantiation, etc.), track assignment and the child s ages at each stage;
    2. Prior to removal from the home, services provided and the family s response (refusal, no shows, participation and progress);
    3.The impact on the child from being left in a neglectful/abusive home environment (mental health diagnoses, school performance, etc,);
    4.The changes in the child once placed in a stable, nurturing home environment.

    The writeups are appallingly similar and horrific. Services were offered year after year resulting in no behavioral changes. The children developed Oppositional Defiance Disorder, PTSD, severe developmental delays, depression, substance abuse disorders, etc.

    So keep up the good work! Thank you for your well-researched advocacy for children.


    Liked by 1 person

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