First Nations children: Agency substantiation of neglect

Date Published

Sinha, V., Ellenbogen, S., & Trocme, N. (2013). Substantiating neglect of First Nations and non-Aboriginal children. Children and Youth Services Review 35, 2080-2090.

Reviewed by
Sydney Duder

First Nations children are greatly overrepresented in the Canadian child welfare system; this study deals specifically with disproportionality in agency substantiation of maltreatment. Data were from the First Nations component of the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (2008), and consisted of maltreatment-related investigations from 89 provincial-territorial agencies (a stratified random sample), and from 22 large Aboriginally-governed agencies (2 urban, 18 serving children on-reserve, and 2 serving both on and off-reserve populations). The sample analyzed was comprised of 8,293 non-Aboriginal and 1,950 First Nations children. The study examined a set of risk factors (case, child, household and caregiver characteristics) to determine the factors driving disproportionality.

In the total sample a significantly higher percentage of maltreatment investigations were substantiated for First Nations than for non-Aboriginal children (65.9% vs. 55.5%), but this observed difference could be fully explained by the set of risk factors considered. However, in a separate analysis of the sub-sample of neglect-only cases (2,236 non-Aboriginal and 804 First Nations children) the risk factors did not fully explain the reported disproportionality. When substantiating neglect, workers assigned significantly different weights to three specific risk factors - caregiver substance abuse, housing problems and presence of a lone caregiver.

After a thorough discussion of the context and implications, the authors suggest a number of possible explanations for this disproportionality in neglect cases, including possible differences in worker experience and agency procedures. Authors recommend several paths for future research, both qualitative and quantitative, to examine factors that may impact substantiation processes. 

Methodological notes

The statistical procedures - bivariate comparisons and logistic regressions - were appropriate, and the strategy was interesting. Statistically significant interactions were found between First Nations status and the three risk factors mentioned above, and the unexplained disproportionality disappeared in a logistic regression model that included these three interactions.

Two additional risk factors, reported elsewhere but not available in the CIS data set, may be worth a mention – the mother’s education and community poverty level. The latter could be especially relevant; other researchers have found that the use of family poverty alone is likely to systematically understate problems faced in neglect cases, which may also reflect community factors, such as lack of resources and social disorganization1. Agency location (urban vs. rural) and management (provincial /territorial vs. Aboriginal) may be important here, as the federal government is currently being charged with “systematically underfunding on-reserve child welfare services” (p. 2083). It seems quite likely that the First Nation children in this study lived in poorer communities than the non-Aboriginal children.

Considering all these points, it seems possible that the full set of the risk factors actually faced by the First Nation children in this study might explain the observed disproportionality. If so, this would underline the importance of trying to find ways to improve community life for First Nation children.

1Jonson-Reid, M., Drake, B., & Zhou, P. (2012). Neglect subtypes, race, and poverty: Individual, family, and service characteristics. Child Maltreatment 18(1) 30-41.