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October 2007Vol. 8, No. 9Where the Child Welfare and Criminal Justice Systems Meet

A recent study using data from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) reveals that child maltreatment victims whose parents are involved with the criminal justice systems are not a homogeneous group. Instead, these children represent a complex and diverse group within the child welfare system. They include not only the children of incarcerated parents, but also children of parents on probation, those with recent or more dated arrest records, and those at every point of the criminal justice process.

NSCAW, a landmark national study that provides information on child maltreatment victims, also provides some of the only available data on the criminal justice system's involvement with these children and families. This includes information on the extent of the criminal justice system involvement, the specific needs of these children and families, and what happens to children as their parents progress through the system. For instance, NSCAW data indicate:

  • As many as one in every eight children reported as victims of maltreatment has a parent who was arrested within the previous 6 months. In 90 percent of these cases, it is the mother who was arrested.
  • The criminal justice system has intervened in at least one in three families involved with child welfare agencies.
  • Children with recently arrested caregivers are significantly more likely than other children to be subjects of reports of abandonment and neglect and significantly less likely to be subjects of reports of physical abuse.

Overall, the NSCAW data indicate that children who have parents who were or are involved with the criminal justice system are exposed to a greater total number of risk factors (parental substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence) than other children. This greater number of risk factors may have an exponential effect on the likelihood of these children experiencing more serious problems.

The authors discuss the policy and practice implications of these findings, including the need to tailor services to meet the specific needs of the many different subgroups of children and families with exposure to both the child welfare and criminal justice systems. Collaboration between the two systems may also offer ways to provide early preventive services to these families.

The full study, "What We Know Now That We Didn't Know Then About the Criminal Justice System's Involvement in Families With Whom Child Welfare Agencies Have Contact," by Susan D. Phillips and James P. Gleeson, is part of the Children, Families, and the Criminal Justice System series produced by the Center for Social Policy and Research at the Jane Addams College of Social Work, University of Illinois at Chicago. It is available online: (PDF - 83 KB)

Related Item

To read about how several California jurisdictions developed protocols for helping children when their parents were arrested, see "Keeping Children Safe When Parents Are Arrested" in this issue.