Monday, February 20, 2017

Child abuse prevention (Part I): one size may not fit all rural communities

Child Welfare Services' work preventing child abuse has a long, complex, and sometimes ugly history.  Constitutional legal issues arise when a state actor intervenes in family matters, and state involvement in such personal matters has sparked heavy debate over the years. 

Child Welfare Services did not begin as a state agency. In the mid 1800s, a man named Charles Brace founded the Children's Aid Society in New York. By the 1900s, this society was established in many cities on the East Coast. Brace believed that poor children living in urban areas should be 'saved' by placing them in christian homes out in rural "country" areas.  Trainloads of poor urban children were removed from their families and shipped to the Midwest and upstate New York in order to learn "morality" and "good work habits." Before long, similar organizations began to crop up, creating a network of "free" foster homes in which children were expected to pay for room and board through their labor. During this time, arrangements for children who were moved "for their safety" and those moved because they were deemed "delinquent" were not differentiated. 

Throughout the 1900s, more formalized institutions began to appear, and the goals and policies continued to evolve and change.

In 1958, congress amended the Social Securities Act, mandating that states provide funds to child abuse prevention. In the 1980s, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act as well as the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. These laws required the nation's child welfare organizations to prevent child abuse by offering family support services and reunification services to families who are struggling. Both urban and rural families face stressors that can impact the wellness of children, including: addiction, mental health challenges, alcohol dependency, and family violence. Rural families are more likely to experience one or more of these stressors. If the harm or threat to the child is deemed too severe for the child to remain in the home,  reunification service, designed to support families as they cope with these stressors, are offered.  The goal is to allow children to grow up in the care of their parents, if possible.

Child Protective Services' (CPS) involvement with a family begins with a report, generally from a community member, or someone who is required by law to report any suspicion of child abuse. Then, a social worker investigates that report to see if the harm or abuse is substantiated. If substantiated (the meaning of "substantiated" could vary depending on state law or county practice), CPS will intervene. This means that they will ask the caregiver(s) to get involved in community services (such as parenting classes, substance abuse meetings, etc). Sometimes CPS will remove the child and place him or her in foster care.  

Today, child welfare organizations exist in every state, with services in every county. The majority of families involved with CPS continue to be poor, and rural families are affected differently than urban ones. In rural areas, wealthier families (those with incomes at 200% of the poverty level and above) are much more likely to have a report substantiated than urban families of the same income level. Families in rural areas who have caregivers that are experiencing domestic violence or have cognitive impairments are more likely to have a report substantiated than similarly situated urban children. Perhaps this is because rural families are more likely to experience the pressures of poverty and other stressors. Indeed, 10% more rural caregivers than urban caregivers involved in CPS report experiencingn some kind of family stress. Further, more rural parents report trouble paying for basic necessities rural areas than urban parents do.  The Carsey Institute attributes these numbers to the chronic stressors that many rural families face, paired with isolation and a lack of services in rural areas. It is also important to note that the implementation of family support services and guidelines for what  "substantiation" means vary between child welfare organizations. It is certainly not clear that these statistics reflect more abuse and neglect occurring in rural areas. What is clear is that rural families face difficult stressors, namely poverty, which can greatly impact children.

This leaves us with an open question: are child welfare organizations catering their services to the unique needs of rural communities? Stay tuned.


Erin Gunter said...

I enjoyed reading your post and learning more about the history of Child Welfare Services. However, I would have enjoyed more analysis on the many unique challenges I am sure that Child Welfare Services and parents face in rural communities. Children's Welfare Information Gateway (a service of the Children's Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) wrote an issue brief on Rural Child Welfare Practice that discussed some of the issues faced by rural Child Welfare Services (

One issue they raised was with concurrent planning, in which reunification services are offered to a parent while an alternative plan is also being identified, is part of many states permanency planning procedures when a child has been removed. ( Nearly all states have difficulties providing a full array of services in rural communities. This shortage of services leads some caseworkers to not substantiate abuse or neglect leaving some children in harmful environments. A 2008 study found that rural counties often didn't have access to services considered necessary for child welfare practice such as substance abuse treatment, mental health care, and parenting classes. ( Furthermore, those services that are available are probably much farther away geographically and I wonder if Child Welfare Services would hold those rural families accountable to the same strict attendance requirements they require from urban families.

Also, foster care is an integral part of Child Welfare Services. However, I wonder if rural areas have enough foster homes for all of the children who are removed from their family homes. If there is a shortage, would this affect Child Welfare Services' decisions to remove children from their family homes?

dnlauber said...

Thank you for such an insightful post! I really enjoyed learning about the history of Child Welfare Services.

You mentioned that "[i]n rural areas, wealthier families (those with incomes at 200% of the poverty level and above) are much more likely to have a report substantiated than urban families of the same income level." You followed this assertion by pointing to poverty as a stressor for related abuse in rural areas. What types of family stressors besides socio-economic status do you think lead wealthier rural families to experience higher substantiated instances of child abuse? This information packet ( discusses Rural Issues in Child Welfare. Given that social services, like Child Welfare, face unique challenges in rural communities, it seems odd that there would be a statistically significant trend that wealthier rural families would be more likely to have claims substantiated than urban families (where there is significantly more funding and resources to address claims).

Looking forward to reading the companion post to come!

Courtney said...

I’m interested in thinking about what ways CPS could cater their services to more rural communities. I’m also interested in thinking about how CPS gets notified in really rural, “frontier” settings. You’ve informed us that CPS involvement with a family begins with a report, generally from a community member, or someone who is required by law to report any suspicion of child abuse. I wonder then if young children aren’t going to school or daycare, who would report their conditions in a rural setting? If school-aged children are pushed into distance learning programs with the closure of rural schools, could this lead to less reporting because they are in contact with fewer mandatory reporters? If low-income, rural families lose healthcare with an repeal of the Affordable Care Act, will those children not see a doctor or have fewer doctors appointments and thus, again, have less contact with mandatory reporters?

K. Harrington said...

I agree, this is a very informative post about CPS in rural areas. Your post also made me think about the difficult history between child welfare organizations and American Indian communities. A while back, Radiolab produced two segments on Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl – the Supreme Court case that started as a custody dispute over a Native American girl between her biological father and adoptive parents. In Radiolab’s first episode about the case, they highlight the problems Native American tribes faced with CPS in the 1960s (see Native American families hid their children out of fear that Social Services would take their children away. The reasons for removal were based on things like poverty, alcoholism, overcrowding, or inadequate housing conditions, but these allegations probably wouldn’t have held up in court. At that time, they estimated that about one-third of Indian children were in foster care, adoptive homes, institutional placement, or juvenile facilities.

Eventually the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in an effort to stop the frequent removal of American Indian children from their families, but the ACLU has reported that, at least in South Dakota, American Indian children are 11 times more likely to be removed from their families than non-American Indian children today (

It would be interesting to think about how the American Indian children are represented in the rural data you discussed? Are there differences in how rural American Indian families are affected when compared to rural non-American Indian families?

Kaly said...

I found this to be a really interesting post, and I am excited to see where it is going. I personally had no idea that CPS started in that manner. The practice of removing children and giving them to new families to save them reminded me of a similar policy in Australia that began in the late 19th century until the middle 1960s, except this policy was race motivated. (

There was a lot of concern at that time about the "mixing of the races," so the legislature passed a bill that gave control of Aboriginal children to the government. They would come into communities and for the "benefit of the children" take the light skinned ones and adopt them to white families. It's estimated that somewhere between 10 per cent and 33 per cent of all Indigenous children were separated from their families between 1910-1970. (

On another note, I'd be interested to know how available the mandated community services are in rural areas, or if these programs are affordable in both cost and opportunity cost.