Research Watch

Substantiated child maltreatment decision in Ontario

Year of Publication
Reviewed By
Katelyn Bailey

Stoddart, J. K., Fallon, B., Trocmé, N., & Fluke, J. (2018). Substantiated child maltreatment: Which factors do workers focus on when making this critical decision? Children and Youth Services Review, 87, 1-8.


This study examined which child, family, and environmental characteristics influence workers in Ontario to substantiate maltreatment, adding to the limited research literature in Canada on substantiation decision-making.

This study utilizes secondary data from the 2013 cycle of the Ontario Incidence Study (OIS). The OIS is a provincial study that examines the incidence of reported child abuse and neglect in Ontario using child welfare agencies as its primary sampling unit. The OIS gathered data on 5265 children subject of maltreatment investigations from a representative sample of 17 child welfare organizations. Data was collected directly from workers at the conclusion of the maltreatment investigations and included descriptions of the alleged maltreatment in addition to other child, family, and investigation-related information. The outcome variable of the current study was substantiation status in which maltreatment was classified as substantiated or unfounded. Independent variables included forms of maltreatment, primary caregiver ethno-racial status, caregiver response to investigation, child functioning concerns, source of referral, maltreatment history, housing risk, physical harm, and future risk of maltreatment. Logistic regression analysis was used to examine the factors that distinguished substantiated from unfounded maltreatment. Suspected investigations were dropped from the multivariate analysis.

Overall, 44% of all maltreatment investigations conducted in the province were substantiated. All of the variables except caregiver ethnicity and previous substantiated maltreatment for the investigated child were found to be significant predictors of whether a maltreatment investigation was substantiated rather than unfounded. The workers’ assessment of the future risk of maltreatment was significantly associated with higher likelihood of substantiation by 6.6 times. In addition, the form of maltreatment that is most likely to be substantiated was exposure to intimate partner violence, which was five times more likely than physical abuse to be substantiated. Primary caregiver risk factors were 2.2 and 3.9 times more likely to be substantiated and cases that involved children with uncooperative parents were 1.5 times more likely to be substantiated. Further, cases in which the child displayed emotional and/or mental functioning concerns were 1.7 times more likely to be substantiated in addition to cognitive and/or physical functioning concerns in addition to when the referral source was from a professional source.

Methodological Notes

The use of self-report data by the investigating child welfare workers may include uncontrolled biases. Future research should explore worker and organizational factors that influence this risk of substantiation decision-making and how much of an influence the current risk assessment tools have on the workers’ assessments of future risk and substantiation to gain a more complete picture of decision-making regarding substantiated maltreatment in Ontario.