Feds confuse substantiation with victimization

On January 28, the Administration of Children and Families (ACF) released its annual report on child maltreatment. In its press release, the agency heralded “a decline in the number of victims who suffered maltreatment for the second consecutive year.” There are three problems with this. First, the alleged decrease in victimization between Federal Fiscal Years (FFY) 2016 and 2017 is so small as to be insignificant. Second, what declined was not child maltreatment but rather the number of children who were “substantiated” as maltreated–a decline that may reflect changing state practice rather than declining child maltreatment. Finally, ACF’s presentation appears designed to support a narrative that favors family preservation over child safety rather than to report the data in an objective manner.

The newest edition of ACF’s Child Maltreatment report is based on state data for FFY 2017, which ran from October 2016 to September 2017. The report shows that states received 4.1 million referrals (calls to child abuse hotlines) alleging maltreatment involving 7.5 million children in 2017. The number of referrals as a percentage of the number of children has increased annually since 2013. ACF does not discuss the reasons for this ongoing increase, nor does it present referral numbers by state, but such increases could stem from increased awareness of child abuse and neglect (often due to highly-publicized child deaths), public information campaigns, or other factors.

Of the 4.1 million referrals received nationwide in 2017, 2.4 million  (or 58%), were “screened in” by state or county child welfare agencies, which means they met agency criteria for receiving a response. As a result, 3.5 million children received either a traditional child maltreatment investigation or were assigned to an alternative non-investigative track, as described below. And of these 3.5 million children, an estimated 674,000 or 19% were found to be victims of abuse or neglect. This flowchart, based on data from Child Maltreatment 2017, illustrates this funneling effect from referrals to substantiation.After rounding and a calculation to account for missing data from Puerto Rico in FFY 2016, HHS estimates that the number of children found to be maltreated decreased of 3,000 (or 0.4%) from the previous year. Such a small change is hardly meaningful; it would be more accurate to say that the number was basically unchanged. This difference from one year to the next is so small that the rate of children found to be victimized was the same in 2017 as in 2016–9.1 per 1000 children. In other words, almost one percent of all children were found to be the victims of maltreatment in 2016 and 2017.

But perhaps more important than the small size of the decrease is the fact that referring to a “decline in the number of victims” or the “victimization rate”  is deceptive, which is why I have used cumbersome terms like “found to be victims of child maltreatment.” Most states use the term “substantiation” to connote that they have concluded maltreatment have occurred; some have an additional finding called “indication” that is somewhat less conclusive than substantiation. But as we all know, a finding of maltreatment is not the same as actual maltreatment. Just look back at my columns on Jordan Belliveau in Florida, Anthony Avalos in California, the Hart children in Oregon, and Adrian Jones in Kansas to find cases where horrific abuse occurred but was not substantiated until a child died.

And that is not the only problem. As ACF itself explained, changes in state policy and practice can influence the number of reports that are substantiated. Different states have different evidence thresholds to substantiate an allegation. According to the report, 37 states require a “preponderance of” evidence, 8 states require “credible” evidence, 6 states require “reasonable” evidence and one requires “probable cause.” One state changed its evidence threshold between 2016 and 2017.

In addition to different criteria for substantiation, some states treat all screened-in referrals in the same way while others have a two-track system of responding to reports. In these two-track systems (often called “differential response” or “alternative response”), some allegations receive a standard investigation, but others (usually deemed to be at lower risk of harm) receive less rigorous response, often known as a “family assessment.” The children in these cases are not determined to be victims even if they have been abused or neglected. Instead their families are offered voluntary services. About half of states reported data on children in alternative response programs. As the above flow chart shows, 639,634 children received an alternative response, almost as many as the 674,000 who were determined to be maltreated.

So a given state’s substantiation rate will be influenced by whether it has differential response in all or part of the state. And if the use of differential response in a state was expanding or contracting over a given period, this will influence the change in the number of  children who are determined to be victims of maltreatment. Specifically, if states increased their use of differential response overall, that would have reduced the number of children found to be maltreated.

And indeed, ACF reports that “states’ commentaries suggest the increased usage and implementation of alternative response programs ….may have contributed to the changes noted in the 2017 metrics.” And upon review,  the commentaries, included in an Appendix to the report, do suggest that the number of reports subject to differential response increased between FFY 2016 and 2017. Six states, including New York, and Texas (two of the four states with the highest number of children)1 were ramping up their use of differential response during FFY 2017, while Massachusetts and Oregon stopped using the two-track system in FFY 2016 and 2017 respectively.

ACF also suggests that changes to state legislation and child welfare policies and practices might influence the number of substantiated allegations. The state commentaries reveal that some states experienced such changes, although it is not clear that they trended in one direction. Some states like Pennsylvania reported an increased emphasis on safety resulting in increased substantiations and others like New Jersey reporting reduced substantiations due to new policies.

As all this discussion shows, it is almost impossible to attribute a change in the number or rate of substantiation to an actual change in the amount of child abuse and neglect. Too many other things are influencing this number and rate.

Not only did ACF inaccurately herald a decrease in maltreatment but it went on to contrast this alleged decrease with the increasing number of referrals, stating “We are experiencing increases in the number of children referred to CPS at the same time that there is a decrease in the number of children determined to be victims of abuse and neglect.” Media outlets lost no time in picking up on this alleged contrast. For example,  the Chronicle of Social Change reported that Child Victimization Declines as Reports of it Continue to Rise.

The interpretation of child welfare numbers to paint a picture of decreasing maltreatment in the face of increasing reporting is not an accident. It feeds into the narrative that is currently dominating in most states and on the federal level without regard to party. According to this narrative, almost all children are better off staying with their parents, no matter how egregious the maltreatment. Removals should be prevented at all costs. If maltreatment is decreasing and reporting is increasing, perhaps something should be done to squelch those pesky hotline callers.

The data presented in Child Maltreatment is extremely important. It is too bad ACF did not stick to reporting it accurately so that readers can understand what it means–and what it does not.


  1. Colorado, Georgia, Nebraska and Washington were the other four states that expanded the use of differential response during FY 2017.