New Study Confirms High Rate of Investigations, Loss of Parental Rights

Last updated: 05-13-2021

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New Study Confirms High Rate of Investigations, Loss of Parental Rights

New research following more than half a million newborns to age 18 backs up a recent estimate that terminations of parental rights is more common than people think, and that one of every 100 children born will experience the state-induced loss of a parent. 

The new study started with demographic data gleaned from all birth records of children born in California in 1999 – 519,248 babies – and cross-referenced them with California child protection data from 1999 to 2017. 

The researchers, led by Emily Putnam-Hornstein with the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that 26% of the children were investigated for maltreatment, but that total figure belies a significant divide along racial and socioeconomic lines. About half of California’s Black and Native American children born in 1999 were the subject of a child protective services investigation before they reached age 18 – nearly twice the rate of all California children born that year. And kids on Medicaid and other public insurance were also twice as likely to have a child protection investigation than those whose families had private insurance.

Almost 11% of those investigations led to a substantiated case, and more than 4% were placed in foster care. And just over 1% of the California children born in 1999, nearly 6,000 babies, experienced the termination of their parent’s rights (TPR) by age 18. 

It is the most robust finding yet on terminations of parental rights, and backs up an attempt by researchers last year to craft an estimate of terminations using data from between 2000 and 2016. Christopher Wildeman of Cornell University was an author on that study and this new report.

Both studies found similar patterns along race and ethnicity when it comes to termination of parental rights: Black and Native American children experience them at more than twice the rate of white children. Latino children, who made up 49% of all California births in 1999, experienced terminations the least frequently. 

The group with the highest frequency of TPR experience was the 37,513 babies born without paternity having been established. Nearly 6% of these children experienced a termination of parental rights. 

The researchers said the method they used produced more conservative numbers than a 2019 study that employed “synthetic cohort life tables” to estimate the risk of termination of parental rights at the national and state levels. Despite the different methods used in the studies, the conclusions were in line.

The peer-reviewed study was published online April 15 in the American Journal of Public Health. The public health implications of the new findings, coming at the problem from a different angle, are significant because they roughly align with the 2019 study, the researchers said. That suggests that the prevailing state of thinking in the CPS-child welfare field is likely not far off base. 

“These childhood numbers, both overall and by race and ethnicity,” the study concluded, “should be taken seriously by federal and state policymakers – and have received too little attention to date.”


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