Research Watch

How contexts of poverty lead to increased child welfare involvement

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Kate Maurer

Fong, K. (2016). Child welfare involvement and contexts of poverty: The role of parental adversities, social networks, and social services. Children and Youth Services Review, 72, 5-13.


While low-income is a common risk factor for child welfare involvement, an analysis of the greater contexts of poverty enables a better understanding of the relationship between financial hardship and child welfare involvement. This study demonstrates how low-income in and of itself does not account for higher rates of child-welfare involvement; it is the “environments of desperation and disadvantage” that poverty creates that lead to higher incidences of reporting.

This study involved qualitative interviews with 40 poor parents living in Providence, Rhode Island, who had been investigated for child maltreatment. The majority of the sample were mothers living below the federal poverty level, whose household received some type of government benefit(s). Almost all had experienced at least one form of adversity, such as involvement in the criminal justice system, domestic violence, mental health problems, and/or homelessness. The study found that greater child welfare involvement was directly tied to these “poverty-related parental adversities”; they created situations of compounded stress and increased the likelihood of perceived child maltreatment. In cases where there was police or institutional involvement, reporting mechanisms to child-welfare services were often automatic. The study also found that parents’ “disadvantaged network ties”, such as romantic partners or childcare providers known to authorities, were associated with greater likelihood of child welfare reporting. Similarly, contexts of poverty contributed to strain on relationships and economic dependence on unstable social networks. “Fractured relationships” sometimes lead to increased child-welfare reporting because this is a known power-leveraging norm in some disadvantaged communities. Finally, the study found that reliance on social services increased contexts of visibility and surveillance of parenting practices. These services that parents depended on for their wellbeing increased their likelihood of being reported to child welfare agencies.

Methodological Notes

This study offers a comprehensive analysis of the contexts of poverty and how “compounding disadvantages” increase families’ risk of involvement in the child-welfare system. It clearly distinguishes between child maltreatment and child-welfare reporting. Limitations include the fact that only English-speaking parents were sampled, therefore the study may have overlooked the unique experiences of recently arrived immigrants’ involvement in the child welfare system.