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Edwards, F.R., Wakefield, S., Healy, K. and Wildman, C. (2021). “Child Protective Services Contact in the 20 Most Populous Counties in the US.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

This article provides county-level estimates of the cumulative prevalence of four levels of Child Protective Services (CPS) contact using administrative data from the 20 most populous counties in the United States. Rates of CPS investigation are extremely high in almost every county. Racial and ethnic inequality in case outcomes is large in some counties. The total median investigation rate was 34.5%; the risk for Black, Hispanic, and White children exceeded 10% in all counties. Risks of having a CPS investigation were highest for Black children (32.9 to 62.8%). Black children also experienced high rates of later-stage CPS contact, with rates often above 20% for confirmed maltreatment, 10% for foster care placement, and 2% for termination of parental rights (TPR). The only other children who experienced such extreme rates of later-stage CPS interventions were American Indian/Alaska Native children in Middlesex, MA; Hispanic children in Bexar, TX; and all children except Asian/Pacific Islander children in Maricopa, AZ. The latter has uniquely high rates of late-stage CPS interventions. In some jurisdictions, such as New York, NY, (0.2%) and Cook, IL (0.2%), very few children experienced TPR. These results show that early CPS interventions are ubiquitous in large counties but with marked variation in how CPS systems respond to these investigations.

Contact with Child Protective Services (CPS)—encompassing everything from an investigation to the termination of parental rights (TPR)—is common, unequally distributed, and potentially consequential for children. National data from the United States indicate that roughly 1 in 3 children will ever have a CPS investigation (1), 1 in 8 will ever experience confirmed maltreatment (23), 1 in 17 will ever be placed in foster care (24), and 1 in 100 will ever have parental rights terminated (5). These outcomes are especially elevated for Black children and, in the case of foster care placement and TPR, Native American children (15). Although it is unclear whether CPS contact causes poor outcomes or is merely associated with them, research nonetheless shows that children who have come into contact with CPS fare poorly on a range of outcomes (67).

Existing data estimating the cumulative prevalence of contact with CPS are exclusively at the national (1245) or state (38) level, with the exception of a small number of studies considering counties or neighborhoods in only one state (910). Yet most decisions about whether to investigate a child maltreatment allegation, confirm that maltreatment occurred, place a child in foster care, or terminate parental rights happen not at the national or state level but at the county level (11). Comparative analyses suggest county CPS systems differ markedly in how they approach cases (12). Thus, national and even state data may mask materially consequential within- and between-locale differences.

We construct synthetic cohort life tables using data for almost all children living in the 20 most populous counties in the United States in 2014–2018 to provide county-level estimates of the cumulative prevalence of having a CPS investigation, having a confirmed maltreatment case, being placed in foster care, and having parental rights terminated. In so doing, we provide insights into how much place and race/ethnicity shape the rate of experiencing CPS contact.