August 22, 2016 – Predicting Recidivism

Teresa HuizarGood morning and happy Monday.  I hope this finds everyone well.  Last week, I discussed a study that looked at child maltreatment fatalities occurring in families known to child protective services.  This morning, I want to direct your attention to a study that addresses a related issue, that of reoccurring maltreatment or recidivism.

The study, titled “Cumulative risk hypothesis:  Predicting and preventing child maltreatment recidivism,” [1] recognizes the difficult, pervasive – and sometimes deadly – issue of child abuse and neglect recidivism.  The authors begin by noting that “instances of further abuse and neglect (i.e., maltreatment recidivism) after the initial CPS contact occur at a high rate.  For example, one study found that over 60% of infants who were reported to child welfare as maltreated were involved in at least one more report within 5 years.  For most families experiencing multiple cases of child maltreatment, fewer than 6 months pass before a subsequent maltreatment report is made.”  Id., p. 81. 

Previous studies have identified the factors and stressors that put a child at risk for maltreatment, including parental substance abuse, parental mental health issues, domestic violence, financial stressors and child disability status, to name but a few.  But no single risk factor has been clearly identified as predicting recidivism after an initial contact with child protective services.  The researchers found it “curious that no risk factors were related to maltreatment recidivism, which could indicate that these variables have little utility in predicting risk or making intervention decisions.”  Id.

What researchers did find, however, is that although risk factors may not predict recidivism, “two CPS-ordered interventions were found to be related to recidivism:  cases in which a parent received psychotherapy were less likely to experience recidivism, whereas cases in which the child had to be removed temporarily from a parent’s custody were nearly 9 times more likely to experience another case of maltreatment.”  Id

So the question becomes how to reconcile these findings, in which individual risk factors do not predict future maltreatment, but psychotherapy and removal do. To explain this, the researchers first looked to cumulative risk hypothesis. In other words, they looked at whether “cumulative effects of the risk factors could prove beneficial in predicting recidivism even if individual risk factors have less predictive validity.”  Id., p. 82. 

Not surprisingly, they found that “even if each individual risk factor may not in and of itself indicate that future maltreatment might occur, considering the total number of risks may be useful in case planning.  Based on this information, CPS and other child welfare agencies may want to take further steps to prevent recidivism in cases for which multiple risks are present.”  Id., p. 87. 

But contrary to their hypothesis, the researchers did not find that cumulative risk could explain the relationship between removal and future maltreatment.  In fact, “temporary removal of the child from a parent’s custody remained the strongest predictor of recidivism by far, with recidivism being more than 4.5 times more likely if temporary removal has occurred.  Thus, it appears that other factors beyond the number of risks cause the relation between temporary removal of a child and future instances of maltreatment.”  Id

The researchers offer several possible explanations:  “[i]t may be that severity of maltreatment … may account for both temporary child removal and recidivism… and parents engaging in more severe maltreatment may have more pervasive abuse potential.”  Id.  On the other hand, removal itself may cause families additional stress, and/or families in which the child has been removed in the past are more likely to come under greater scrutiny by CPS, so maltreatment may be more likely to be substantiated again.

Whatever the reason, this study makes clear that we as CACs and MDTs face both an opportunity and a challenge in finding ways to reduce recidivism.  One solution is to continue providing families with therapy, and to increase availability whenever possible, as the researchers found that “cases in which a parent receive psychotherapy were less likely to involve a subsequent substantiated maltreatment event.”  Id.  The challenge is in continuing to work with our agency partners to understand why there is such a strong correlation between removal and recidivism, and to work together to find new solutions to address and diminish the impact of that connection. 

I encourage you to download this article and read it in full, and to share it widely with your colleagues, team members and agency partners.  And as always, I thank you for all your hard work and dedication and for all that you do on behalf of children and families.

Warm regards,  
[1] Full text of this publication may be found in the National Children's Advocacy Center's Child Abuse Library Online (CALiO ™) or by contacting the NCAC Research Digital Information Librarian. CALiO ™ is a service of the National Children's Advocacy Center (NCAC).  Please note that, to find this article in CALiO ™, simply type the title into the SuperSearch box. | 516 C Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002 US

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