Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, June 22, 2015

Analysis identifies child abuse factors

Brianne MonahanBrianne Monahan

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The report “Child Welfare Screening in Wisconsin: An Analysis of Families Screened Out of Child Protective Services and Subsequently Screened In” is available online.

A new analysis from the La Follette School of Public Affairs may help Wisconsin prevent more cases of child abuse by detecting patterns associated with cases returning to the system after initially being screened out.

More than 20,000 cases of child abuse and neglect are substantiated each year in Wisconsin, note the authors of a report prepared for the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families as part of the Workshop in Public Affairs, taught by J. Michael Collins.

Of all the families reported to Child Protective Services each year, 9 percent are initially screened out of Child Protective Services and then screened back in upon a subsequent report of maltreatment. Sixty-three percent of families were screened in on their initial reports, and the remaining 28 percent were never screened in.

“Families initially screened out and then screened in likely would have benefited from earlier contact with services,” one of the authors, Brianne Monahan, says. “While Child Protective Services staff likely did not make mistakes in the initial screening process, the situation of these families might have been deteriorating and then worsened to degree that a situation led to a later report that qualified as abuse. We understood the initial screened out report not as a case of misclassified abuse, but a signal that a family could be in need of services.”

This report identifies several factors associated with families that are initially screened out and then screened in to Child Protective Services. These factors include an allegation of physical or emotional abuse, a young child being in the household, or a child having a documented disability. The report also examined factors that increased a family’s likelihood of having a substantiated finding of abuse. “Notably, a family screened out prior to being screened in was less likely to have a substantiated finding of abuse than a family screened in on an initial report,” Monahan says.

The report recommends that the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families initiate and maintain a flag within its systems to better track families that are initially screened out and then screened in. The department should use this tracking system to produce an annual report on these families and share that information with counties.

“The report recommends that DCF also consider expanding community response programs to provide access to support services for families initially screened out of Child Protective Services,” Monahan says. “The agency also should consider a cost-benefit analysis of establishing a centralized call system to receive maltreatment reports to limit variation by county in screening.”

The other authors of the report are Aaron Dumas, Gabrielle Elzinga-Marshall, Matthew van Buren and Megan Will. In conducting their analysis they worked with DCF Budget and Policy Analyst Andrew Kleps, a 2013 alum of the La Follette School.

"DCF appreciates the La Follette School's analysis of current efforts to prevent the occurrence of child maltreatment,” says Fredi-Ellen Bove, administrator of DCF’s Division of Safety and Permanence. “The department is committed to using quality research to develop new and effective prevention strategies to reduce the risk of families entering the child welfare system. We are eager to evaluate the capstone report for opportunities to rethink practices and consider possible alternatives that would help us fulfill our mission to keep children safe and promote their positive development."