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Child Youth Serv Rev. 2009 Mar;31(3):422-427.

Is the overrepresentation of the poor in child welfare caseloads due to bias or need?

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George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University in St. Louis, United States.


One hanging question in child welfare policy and research is whether there is an artificial overrepresentation of the poor in child welfare caseloads or whether this reflects the co-occurrence of poverty and need. In order to address this question, this study uses data from child welfare (report, assessment, service and re-report), income maintenance, special education, hospitals, juvenile court, public mental health treatment, and census data. Poor children reported to child welfare are compared to non-poor children reported to child welfare and also to poor children not reported to child welfare. Poor children reported for maltreatment had greater risk factors at the parent and neighborhood levels and higher rates of negative outcomes than children in either comparison group. Among children reported for maltreatment, poor children have worse outcomes, both within child welfare (e.g., recurrence) and outside of child welfare (e.g. juvenile court, hospitalization for violence) than non-poor children. These data suggest that the overrepresentation of poor children is driven largely by the presence of increased risk among the poor children that come to the attention of child welfare rather than high levels of systemic class bias.


Child abuse; Child neglect; Child welfare; Cross-sector; Poverty; Reporting bias

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