Research Watch

About 1 in 7 children will be reported at least twice to child protection before the age of 12 in the US

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Mireille De La Sablonnière-Griffin

Kim, H. and B. Drake (2019). Cumulative prevalence of onset and recurrence of child maltreatment reports. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 58(12), 1175-1183.


Understanding the longitudinal experience of children with the child protection system has been a challenge for scholars around the world. Recent efforts in the United States have estimated that 37.4% of US children will be investigated at least once before the age of 18 (Kim et al., 2017), 12.5% will have a substantiated case (Wildeman et al., 2014) and 5.9% will be placed at least once in out of home care (Wildeman & Emanuel, 2014). This publication, while replicating some work on investigations and substantiations with more recent data, extends the previous work in looking at children who experience up to 6 contacts (screened-in reports/investigations and substantiation) with the child protection system before the age of 12.

It was estimated that just under a third (32.4%) of all US children had been the subject of at least one screened-in report before the age of 12. Their findings also support the claims that recurrent screened-in report is a frequent occurrence at the national level in the US: the estimations were 13.7% had at least two, and 7.5% at least three screened-in reports. They also estimated that 4.5% - or 1 in 22 children – would have at least four screened-in reports before the age of 12, (i.e., about one child per classroom).

In terms of substantiation, about 1 in 10 US children will ever experience this event before they reach 12 years of age. Although the cumulative rates of prevalence are much lower than for screened-in reports (e.g. 2.8% for at least 2, 0.9% for at least 3 substantiations), the rates of recurrence are high: 27.9% of children with a first substantiation will experience a second one, and up to 45.1% of children with 5 substantiations will experience a sixth event.

For a first event, children that were identified as Black (46.2% for report; 14.7% for substantiation), Hispanic (29.4% for report; 9.3% for substantiation), and Native Americans (33.8% for report; 12.6% for substantiation) had higher rates compared to White children (24.2% for reports; 7.9% for substantiation). The rate of recurrence was, generally, higher for White children than for children from these three ethno-racial groups. Yet, given the higher onset rates for Black, Hispanic and Native children, the cumulative rates remained higher for these children, compared to White children, for a second event in both cases. Black children had the highest estimated rates for both reports and substantiation at event #6 (2.6% of all Black children will have experienced 6 screened-in reports by age 12; 0.105% will have had 6 substantiations by age 12).

Methodological Notes

This study used NCANDS and Census data. The NCANDS data is a national data collection system comprised of case-base child protection data provided voluntarily by states. Each state provides unique identifiers to children; in this study, it is possible that lower-order events (e.g. events 1-2) are over-counted and higher-order events are undercounted (e.g. events 5 or 6), given that it is impossible to track children across states. It is also important to note that estimates for Indigenous children must be interpreted with caution, as both data sources have important limitations regarding these children (e.g. between 43 to 61% of data on Indigenous children was estimated to reach the national system, Fox, 2003). Finally, these descriptive data do not account for the fact that non-White children, particularly Black children, are placed in out-of-home care at a higher rate, effectively removing, or at least, highly decreasing, the probability of them having repeated contact with child protection (vs. having continued contact through placement).