Child maltreatment: The effects of neighborhood social processes

Date Published: 

Molnar, B.E., Goerge, R.M., Gilsanz, P., Hill, A., Subramanian, S.V., Holton, J.K., . . . Beardslee, W.R. (2016). Neighborhood-level social processes and substantiated cases of child maltreatment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 51, 41-53.

Reviewed by: 
Sydney Duder

Child maltreatment is an important public health problem; research has shown that neighborhood structural factors, such as poverty and crime rates, can have a significant effect on the number of victims. This present study, based on data for the city of Chicago, was an attempt to identify potentially modifiable social processes which might also have an effect. The structural factors included were poverty, homicide and robbery rates and change in numbers of Hispanic children.  The social processes examined were collective efficacy (informal social control & social cohesion), intergenerational closure, social networks and physical & social disorder. The outcomes measured, based on substantiated maltreatment cases from the Illinois Child Protection Agency, 1995-2005, were rates of neglect, physical abuse, child sexual abuse and substance-exposed infants.

Consistent associations were found between neighborhood social processes and maltreatment rates, even when controlling for the differences in structural factors. In neighborhoods with higher social process levels, the rates of reported maltreatment were lower in all categories. The authors suggest that strategies to mobilize neighborhood-level protective factors may decrease child maltreatment more effectively than individual and family-focused efforts alone. They argue that further intervention research should continue to test approaches that combine strengthening neighborhood-level social processes with improvements in structural characteristics.

Methodological notes: 

This was an ecological-level repeated cross-sectional study.  For statistical analysis, agency maltreatment data were geocoded to census tracts, and age group/sex specific proportions of each maltreatment category were calculated for each census tract. The census tracts were then aggregated into neighborhood clusters (NCs); these NCs (N = 343; each about 8000 residents) were the cases, or units of analysis. For each NC, values for structural variables were based on data from the US Census & the Chicago Police Department. Values for social processes were based on a community survey, the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (1995, replicated in 2001-2); for this survey, standard questionnaires were completed by random samples of 20 residents from each NC. Multilevel statistical analyses were performed, using the MLwiN program. 

The research design and statistical analysis used here were elaborate and sophisticated. There were, however, limitations. As the authors point out, only those maltreatment cases that had been officially reported and substantiated were included.  Data on alcohol outlets—an important factor in other studies—were not available. Also, a number of family-level risk factors (e.g., poverty, education, unemployment, family composition, substance abuse, ethnicity) have been found to be significantly related to child maltreatment; with the design strategy used here—NCs, not families, as cases—none of these could be included as controls. It is interesting to speculate about how this omission might have affected the results.