When Watching Over Children Isn’t Enough

Posted on Categories Family Law

An article in The New York Times last week reported on a recent study done on the effects of child abuse investigations.    The study looked at interview data with 595 children who lived in families known to be at risk for child maltreatment.  The children were interviewed at age 4 and again at age 8; and 164 of the 595 subjects were in families investigated by CPS (Child Protective Services) for possible child maltreatment during that time period.  The researchers looked for differences between the investigated and uninvestigated subjects in seven known risk factors for child maltreatment:  poverty, family functioning, social support, maternal depressive symptoms, maternal education, child anxious or depressive behavior and child aggressive behavior.  They found no significant differences in these factors between those families that had been investigated during the four year period and those families that had not been investigated during that time.  The sole exception was maternal depression: mothers in investigated families had more depressive symptoms than mothers whose families were not investigated.  To put it plainly, these children were at high risk of being maltreated when the study began, and they remained at high risk four years later, whether or not they had experienced CPS investigation.

The authors comment that the results are not surprising, given that many of the risk factors that were studied are not usually addressed by the interventions that follow child protective services investigations. 

The authors point out that poverty and lack of social support are known to put families at risk of child maltreatment, but investigations and the interventions that follow them are more likely to focus on things known to be more closely associated with child abuse, such as domestic violence or substance abuse (two factors that were not considered in the current study). 

Actually, I think most people DO find the results to be surprising.  The fact is we often view investigations into suspected abuse as a kind of solution.  We expect that such investigations will reveal whether or not there is maltreatment, we expect that curative solutions will be offered, and we expect that these interventions will be successful.  Even in the absence of strong remedial programs, we hope that letting parents know that they are being watched will make them change their parenting for the better.   The reality is somewhat more complicated.  Investigations often yield ambiguous findings, and even where abuse is detected, there is not a one-size fits all solution.  Mere observation of a struggling family does nothing to teach the parents how to improve their family situation.  Ironically, the success rates may be higher where the maltreatment is more egregious and the intervention more drastic, such as when an abused child’s parents’ parental rights are terminated, and the child is adopted by a forever family.  Such children were not included in the present study, which looked only at children who had the same caregiver at age 4 and at age 8.

The study authors, as well as the author of an accompanying editorial, suggest that social work should focus on addressing broader family, caregiver and child risk factors.  Improvements in social support systems for families at risk and individual therapy are two interventions that are known to improve outcomes for children at risk.  Why aren’t such measures routinely undertaken?  Part of the reason is cost: these interventions are time and labor intensive, and they cost money.  Plus, our society tends towards crisis intervention followed by a quick fix (and not only where child protection is involved – note, for example, the proliferation of quick-result diets).  There is often resentment over providing ongoing services to at-risk families.  Some people seem to feel that giving housekeeping or therapeutic services to at-risk families rewards those families for poor choices and bad behavior, especially when so many middle income families cannot afford help to carry out their own duties and solve their own problems. 

Comments on the study also emphasize that social workers are obliged to play different, sometimes opposing, roles:  CPS workers are supposed to provide help to struggling parents, but at the same time their reports are used in the criminal justice system’s punishment of child maltreatment.  In the editorial accompanying the study, Dr. Abraham B. Bergman suggests that the task of building a case for punishing child abusers should be left to the police, and social workers should focus their efforts on helping families to improve their physical and emotional circumstances.  This seems like a good starting point.

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