Journal Issue: Preventing Child Maltreatment Volume 19 Number 2 Fall 2009
One of the main challenges policy makers face when trying to expand preventive services programs is the wide variation in state maltreatment rates. Murray Straus and David Moore explain that state rates vary not only because of real differences in the incidence of maltreatment but also because of differences in policies, programs, and resource allocation.34 Untangling these state variations has practical implications for maltreatment prevention to the extent that changes in state variation can be tied to how states invest in programs aimed at reducing maltreatment.
To get at the question of state variation, the most useful, readily available source of data is NCANDS. Each year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes a report based on NCANDS that summarizes maltreatment data for the previous year; the most recent such report is Child Maltreatment 2006. The report covers a wide range of topics regarding victims, perpetrators, reporting sources, and maltreatment types. Many of the data are reported for individual states. Other than exploring change over time in the reported incidence of maltreatment, however, researchers have done relatively little work to understand state variation in reported maltreatment.35
For 2006, state reporting rates—the number of children reported to and investigated by public child welfare agencies because of suspected maltreatment—range from 7.7 per thousand children up to 59.7 per thousand. Although not significant in a strict sense, the correlation between the number of children living in a state and the reporting rate is negative (-.06), indicating that reporting rates per thousand children tend to be somewhat lower in large states even though two-thirds of all reports come from larger states (that is, states with more than 1.45 million children). The wide variation in reporting rates also, as noted, highlights state policy differences. For example, Pennsylvania has the lowest reporting rate in part because it does not recognize educational neglect.
The substantiation rate is the number of child victims expressed as a fraction of the number of children identified in maltreatment investigations. In the 2006 maltreatment report, state substantiation rates ranged from 93 percent to 12 percent. The former figure means that nearly every child reported was determined to be a victim; the latter, that barely one in ten children reported was a victim of maltreatment. Whereas one-third of all reports came from smaller states (that is, those with fewer than 1.45 million children), just 28 percent of all victims in 2006 came from smaller states. The under-representation of children from smaller states reflects a lower substantiation rate overall. The weighted average substantiation rate in small states (38 percent) is about 23 percent lower than that in large states (50 percent).
Victimization rate is the term used to describe the number of child maltreatment victims per thousand children. As with other maltreatment indicators, victimization rates vary widely from one state to another, from 1.5 per thousand up to 33.5 per thousand. Victimization rates tend to be higher in large states, in part because the substantiation rates are higher in large states.
State poverty rates are one reason that some states may have higher victimization rates than others, although the dynamics of poverty and maltreatment are complicated when measured at the state level. More than half the families in the NSCAW sample had incomes below the federal poverty line adjusted for family size.36 Research also generally shows that income and maltreatment are related.37 At the aggregate level of states, however, poverty rates do not provide a particularly robust explanation for the wide variation in state victimization rates. Calculations based on the 2006 NCANDS data suggest that the average maltreatment rate in the ten states with the highest poverty rates is about 44 percent higher than that in the states with the lowest poverty rates. Nevertheless, state poverty rates account for just 3 percent of the variation in maltreatment rates. In a 2002 study Chris Paxson and Jane Waldfogel found that income, work status, and family structure are all related to state victimization rates, so it is not entirely reasonable to expect that poverty alone would explain state variation in maltreatment.38