When it comes to making decisions about a child’s safety, child welfare frontline workers rely on referrals and often have incomplete information. Since their decisions have the power to affect millions of children and families around the country, it is critical that state agencies are as accurate as possible when they decide to intervene. A method called the Screening Threshold Analysis may be part of the solution to child welfare’s question of whether to investigate children and families.
That was the focus of recent research by the State of Indiana, the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect at the University of Colorado Department of Pediatrics, and the Capacity Building Center for States. Elisabeth Wilson, now the Morgridge Family Foundation’s strategic change and evaluation specialist who leads MFF’s $1.4 million Child Welfare Initiative, was among the authors representing the State of Indiana. John Fluke, a professor in pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the principal investigator in the research, is an expert on child abuse and neglect prevention and treatment. He has researched epidemiology and child welfare systems for more than 40 years.
According to Fluke, this research provides evidence for the efficacy of the Screening Threshold Analysis in keeping children and families out of the child welfare system by focusing on reducing the number of “false positives.” False positives are defined as abuse reports that after initial investigation turn out to be minor concerns or are outside of the mandate of child welfare.
For example, a concerned neighbor may call child protective services to report seeing a child playing in dirty clothing. The call is filed as a potential neglect allegation and the family is investigated. During the investigation, child protective services finds that the child was simply playing in dirty clothes to avoid damaging other clothing, and no intervention or support was needed. That would be a false positive.
At first glance, false positives may seem worth the risk. It’s easy to think that if there’s even a chance that a child is in an unsafe home, the situation should be investigated. However, Fluke explained that research and lived experience from frontline staff and families show that false positives can be harmful in several ways.
1. False positives are an unnecessary drain on the system. When case workers investigate a family that doesn’t actually need their attention, it takes resources away from cases where children may be in real danger.
2. Research shows that involving families with the child welfare system, in any context, increases the likelihood of future interventions. Families are required to respond to interventions or risk being separated from their children.
3. Research also shows that children and families can be traumatized by interactions with the child welfare system, even in the case of a false positive. Negative impacts are even more likely for families and children of color.
While there isn’t a known national rate of false positives, other statistics show the extent of the problem. In 2021, over 3 million children in the U.S. were investigated by child protective services, but only 588,229 children were confirmed as victims of child abuse and neglect. That means there is some chance that a large proportion of unconfirmed investigations have been unnecessary.
Nationally, child welfare agencies respond to about 50 percent of all referrals they receive. In Indiana, where the research was conducted, about 90 percent of all referrals are acted upon. That made Indiana the ideal state to conduct research on false positives. Its agencies were especially motivated to understand how they could reduce their response rate without putting children in danger.
The research revealed that Indiana had a 51 percent rate of false positives. “There is a lot of room for improving the system,” Fluke said. He noted that the findings are contributing to the growing national conversation about mandatory reporting and the dangers of over-investigating children and families.
With the Screening Threshold Analysis, “states can prevent families and children from coming into the child welfare system while maintaining a high level of safety and community,” Fluke said. “The research is particularly impactful for children and families who are disproportionately affected by the child welfare system, including people of color and those living in poverty.”
“The use of the Screening Threshold Analysis is based on the idea that it is just as important to understand which families and children won’t benefit from child welfare intervention as those who do,” Fluke continued. The analysis can help state agencies identify families who do not need child welfare services but would benefit from other services in the community, including access to food pantries, economic assistance, counseling and more. These services help solve the problems families may be facing without the trauma of an unnecessary child welfare intervention.
So far, the Screening Threshold Analysis is being used to drive screening changes in Kentucky, Minnesota and West Virginia. Thanks to this research, families across the country will face fewer disparities and better access to the support they need to keep their children safe, happy and thriving.