Research on child maltreatment has historically been focused on risk and protective factors of an individual or a family. The information on this website looks at costs that span across the community, focusing our attention on a community’s risk and protective factors.
Equity & Disproportionality
Institutional racism and systemic oppression over generations have disproportionately impacted families of color. Initiatives that promote racial equity are critical to promoting Community Protective Factors and mitigating Community Risk Factors
It is important to recognize that the rates of child maltreatment are not equally distributed along racial and ethnic lines in California. Rates of substantiations are significantly higher among Black and Native American children than White and Asian children. Rates of substantiation among Latinx children are also somewhat higher than their percentage of the population.
The causes of racial disproportionality in the child welfare system include institutional and structural racism on parents of color and the public systems that interact with them, implicit bias in the child welfare system and society in general, economic inequality, and the disproportionate involvement of child welfare and law enforcement in the lives of families of color. While the field is only beginning to understand the interplay of these factors, research suggests that concentrated poverty among demographic groups explains much of the difference in substantiation rates, particularly substantiated rates of neglect.
Additionally, children under 1 year old tend to experience child maltreatment at higher rates than any other age group. This may be because of their size (infants are more likely to be harmed by even minor physical stresses), the reaction some adults have to excessive crying, or a child’s lack of responsiveness. Research shows that maltreatment that begins during infancy is likely to be chronic and developmentally consequential when there is no intervention.
California’s Protective Factors
Strong families — and communities whose conditions nurture strong families — protect children. Every community has Protective Factors, or characteristics that are linked to lower rates of child maltreatment. We know the presence of any single protective factor is not sufficient. Rather, factors work in concert with each other and with each family’s unique strengths to create safe environments for children to grow up. Research shows that the following Community Protective Factors nurture strong families:
Policies and programs that provide economic support and help families develop some financial security are a protective factor against child maltreatment. Indeed, a family’s economic situation can enable or prevent them from taking advantage of the other protective factors listed here.Parental Skills & Education
Parents that have the tools and knowledge that they need to parent effectively are less likely to draw on violence as a disciplinary method. There is an abundance of evidence on the importance of programs that develop parenting skills and strengthen bonds between parents and their children.High Quality Childcare
Research shows that parents with more financial means tend to access higher quality childcare. Higher quality childcare is linked to reduced risk for child maltreatment as it provides a more nurturing and stable environment for the child.Community Institutions & Services
Communities are formed and maintained through institutions like schools, churches, community centers, and family resource centers. If these institutions are effective and accessible, they contribute to the formation of important parent and family social connections, which prevent child maltreatment.Positive Social Norms & Interventions Against Violence
When maltreatment does occur, intervention at schools or in physicians’ offices can help to prevent further harm from occurring. Policies and educational campaigns can also influence changes in the social norms that perpetuate violence against children.
Finally, it is important to remember that institutional racism and systemic oppression over generations have prevented many families of color from accessing the social and economic factors listed above. We believe that initiatives that promote racial equity are critical to promoting Community Protective Factors that mitigate maltreatment.
The research on Community Protective Factors is emerging, and we’ve highlighted only a few of many relevant studies here. If you’d like to learn more about Community Protective Factors or contribute to this ongoing research, please read our literature review.
Community Risk Factors
A variety of factors place children and their families at greater risk for maltreatment. These are some of those factors that are endemic to California communities:
Research suggests that income, or socioeconomic status, is the strongest predictor of maltreatment rates. The presence of poverty does not mean a child is unsafe, unloved, or that a parent lacks the capacity to care for their child.
Contrast this with the fact that the wealthiest 1% of Californians receive over 20% of the total income earned in the state, and the majority of income gains in the past 25 years have flowed to these highest income households. This is a significant departure from the income distribution of the 1970’s.
Research shows that high levels of unemployment increase economic uncertainty and stress for families. Unemployment reached a record high in California of over 15% in April 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Furthermore, unemployment is particularly concentrated in certain hard-hit areas across the state. For example, seven counties across the state had unemployment rates in April 2020 of over 20%.
Californians spend a disproportionate amount of their income on housing. In addition to increasing families’ stress, lack of affordable housing leads to greater rates of cohabitation which places the child at greater risk for maltreatment. As the graph below shows, California’s median monthly housing costs ($1,535 / mo) were 47% higher than the U.S. median ($1,037 / mo).
Homelessness is a major driver of temporary family separation, not only increasing family stress but also the number of caregivers in a child’s life. As of a 2019 point-in-time count, more than 128,000 individuals were homeless in California —more than 22,000 of whom were in families. Among U.S. States, California has the second highest number of people in families experiencing homelessness, second only to New York State.
Compared to other states where family homelessness is a challenge, homeless families in California are more likely to be unsheltered — living on the street, in cars or abandoned buildings, or in other places not suitable for human habitation. In 2019, all five of the cities with the highest percentages of unsheltered families were in California.
Across the state, families exposed to a culture of violence often experience trauma, strain, and fear, all of which increase the likelihood of child maltreatment. Crime averages in California are historically low — 450 violent crimes and 2,491 property crimes per 100,000 people as of 2017. However, certain counties across the state (e.g., San Francisco, Alameda, Alpine, Shasta) see crime rates significantly higher than the statewide average.
Families with problematic alcohol or drug use often experience trauma, strain, and fear. Certain kinds of substance abuse are more common in California than the country as a whole. For example, in 2018 an estimated 6.3% of the California population consumed a problematic amount of alcohol, compared to 5.7% of the U.S. population during the same time period.
For many years, more people have been leaving California for other states than have been moving here. For example, from 2017 to 2018, over 590,000 individuals moved out of California, 440,000 individuals moved into California, and another 900,000 individuals relocated to a different county within the state. This means that over 6% of the individuals in the state made a major location change within this time period. Community turnover is problematic for families as it leads to deteriorated social and support networks for children and caregivers; both for those who stay in the state and those who leave.