Research Watch

Child maltreatment: Racial disparities & service availability

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Sydney Duder

Maguire-Jack, K., Cao, Y. & Yoon, S. (2018). Racial disparities in child maltreatment: The role of social service availability. Children and Youth Services Review, 86, 49-55.


Black children are greatly over-represented in the child welfare population in the United States. As a guide to corrective action, it would obviously be useful to understand the reasons for this over-representation. One possible factor, the focus of this present study, might be the availability of social services. Here, service availability is operationalized as driving distances between client homes and service provider addresses.

Subjects were low income non-Hispanic parents in Franklin County, Ohio, White (N = 197) and Black (N =259), who were participants in six special supplemental nutrition assistance programs. Data included maltreatment categories (neglect and physical abuse), service categories (poverty, mental health, substance abuse and parenting), and demographics. Subjects completed paper and pencil questionnaires (approx.10 mins.) while they waited for regularly scheduled appointments.

Findings Black families were actually likely to live closer to poverty, mental health and substance abuse services than White families – the opposite of expectations. Remaining findings were generally in line with the current knowledge base: White and Black families reported similar levels of neglect, but Black families reported higher levels of physical abuse, Proximity to poverty services was associated with lower rates of neglect for White families, but not for Black families. Proximity to mental health services was associated with lower rates of neglect for Black families but not for White families. Proximity to substance abuse services was associated with lower rates of physical abuse for White families -- but none of the service categories was associated with decreased physical abuse for Black families.

This article includes an exceptionally thorough discussion of the limitations and implications of these findings. The authors argue that better organization of social services in the neighborhood might translate into better parenting, and conclude that “different service types differentially reduce the risk for child maltreatment for diverse families across racial groups.”

Methodological Notes

The sample was from a single source, and relatively disadvantaged. Race (Black or White) was self-identified by the parent taking the survey. Child maltreatment was assessed using the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS-PC). Service availability was calculated using a special program (ArcGIS v10.1) to map routes & calculate distances between agency locations and subjects’ home addresses. Other agency factors such as wait lists and service quality were not considered. T-tests & chi-square statistics were used to compare responses of the Black & White samples. Control variables included the usual demographics (parent age, education, economic hardship, parenting stress, etc.) All subjects received $10 gift cards from a local gift store.