Child abuse investigations: costs, benefits, and ruined lives

The New York Times brings word of a study with arresting findings published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine:

Researchers examined the records of 595 children nationwide, all at similar high risk for maltreatment, tracking them from ages 4 to 8. During those years, Child Protective Services investigated the families of 164 of these children for suspected abuse or neglect. The scientists then interviewed all the families four years later, comparing the investigated families with the 431 families that had not been investigated.

The scientists looked at several factors: social support, family functioning, poverty, caregiver education and depressive symptoms, and child anxiety, depression and aggressive behavior — all known to increase the risk for abuse or neglect. But they were unable to find any differences in the investigated families compared with the uninvestigated in any of these dimensions, except that maternal depressive symptoms were worse in households that had been visited. … They concluded that Child Protective Services investigations had little or no effect.

The researchers considered but rejected the possibility that the investigated households were inherently more dysfunctional than the comparison households but were improved enough by the investigations to achieve similar outcomes. Surprisingly or otherwise, though unable to find a positive effect, the researchers defend the continued existence of the investigation bureaus, contending that they must be doing some good. On the other hand, the pediatric journal, under the editorial headline of “Child Protective Services Has Outlived Its Usefulness,” suggests a shift toward greater reliance on nurses as opposed to investigators in cases where neglect is the issue, backed up by police in cases where treatment of children is actually criminal.

There is a possible money waste involved here, of course: Child Protective Services is a costly program, shaped by federal mandates. But any reckoning must include a less tangible cost: the devastating effects when parents are not in fact abusive or dangerous yet are put through investigations, or worse yet see their children taken away. Indeed, while it’s hard to deny that individual investigations can sometimes identify and help children in trouble, the difficulty of finding any overall effect suggests (if the study’s results are valid) that those successes may be canceled out by the instances in which investigation does harm — perhaps a bit more than canceled out, given that suggestive increase in “maternal depressive symptoms.”

For another angle on the harm investigative mistakes or zealotry can cause, here’s a Des Moines Register editorial:

Iowans are placed on the state’s child abuse registry because social workers determined they were a threat to children. Not a judge. Not a jury. Social workers who conduct abuse investigations. The accused abusers have limited time and opportunity to appeal the decision, and may wait more than a year to get their names removed if they can prove themselves innocent. If not, people remain on the registry for 10 years.


  • Business consultants love to use pre-intervention baselines to prove they succeeded. Likewise, foreign aid interventions often need to look hard and long to find comparative villages that prove the millions in aid ‘worked.’ Both tend to ignore observer effects and a changing world.

    I believe if intervention does not produce readily observable improvements (say, 10-20% ‘improvement’), we are fooling ourselves, especially where ROI calculations can not be made.

    In the study you cite, the bar should be very high. Governments must be ultra-sensitive to the idea that they appropriate other people’s funds, affect professional career trajectories, and intervene on others’ lives. All those activities involve large opportunity costs and potentially negative externality. The internal trauma alone of investigations can be expected to leave lasting wounds in any family relationships.

  • My only comment about Child Protective Services, and this has been my comment for some thirty years, is, “Don’t let them take you, alive.”

  • Ahh, but you overlook the main goal of child protective service programs: as job programs for (98% democrat) social workers. In that way the programs are a massive success.

  • I seemed to recall that Michigan CPS workers could also place someone an abuse registry. It was then that persons responsibility to go to a judge to have it removed.