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Criminal law

 Caseworker Judgments and Substantiation 

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Child Maltreatment

DOI: 10.1177/1077559508318400
2009; 14; 38 originally published online Sep 15, 2008; Child Maltreat

Theodore P. Cross and Cecilia Casanueva

Caseworker Judgments and Substantiation

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38

Caseworker Judgments and Substantiation

Theodore P. Cross
Cecilia Casanueva
RTI International

Substantiation can have an important effect on what interventions are pursued for children investigated for maltreatment,
but researchers lack knowledge about how the decision to substantiate is made. Using information from 4,515 children from
a national probability study of children investigated for maltreatment, this study examined how caseworker judgments of
harm, risk, and evidence predicted substantiation. The substantiation rate was 29.9%, but the majority of cases were
substantiated when caseworkers reported at least moderate harm, at least moderate risk, and/or probably to clearly sufficient
evidence. Each judgment variable significantly predicted substantiation in a multivariable model, with evidence the
strongest predictor. Child gender and age were significant predictors beyond harm, risk, and evidence, suggesting that other
judgments also influence substantiation. In 9 of 100 cases, reports were not substantiated despite moderate to severe harm.
Thus, substantiation is generally based on judgments of harm, risk, and evidence but not exclusively. The findings underline
previous researchers’ conclusions that substantiation is a flawed measure of child maltreatment and suggest that policy and
practice related to substantiation are due for a fresh appraisal by state child welfare service agencies.

Keywords: caseworker judgment; substantiation; investigation; risk assessment; child protective services; NSCAW

Caseworker Judgments
and Substantiation

Substantiation is the statement from child protective
services about the validity of a report of child mal-

treatment, and most states have a statutory requirement
for agencies in the child welfare system (CWS) to make
a decision to substantiate or not substantiate (Walter R.
McDonald & Associates, 2003). Substantiation can have
an important effect on what interventions are pursu

ed

and how professionals and potentially the public react to
child maltreatment allegations. CWS agencies and child
abuse professionals have articulated criteria for substan-
tiation and developed models of how the decision is
made (Drake, 1996). Several studies in specific states or
for specific populations have examined caseworkers’
thinking about substantiation in cases that they investi-
gated (DePanfilis & Girvin, 2005; English, Marshall,
Coghlan, Brummel, & Orme, 2002; Fluke, Hollinshead,
& Walter R. McDonald & Associates, 2003). However,
we are aware of no studies using national data sampled
from the entire population of CWS investigations that
describe what judgments caseworkers make and how
they relate to substantiation. This is a noticeable gap given
how consequential this decision is. This knowledge is

even more important if CWS eventually develops statis-
tically based decision models to assign investigation
priority scores to cases on the basis of the likelihood
of substantiation (Zuravin, Orme, & Hegar, 1995). The
stakes are high in child maltreatment investigations.
Underestimation of risk leaves children unprotected;
overestimation can lead to excessive intervention in
families’ lives (Gambrill & Shlonsky, 2000). This study
explores how substantiation is related to caseworker
judgments of three key variables: the harm the child has
suffered, the risk of harm to the child, and the sufficiency
of the evidence for maltreatment. It also reports national
estimates on the proportions of children in substantiated
and unsubstantiated cases at different levels of harm,
risk, and evidence of maltreatment.

Implications of Substantiation

Delivery of services may depend on whether a case
is substantiated. The National Study of Child Protective

Child Maltreatment
Volume 14 Number 1
February 2009 38-52

© 2009 Sage Publications
10.1177/107755950831840

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Authors’ Note: Theodore Cross is now a visiting research specialist
at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Correspondence
concerning this article should be addressed to Theodore Cross,
School of Social Work, 1203 W Oregon St., Urbana, IL 61801;
email: tpcross@uiuc.edu.

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Cross, Casanueva / Caseworker Judgments and Substantiation 39

Services Systems and Reform Efforts (Walter R.
McDonald & Associates, 2003) found that 11 states limited
service referrals to those cases in which maltreatment was
substantiated. Recent analysis of the National Survey of
Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) found that
children in substantiated cases were significantly more
likely to be receiving CWS services 12 months after the
investigation than children in unsubstantiated cases, even
though fairly large percentages of both groups had cogni-
tive, emotional, and behavioral difficulties and the groups
did not differ significantly in well-being (U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services, Administration on
Children and Families, n.d.). It should be noted, however,
that the causal link between substantiation and services
may go in the opposite direction; some evidence suggests
that availability of services is one factor that caseworkers
consider in deciding whether to substantiate (see below;
Walter R. McDonald & Associates, 2003).

Substantiation could also be used to inform court deci-
sions about custody, although we do not know of any
empirical studies of this effect. Substantiation clearly has
emotional valence for those accused of child maltreatment.
The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act
(CAPTA) directs states to have an appeal process whereby
reported perpetrators can appeal the substantiation decision
(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office
on Child Abuse and Neglect, 2003). The fact that 45 states
have policies for expunging unsubstantiated reports
(Walter R. McDonald & Associates, 2003) adds to the
sense that when a case is not substantiated, the reported
perpetrator avoids a black mark against him or her.

Finally, substantiation is used in calculating state and
federal statistics on the incidence of child maltreatment
(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
Administration for Children and Families, 2007). Both
policy analysts and researchers using administrative
databases have often treated substantiation as tantamount
to a measurement of maltreatment itself, assuming that
cases with substantiation represent children who have
been maltreated and those without substantiation repre-
sent children who have not been maltreated (Besharov,
1988; see Drake, 1996).

Basis for the Substantiation Decision

According to DePanfilis and Salus’s (2003) Child
Protective Services: A Guide for Caseworkers, a manual
from the Federal Office of Child Abuse and Neglect,
and Drake’s (2000) chapter in the Handbook for Child
Protection Practice, the substantiation decision is based
on the answers to two questions:

Is the harm to the child severe enough to constitute
child maltreatment?

Is there sufficient evidence to support this being a case
of child maltreatment?

Drake (1996) presented a theoretical model of sub-
stantiation encompassing these questions. In his model,
critical thresholds of both harm and evidence must be
met for a case to be substantiated. In some cases, risk of
future harm can take the place of current harm in this
model (as discussed later).

These authors’ model of substantiation makes sense,
but we are aware of no studies that look comprehen-
sively at whether caseworkers use harm, risk, and evi-
dence in making substantiation decisions. Moreover,
research discussed later suggests that other variables
may influence the substantiation decision as well, and
it is unclear to what extent these variables are related
to substantiation because they affect judgments of
harm, risk, and evidence or because they have an effect
on substantiation that is independent of harm, risk, and
evidence.

The Process Leading to Substantiation

The investigation process begins with a report of sus-
pected child maltreatment by a professional or layperson
that is screened in for investigation if, on an initial tele-
phone screen, the allegation seems credible. State
statutes direct CWS to conduct an investigation with
standardized components (e.g., child interview when the
youngster’s developmental level permits, interview with
caregivers, home visit, interview with alleged perpetra-
tors) and complete it within a specified period, ranging
from 10 to 90 days depending on the state (Walter R.
McDonald & Associates, 2003).

The investigation typically includes an assessment of
children’s current safety, their future risk of harm, and
the evidence available for the case. Many states incor-
porate structured safety and risk assessment protocols
in their investigation procedures (Walter R. McDonald
& Associates, 2003). The investigating caseworker, typ-
ically in consultation with their supervisor, then
decides whether to substantiate the abuse (DePanfilis &
Salus, 2003). Some states have developed so-called
dual track or differential response systems, in which
only cases involving greater risk receive investigations
and substantiation decisions, whereas cases involving
lower risk receive family assessments without a sub-
stantiation determination (Schene, Oppenheimer, &
Senderling, 2005).

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Level of Harm and Substantiation

Common sense suggests that substantiation is more
likely given more severe levels of harm, but this rela-
tionship has not always been found. Some studies report
that severity of harm is a predictor of substantiation
(Trocmé, Tam, & McPhee, 1995; Winefield & Bradley,
1992; Zuravin et al., 1995), but the only study in the
United States based on a nationally representative sam-
ple (the National Incidence Study; N = 7,623) found no
significant association between severity of harm and
substantiation (King, Trocmé, & Thatte, 2003).

Level of Risk and Substantiation

Risk has a complicated and somewhat ambiguous
relationship to substantiation. CWS investigations must
not only determine whether maltreatment occurred but
also assess the risk of future maltreatment. This helps
guide decision making and planning of CWS interven-
tions such as child placement and family services. Many
states have formalized the evaluation of risk by develop-
ing risk assessment protocols and risk management sys-
tems (Gambrill & Shlonsky, 2000; Ryan, Wiles, Cash, &
Siebert, 2005; Wald & Woolverton, 1990). In conducting
investigations, caseworkers typically collect data inform-
ing both risk assessment and the substantiation decision.
English et al. (2002, p. 819) stated that “the relationship
between risk assessment and substantiation is far from
clear in actual CPS practice” and that “the research evi-
dence suggests some mixing of these concepts in prac-
tice.” Thus, information from the former may influence
the latter. Most states use formal risk assessment models
after the substantiation decision has been made (English
et al., 2002), although caseworkers, of course, encounter
information relevant to risk assessment from their first
contact with a family.

Despite their reported relationship in practice, some
experts warn against using risk assessment to help make
substantiation decisions, because the former concerns
future behavior and the latter concerns current behavior
(Pecora, 1991; Wald & Woolverton, 1990). In almost all
states, caregivers’ actions must meet the legal definition
of abuse and neglect for a case to be substantiated, and
substantiation cannot be based on a prediction of future
risk to the child.

The caregiver’s risky behavior can be considered
abuse or neglect, even if children have not been harmed,
if the behavior has “created conditions that have a high
likelihood of harming the child” (Wald & Woolverton,
1990, p. 497), such that “it was just a matter of fortuity
that harm did not occur” (p. 509). Thus, for example, a
case meets state requirements for child abuse and neglect

if children are in physical danger because of lack of
supervision or living in an environment in which they are
likely to be injured. The 2003 National Study of Child
Protective Services Systems and Reform Efforts (Walter
R. McDonald & Associates, 2003) found that seven
states explicitly stated in their policies that substantiation
could be based on either current evidence of maltreat-
ment or the risk of maltreatment happening in the future.
Thus, one would expect that the risk should be a predic-
tor of substantiation, because of risky caregiver behavior
that places children in danger or because of the potential
influence of risk assessment on substantiation.

Level of Evidence and Substantiation

Tangible evidence to support substantiation comes
from documentable facts based on child disclosure, per-
petrator’s admission, eyewitness, testimony, medical evi-
dence, and physical evidence (English et al., 2002). Each
state’s legislature sets the standard of proof for deter-
mining when sufficient evidence has been reached. As a
consequence, standards differ, with some states requiring
some credible evidence and other states using the stricter
criterion of preponderance of evidence. Because of the
need for child protection, the beyond a reasonable doubt
standard used for criminal convictions is considered too
rigorous for substantiation. The National Child Abuse
and Neglect Data System has shown remarkable varia-
tion in substantiation rates across states for many years
(U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
Administration for Children and Families, 2007), and a
plausible hypothesis is that at least some of this variation
is due to state differences in evidentiary standards on
substantiation. However, one study using 1994 national
data found no statistically significant difference in the
percentage of substantiated cases between states that
used some credible evidence (a lower standard; 34.5%
substantiated) and those states that used preponderance
of the evidence (a higher standard; 30.9% substantiated),
concluding that “the verbal formula hardly affects the
investigator’s decision to substantiate a case” (Levine,
1998, p.345).

Whatever the evidence standard is, empirical research
suggests that substantiation does indeed depend on evi-
dence of maltreatment, even when caseworkers judge
that there is harm or risk. One study of substantiation in
three states found that caseworkers recorded harm or risk
of harm in 46% cases and suspected maltreatment in
58% of cases but only substantiated 27% (Giovannoni,
1989). Other studies have found that sizable proportions
of cases in some communities or states are classified as
suspected or possible abuse but lack evidence (Jason,

40 Child Maltreatment

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Andereck, Marks, & Tyler, 1982; Zuravin et al., 1995).
However, none of these studies included a quantitative
measure of sufficiency of evidence.

Other Variables Related to Substantiation

Rates of substantiation vary because of the specific
circumstances of the investigation, including referral
source, county or region, number of decision categories,
size of the CWS office, agency resource deficits, case-
load, and quality of supervision (see, e.g., Child Welfare
Information Gateway, 2003; English et al., 2002).
Moreover, studies have also found that child and family
characteristics such as child age, race/ethnicity, family
income, living in urban areas, and prior reports or inves-
tigation with CWS have been associated with substanti-
ation, even when harm was statistically controlled, as
several studies have done (Eckenrode, Powers, Doris,
Munsch, & Bolger, 1988; English et al., 2002; King et al.,
2003; Trocmé, Knoke, Fallon, & MacLaurin, 2006;
Zuravin et al., 1995). The substantiation decision may
even depend on the family’s response during the investi-
gation: In a 1985 survey, workers reported that they were
less likely to substantiate cases when caregivers admitted
maltreatment (Alter, 1985).

In addition, characteristics of the investigators and
the systems they work in relate to substantiation (Child
Welfare Information Gateway, 2003). Caseworker
experience, self-reported skills, supportive relation-
ships with co-workers, and stated adherence to state
policy were all related to substantiation, as were reports
by CWS supervisors of the cohesiveness of their work
units and their supportiveness to workers. DePanfilis
and Girvin (2005) suggested that substantiation can
depend on caseworkers’ facility with information pro-
cessing. In their review of investigations of allegations
in out-of-home care, the authors found that caseworkers
sometimes failed to consider the complexity of case
situations or to examine case facts in reference to defi-
nitions of child abuse and neglect.

Whether appropriate services are available for a
family is likely to influence the substantiation decision
in many agencies. DePanfilis and Girvin (2005) and
English et al. (2002) reported this relationship and
cited a number of studies in reference to it, although
we did not find that any of the studies empirically tested
this relationship using case-based data. Nevertheless,
in a national survey of a random sample of 383 local
CWS agencies, 50% of agencies reported that they
sometimes or always considered availability of services in
making the substantiation decision (Walter R. McDonald
Associates, 2003).

All this variation due to apparently extraneous factors
raises questions about the degree to which substantiation
follows from the degree of harm or risk and evidence. It
is not clear to what extent these other factors influence
substantiation because they affect judgments of risk,
harm, or evidence or because they have an independent
effect unrelated to these caseworker judgments.

Some studies have found that different variables
predict substantiation depending on the type of maltreat-
ment suffered by the child (Drake, 1995; Eckenrode
et al., 1988; Zuravin et al., 1995). Thus, Zuravin et al.
(1995) found that physical abuse cases with older
children and those with African American children were
more likely to be substantiated, and Eckenrode et al.
(1988) found that physical abuse cases with Hispanic
children were more likely to be substantiated. Eckenrode
and colleagues (1988) also found that sexual abuse cases
with older children were more likely to be substantiated,
whereas neglect cases with younger children were more
likely to be substantiated.

The Present Analysis

Despite the importance of substantiation, the need to
understand what factors caseworkers consider, and the
existence of Drake’s theoretical model, the relationship
of harm, risk, and sufficiency of evidence to substantia-
tion has never been fully examined empirically; nor do
we understand whether other variables relate to substan-
tiation because they affect levels of harm, risk, and evi-
dence or have an effect independent of these caseworker
judgments. This study measures caseworkers’ judgments
of harm, risk, and sufficiency of evidence in a large
national probability study of child welfare and examines
each as a predictor of substantiation along with other
predictors drawn from previous research. One goal is to
understand better the decision-making processes under-
lying substantiation for child maltreatment in general
and for specific types of maltreatment. A related objec-
tive is testing Drake’s (1996) model of substantiation.
A second goal is to understand better the situation of
children in both substantiated and unsubstantiated cases.
A third goal is to contribute to the knowledge base
needed to develop computerized prediction tools for
investigation. The research questions are as follows:

• How do substantiation rates vary on the basis of
caseworker judgments of harm, risk, and evidence?

• How do substantiation rates vary on the basis of demo-
graphic and maltreatment characteristics, and are these
effects independent of judgments of harm, risk, and
evidence?

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42 Child Maltreatment

• Do predictors of substantiation differ by type of
maltreatment?

• What proportion of children involved in child protective
investigation experience different combinations of harm
(or risk), evidence, and substantiation (e.g., substantial
harm with little evidence and no substantiation)?

Method

National Survey of Child and
Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW)

This national probability study provides ample data
for studying substantiation. The NSCAW is a nationally
representative study of children and youths who were
reported to child welfare services in 1999 and 2000
(NSCAW Research Group, 2002; U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services, Administration for Children
and Families, 2005). The NSCAW used two-stage random
sampling. It randomly sampled 92 primary sampling
units (mostly counties) across the country and 5,501
children and youths within those units, permitting accu-
rate national estimates on child maltreatment investiga-
tions. Because of statistical power requirements for key
categories of cases, the sample design required over-
sampling of cases that were open in CWS, cases with
infants, and cases with alleged sexual abuse cases. Thus,
all NSCAW data analysis needs to apply weights for the
results to represent accurately the national CWS popula-
tion, and all percentages reported here represent
weighted percentages. Data collection about the index
child included child assessments and instruments com-
pleted by children and families, as well as caseworkers
and teachers. At baseline, all participants related to a
given child were interviewed during the same window
period. Children and case information were followed
longitudinally with repeated measurements over time,
although this report used baseline data.

The analysis in this study concerns the 4,514
children who were involved in investigations in which
a substantiation decision was made at the time of the
index investigation. Data on substantiation were missing
for 14.7% (weighted) of the original sample of 5,501.
Missing data on substantiation occurred because (a) a
substantiation decision was not made; (b) the original
caseworker was interviewed but could neither remem-
ber the substantiation decision nor locate it in the case
record; or (c) another caseworker was interviewed, did
not know the substantiation decision, and could not
locate it in the case record (procedures for caseworker
interviews are discussed later).

A study of substantiation using the NSCAW has sev-
eral advantages. It (a) provides national estimates, (b)
includes data from both caregiver interviews and child
assessments and interviews, and (c) provides more infor-
mation from caseworkers on decision-making factors
than most other studies.

Procedure

Field representatives contacted caregivers and asked
permission to interview them about selected child,
family, and caregiver characteristics. Baseline interviews
of caregivers and caseworkers and child assessments
were all conducted an average of 4 months after the
CWS investigation for maltreatment. Interviews with the
children’s caregivers were conducted in English (96%)
or Spanish at the children’s homes, by means of com-
puter-assisted personal interviewing. Caregivers received
an honorarium of approximately $40 for their participa-
tion in each interview. The NSCAW also conducted 1-hr
computer-assisted personal interviewing sessions with
the CWS caseworkers, who were instructed to consult
the case record as needed during the interview. At base-
line, the investigating caseworker was interviewed.
When the investigating caseworker was not available, an
ongoing caseworker completed the interview using the
case record to provide information from the investiga-
tion. The data analyzed here are drawn from caregiver
and caseworker interviews.

Variables

Caseworkers used a 4-point scale to rate the degree of
harm the child suffered and the degree of risk the child
faced. They also used a 5-point scale to rate the suffi-
ciency of evidence for substantiation. The text of the
prompts and questions was as follows:

For the next set of questions, please do not be con-
cerned with whether or not the report was substan-
tiated when offering your responses. Regardless of
the outcome of the investigation, how would you
describe the level of harm to [CHILD’S NAME]?
Would you say:

1 = None
2 = Mild
3 = Moderate
4 = Severe

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation,
how would you describe the level of severity of
risk? Would you say:

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1 = None
2 = Mild
3 = Moderate
4 = Severe

Regardless of the outcome of the investigation,
how sufficient was the evidence to substantiate the
case? Would you say:

1 = There was no evidence of maltreatment
2 = Evidence was clearly not sufficient
3 = Evidence was probably not sufficient
4 = Evidence was probably sufficient
5 = Evidence was clearly sufficient

Caseworkers also completed a 29-item risk assess-
ment instrument (U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, Administration for Children and
Families, 2005). A total score on the risk assessment
instrument was computed and correlated with the rating
from the overall risk item listed earlier. Given the fairly
high correlation between the risk assessment instru-
ments and the overall risk rating (r = .55), as well as
previous research reporting higher predictive value of
an overall risk rating (English et al., 2002), results are
only presented for the latter.

Caseworkers judged that 44.1% of children suffered
no harm, 28.3% suffered mild harm, 20.0% suffered
moderate harm, and 7.6% suffered severe harm.
Caseworkers also judged that 31.1% of children were
not at risk, 36.8% were at mild risk, 22.2% were at mod-
erate risk, and 9.9% were at severe risk. Regarding suf-
ficiency of evidence, 34.3% of cases were rated as
having no evidence of maltreatment; 16.8%, as having
clearly insufficient evidence; 11.4%, as having probably
insufficient evidence; 8.8%, as probably sufficient evi-
dence; and 28.7%, as clearly sufficient evidence. Not
surprisingly, ratings of harm, risk, and evidence were
significantly correlated. The Pearson r for harm and risk
was .73; for harm and evidence, it was .61; and for risk
and evidence, it was .64. These correlations, although
high, still meant that harm, risk, and evidence ratings
were dissimilar on many cases.

Substantiation. Children were classified as having a
substantiated maltreatment case on the basis of case-
workers’ response at baseline to the question, “Was
the outcome of the investigation (a) substantiated, (b)
indicated, or (c) neither substantiated or indicated?”
In so-called three-tier states, indicated is a classification
option that means some evidence of maltreatment exists
but not enough for substantiation.(DePanfilis & Salus,
2003). Only when caseworkers chose substantiated were

children classified as such. All other cases, including
indicated cases, were classified as unsubstantiated.
Developing models predicting substantiated, unsubstan-
tiated, and indicated in three-tier states was beyond our
scope because of our focus on the national population of
CWS investigations.

Maltreatment characteristics. The most serious type
of maltreatment was assessed by asking the caseworkers
the following question in the baseline interview: “Of the
types of abuse or neglect that were reported, please tell
me the type that you felt was the most serious (physical
maltreatment, sexual maltreatment, emotional maltreat-
ment, physical neglect [failure to provide], neglect [lack
of supervision], abandonment, moral/legal maltreatment,
educational maltreatment, exploitation, and other).”
Because of the small number of children in several cate-
gories of maltreatment, children who were reported for
emotional maltreatment (6.9%), abandonment (1.4%),
moral/legal maltreatment (0.5%), educational maltreat-
ment (1.5%), exploitation (0.1%), and other (3.8%),
were classified as “all others.”

Prior reports to CWS. Prior reports were assessed by
asking the caseworkers the following question in the
baseline interview: “Was there any prior reports of mal-
treatment to the agency?”

Demographics. Caregivers were asked about their
child’s gender, age, race/ethnicity, and about the family’s
income. Information about urbanicity was determined on
the basis of the classification of the agency (urban or
rural) where the report of maltreatment was received.

Analyses

All analyses were conducted with weighted data,
using the SUDAAN statistical package, version
9.0.1(RTI International, 2002), to take into account the
NSCAW’s complex sampling design. Thus, all percent-
ages are adjusted (weighted) for sampling probabilities;
sample sizes listed in this article, however, are
unweighted. Following descriptive analyses, contin-
gency tables with Pearson χ2 tests adapted for complex
samples were computed to examine the bivariate rela-
tionship of harm, risk, evidence, demographic, and mal-
treatment variables to substantiation. The demographic
and maltreatment variables were chosen on the basis of
previous research (Eckenrode et al., 1988; English et al.,
2002; King et al., 2003; Trocmé et al., 1995; Winefield
& Bradley, 1992); Pearson correlations with appropriate
weights were used to describe the association between
harm, risk, and sufficiency of evidence.

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44 Child Maltreatment

Binomial logistic regression analysis was used to
model substantiation and several models were employed.
The first model examined the same demographic and
maltreatment variables used in the bivariate analyses.
Subsequently, substantiation was analyzed as a function
of both demographic and maltreatment variables and
each of the main predictor variables (harm, risk, and
sufficiency of evidence). The final model examined sub-
stantiation as a function simultaneously of the demo-
graphic and maltreatment variables and of the three main
predictors. This last model was then repeated for four
separate groups of children depending on the primary
type of abuse that was reported (physical abuse, sexual
abuse, physical neglect, and neglect). All two-way inter-
actions among the three main predictors were tested, but
none was statistically significant; thus, those results are
not presented. The maximum variance inflation factor
for the variables in the logistic regression analyses was
2.2, well within acceptable limits, indicating that multi-
collinearity was not a problem in these analyses.

Population Characteristics

Table 1 shows estimated population characteristics
with standard errors. Girls and boys were about evenly
represented. The most frequent age group was children
aged 6–10, although every age group was well repre-
sented. Children who were Hispanic and African
American were overrepresented relative to the overall
population, as is true in most studies of the child welfare
population. Nearly half of children were living in
families with very low incomes (<$15,000 a year), and over three quarters were living in urban communities. As many child maltreatment studies have found, neglect (failure to provide and lack of supervision) was the most common form of reported maltreatment, followed by physical abuse.

Results

Substantiation Rate

The overall substantiation rate was 29.7% (SE = 1.9),
similar to the estimate based on the National Child
Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) at a com-
parable time period (31.2%, calculated as number sub-
stantiated / [number substantiated + number indicated +
number unsubstantiated]; U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, Administration for Children and
Families, 2002).

Bivariate Predictors of Substantiation

Harm, risk, and evidence had a linear relationship to
substantiation in bivariate analyses (see Table 2). At
lower levels of harm, risk and evidence, only a few alle-
gations were substantiated. At moderate or higher levels
of harm, risk, and evidence, a higher percentage of cases
were substantiated. The difference in substantiation rates
was particularly striking between cases with probably
insufficient evidence, which had a substantiation rate of
7.8%, and cases with probably sufficient evidence,
which had a substantiation rate of 56.6%.

Three demographic characteristics were also signifi-
cantly related to substantiation. Allegations involving
girls were significantly more likely to be substantiated
compared with allegations involving boys. Substantiation
was significantly related to child’s age group but not in a
linear way. The substantiation rate was over 30% for
children aged 0–2 and 6–10 but under 30% for children
and youths aged 3–5 and 11–14. Substantiation was sig-
nificantly more likely among families with incomes
≥30,000, compared with lower income families.
Substantiation rates did not vary significantly by child

Table 1
Sample Composition and Estimated Population

Characteristics (N == 4,514)

Weighted
Demographic n percentage SE

Gender
Male 2,225 49.3 2.0
Female 2,289 50.7 2.0

Age
0–2 years 1,630 18.3 1.0
3–5 years 686 20.3 1.5
6–10 years 1,235 36.7 1.8
11+ years 962 24.8 1.3

Race
Black 1,404 27.9 2.9
White 1,954 46.0 3.8
Hispanic 808 19.1 2.7
Other 342 7.0 0.9

Income
<$15,000 1,530 43.7 2.0 $15,000–$29,999 1,230 29.3 1.5 $ ≥30,000 1,346 27.0 1.8

Urbanicity
Nonurban 988 24.0 5.9
Urban 3,526 76.0 5.9

Most serious type of abuse
Physical abuse 1,023 26.5 1.4
Sexual abuse 537 11.2 1.4
Physical neglect 1,018 19.7 1.5
Supervisory neglect 1,164 26.3 1.9
All others 772 16.3 1.6

Prior reports of maltreatment
Yes 2,585 50.8 1.5
No 2,412 49.2 1.5

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Cross, Casanueva / Caseworker Judgments and Substantiation 45

race/ethnicity or urbanicity of the CWS agency.
Substantiation was slightly but significantly more likely
when there were prior reports of maltreatment, but the
most serious type of abuse in a case was not significantly
related to substantiation.

Multivariable Model
Predicting Substantiation

Table 3 shows the logistic regression analysis
assessing the relative effect of demographic variables;
maltreatment characteristics; and harm, risk, and evi-
dence on the substantiation decision. In all models in
which they were included, all three caseworker judgment
variables were significant predictors of substantiation at
the .001 level. The relative size of the odds ratios, how-
ever, was striking. In the final model, every 1-point dif-
ference on the evidence scale was associated with 3.1
greater odds of substantiation. For the harm scale, every
1-point difference was associated with 1.6 greater odds
of substantiation, about half the size of the odds ratio for
the evidence scale. For the risk scale, every 1-point dif-
ference was associated with 1.9 greater odds of substan-
tiation, a little less than two thirds the size of the
evidence odds ratio. This larger odds ratio for evidence is
even more striking when we consider that the evidence
scale had 5 points and the harm and risk scales had 4
points; a priori, we would expect the odds ratios to be
smaller for a scale with more points, because we would
expect the increments between points to be smaller.
Although some of this may be explained by the specific
wording of the questions (as discussed later in
Limitations), these results nevertheless suggest that evi-
dence has the most important effect on substantiation.

All five models were also analyzed in terms of their
ability to predict correctly which cases were substanti-
ated. The model with only demographic variables cor-
rectly predicted only 6.5% of the cases that were
substantiated. In contrast, models with harm and risk
(Models 2 and 3) correctly predicted around 60% of sub-
stantiated cases, whereas models with evidence and with
all three main predictors (Models 4 and 5) correctly pre-
dicted substantiation in more than 80% of the cases.

Gender and age were also associated with substantia-
tion, independent of harm, risk, and evidence. Boys
were less likely to be substantiated in all models, and
reports with children aged 6–10 were more likely to be
substantiated than cases with children aged 0–2 in three
of the models. Income and prior report were significant
in the initial model but no longer significant when
caseworker judgment variables were entered into the
logistic regression equation.

Table 2
Substantiation Status by Caseworker

Judgments, Demographics, and
Maltreatment Characteristics

Substantiated
weighted

Variable percentage SE χ2 p

Overall caseworker judgments 29.7 1.9 — —
Harm 82.80 <.0001 None 7.4 1.2 Mild 25.4 3.2 Moderate 67.5 3.7 Severe 74.9 5.0

Risk 102.43 <.0001 None 5.0 1.2 Mild 19.5 2.5 Moderate 58.8 4.1 Severe 79.7 3.6

Evidence 133.40 <.0001 None 1.6 0.6 Clearly not sufficient 7.5 3.5 Probably not sufficient 7.8 3.3 Probably sufficient 56.6 5.4 Clearly sufficient 76.9 3.2

Demographic characteristics
Gender 9.74 .003
Male 25.3 2.1
Female 33.9 2.5

Age 15.46 .003
0–2 years 31.8 3.0
3–5 years 20.8 2.7
6–10 years 35.1 3.5
11+ years 27.2 3.0

Race/ethnicity 2.54 .47
Black 26.4 3.0
White 31.8 2.6
Hispanic 30.7 3.4
Other 25.6 4.5

Income 10.03 .009
<$15,000 $15,000–$29,999 ≥$30,000

PSU urbanicity 0.24 .624
Urban 29.1 2.1
Nonurban 31.6 4.6

Maltreatment characteristics
Most serious type 7.68 .115

of maltreatment
Physical abuse 26.8 2.8
Sexual abuse 29.4 4.8
Physical neglect 24.4 2.8
Neglect 30.9 3.2
All others 38.8 5.0

Prior reports of maltreatment 4.77 .031
Yes 32.3 2.3
No 26.9 2.5

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46 Child Maltreatment

Logistic regressions by primary type of abuse (see
Table 4) showed that harm, risk, and evidence were
significantly associated with substantiation for physical
abuse and neglect. For sexual abuse, only harm and evi-
dence were associated with substantiation, whereas
only evidence was associated with substantiation for

physical neglect. Being a boy was associated with a
lower likelihood of substantiation among children
reported for physical abuse and neglect. Children aged
3–5 were less likely than children aged 0–2 to have
substantiated cases for sexual abuse, whereas children
aged 6–10 were more likely to have substantiated cases

Table 3
Logistic Regression Predicting Substantiation

Odds ratios (and 95% confidence intervals) for:

Model 2: Model 3: Model 4: Model 5:
Model 1: Harm and Risk and control Evidence and Harm, risk, evidence,

Control variablesa control variablesb variablesc control variablesd and control variablese

Variable (n = 4,029) (n = 4,004) (n = 4,005) (n = 3,995) (n = 3,977)

Harm 4.39 (3.48–5.56)*** 1.60 (1.20–2.14)***
Risk 5.21 (4.03–6.75) 1.92 (1.51–2.43)***
Evidence 3.94 (3.11–5.00) 3.10 (2.43–3.95)***
Gender ** ** ** ** ***

Male 0.65 (0.49–0.87) 0.68 (0.51–0.90) 0.53 (0.39–0.71) 0.59 (0.41–0.85) 0.53 (0.38–0.74)
Female 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0

Age ** * * *
0–2 years 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0
3–5 years 0.53 (0.35–0.83) 0.80 (0.49–1.31) 0.89 (0.54–1.46) 0.64 (0.35–1.11) 0.89 (0.52–1.54)
6–10 years 1.08 (0.73–1.59) 1.46 (1.00–2.14) 2.18 (1.41–3.36) 1.50 (0.91–2.47) 2.15 (1.27–3.63)
11+ years 0.66 (0.47–0.94) 0.82 (0.57–1.19) 1.21 (0.83–1.76) 0.97 (0.64–1.45) 1.24 (0.81–1.88)

Race/ethnicity
White 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0
Black 0.84 (0.58–1.22) 0.78 (0.46–1.32) 0.80 (0.50–1.28) 1.03 (0.61–1.73) 0.90 (0.51–1.61)
Hispanic 1.04 (0.76–1.42) 1.00 (0.66–1.50) 1.05 (0.70–1.58) 1.29 (0.56–2.96) 1.32 (0.66–2.66)
Other 0.73 (0.42–1.26) 0.86 (0.51–1.46) 0.61 (0.33–1.12) 1.21 (0.73–2.00) 1.07 (0.64–1.80)

Income *
<15,000 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 $15,000–$29,999 1.10 (0.77–1.57) 1.12 (0.76–1.64) 1.23 (0.81–1.85) 1.06 (0.59–1.91) 1.16 (0.68–1.98) ≥30,000 or more 1.54 (1.12–2.12) 1.33 (0.86–2.05) 1.24 (0.85–1.80) 1.55 (0.96–2.50) 1.33 (0.84–2.09)

PSU urbanicity
Urban 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0
Nonurban 1.19 (0.71–1.99) 1.13 (0.57–2.21) 1.05 (0.54–2.05) 0.90 (0.49–1.64) 0.87 (0.44–1.70)

Most serious type of abuse
Neglect 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0
Physical abuse 0.80 (0.54–1.18) 0.71 (0.48–1.09) 0.93 (0.62–1.40) 1.23 (0.66–2.29) 0.94 (0.59–1.48)
Sexual abuse 0.96 (0.63–1.48) 0.48 (0.24–0.95) 0.93 (0.50–1.75) 1.23 (0.66–2.29) 0.93 (0.46–1.89)
Physical neglect 0.73 (0.52–1.04) 0.79 (0.55–1.18) 0.92 (0.63–1.37) 0.88 (0.57–1.35) 0.97 (0.63–1.49)
All others 1.49 (0.89–2.47) 1.37 (0.80–2.34) 1.91 (1.03–3.55) 1.99 (1.03–3.85) 1.96 (1.05–3.66)

Prior reports of maltreatment **
Yes 1.42 (1.10-1.84) 1.05 (0.80-1.37) 0.81 (0.61-1.07) 1.09 (0.78-1.53) 0.84 (0.61-1.17)
No 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0

Note: Statistically significant results are printed in bold.
aCox & Snell pseudo R2 = .05; Wald F = 4.67, p < .0001. Predictive accuracy of substantiated cases, 6.5%; predictive accuracy of unsubstanti- ated cases, 96.3%. bCox & Snell pseudo R2 = .30; Wald F = 13.44, p < .0001. Predictive accuracy of substantiated cases, 59.7%; predictive accuracy of unsub- stantiated cases, 78.1%. cCox & Snell pseudo R2 = .31; Wald F = 13.22, p < .0001. Predictive accuracy of substantiated cases, 61.3%; predictive accuracy of unsubstan- tiated cases, 77.0%. dCox & Snell pseudo R2 = .44; Wald F = 17.99; p < .0001. Predictive accuracy of substantiated cases, 85.5%; predictive accuracy of unsub- stantiated cases, 73.0%. eCox & Snell pseudo R2 = .47; Wald F = 12.37; p < .0001. Predictive accuracy of substantiated cases, 83.9%; predictive accuracy of unsub- stantiated cases, 72.5%. * p < .05. ** p < .01. *** p < .001.

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Cross, Casanueva / Caseworker Judgments and Substantiation 47

for physical neglect than children aged 0–2. Sexual
abuse cases with Hispanic children were less likely to
be substantiated than sexual abuse cases with White
children. Sexual abuse cases in which family income
was <$15,000 were less likely to be substantiated than cases with families earning >$15,000. All mod-
els predicted correctly around 80% of substantiated
cases.

Figure 1 provides a more intuitive picture of the
importance of evidence across all cases. The percentage
substantiated increased as harm increased from none to
severe, but very much depended on the level of evi-
dence. When evidence was judged to be probably insuf-
ficient or less, substantiation rates were small, even
when harm was rated as severe. A parallel figure depict-
ing risk instead of harm showed similar results.

Table 4
Logistic Regression Predicting Substantiation by Type of Main Maltreatment

Odds ratios (and 95% confidence intervals) for:

Model 4: Model 4:
Model 1: Model 2: Physical neglect Neglect (failure

Physical abuse Sexual abuse (failure to provide; to supervise;
Variable (n = 896)a (n = 597)b n = 918)c n = 1,032)d

Harm * ** *
1.80 (1.00–3.24) 2.36 (1.37–4.07) 1.06 (0.68–1.65) 1.64 (1.03–2.62)

Risk ** **
2.54 (1.44–4.47) 1.75 (0.85–3.60) 1.74 (0.93–3.25) 1.87 (1.24–2.81)

Evidence *** *** *** ***
3.23 (2.30–4.53) 5.02 (3.04–8.27) 4.38 (2.70–7.13) 3.52 (2.43–5.12)

Gender * **
Male 0.46 (0.22–0.98) 0.59 (0.22–1.63) 0.59 (0.26–1.31) 0.43 (0.25–0.73)
Female 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0

Age ** *
0–2 years 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0
3–5 years 2.69 (0.82–8.86) 0.08 (0.02–0.36) 0.78 (0.24–2.58) 0.82 (0.32–2.10)
6–10 years 4.02 (1.18–13.69) 0.98 (0.28–3.41) 3.17 (1.21–8.29) 0.92 (0.45–1.91)
11+ years 2.45 (0.74–8.07) 1.12 (0.41–3.08) 1.11 (0.37–3.37) 0.62 (0.23–1.66)

Race/ethnicity (ref. White) **
White 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0
Black 0.49 (0.21-1.12) 0.51 (0.15-1.75) 2.39 (0.87-6.57) 0.72 (0.32-1.60)
Hispanic 2.07 (0.71-6.07) 0.21 (0.05-0.83) 1.20 (0.44-3.29) 0.63 (0.26-1.53)
Other 1.02 (0.46-2.29) 4.17 (0.94-18.50) 2.02 (0.49-8.28) 0.62 (0.26-1.47)

Income **
<$15,000 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 $15,000–$29,999 0.64 (0.26-1.58) 0.14 (0.03-0.62) 1.32 (0.59-2.94) 2.33 (1.09-4.96) $30,000 or greater 0.66 (0.26-1.58) 0.14 (0.03-0.58) 1.82 (0.46-7.19) 1.75 (0.81-3.79)

PSU urbanicity
Urban 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0
Nonurban 0.41 (0.16-1.02) 0.63 (0.13-3.12) 1.25 (0.51-3.06) 0.87 (0.37-2.09)

Prior reports of maltreatment
Yes 0.87 (0.45-1.71) 0.77 (0.21-2.85) 1.13 (0.50-2.54) 0.90 (0.48-1.69)
No 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0

Note: Statistically significant results are printed in bold.
aCox & Snell pseudo R2 = .49; Wald F = 8.86, p < .0001. Predictive accuracy of substantiated cases, 77.5%; predictive accuracy of unsubstantiated cases, 75.8%. bCox & Snell pseudo R2 = .57; Wald F = 6.07, p < .0001. Predictive accuracy of substantiated cases, 81.9%; predictive accuracy of unsubstantiated cases, 79.4%. cCox & Snell pseudo R2 = .47; Wald F = 11.20, p < .0001. Predictive accuracy of substantiated cases, 87.2%; predictive accuracy of unsubstantiated cases, 73.5%. dCox & Snell pseudo R2 = .47; Wald F = 10.51, p < .0001. Predictive accuracy of substantiated cases, 82.0%; predictive accuracy of unsubstantiated cases, 74.9%. * p < .05. ** p < .01. *** p < .001.

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48 Child Maltreatment

Distribution of Children by Harm, Evidence,
and Substantiation

To summarize the results on harm, evidence, and sub-
stantiation, we imagined a hypothetical group of

100

children and portrayed them in Figure 2 where they
stood at the end of the investigation in terms of these
variables. In effect, Figure 2 portrays a picture of Drake’s
harm–evidence model as it applies to actual children. To
parallel the harm–evidence model, we left risk out of this
analysis, but our analysis of risk instead of harm yielded
similar results. Using the number 100, of course, means
that the numbers of children in this section can be
thought of as percentages of children as well. In 56 cases
(Figure 2, lower left), children were judged to have suf-
fered little or no harm and the caseworker found little or
no evidence of maltreatment; 55 of the 56 were not sub-
stantiated. In 22 cases, there was probably to clearly suf-
ficient evidence and children were judged to have
suffered moderate to severe harm (Figure 2, upper right).
Of these cases, 18 were substantiated, although 4 of them
were not, despite high levels of evidence and moderate to
severe harm.

Those cases in which judged harm and evidence were
at different levels deserve special scrutiny. In 16 cases,
evidence of maltreatment was probably to clearly suffi-
cient, but there was little or no harm (Figure 2, upper
left). Nine of the 16 were substantiated. In 7 cases, the
caseworkers judged that there was moderate to severe

harm, but evidence was probably to clearly insufficient
(Figure 2, lower right), and only 2 of these cases were
substantiated. Altogether, 9 of the 29 cases in which
children were judged to have suffered moderate to severe
harm were not substantiated.

Discussion

The first research question asked whether substantia-
tion rates varied on the basis of caseworker judgments of
harm, risk, and evidence. Harm, risk, and evidence were
all substantial predictors of substantiation, even when
demographic and maltreatment characteristics were
taken into account. Clearly, caseworkers consider harm
to the child, future risk to the child, and evidence of mal-
treatment when they make substantiation decisions. This
does not mean, however, that harm, risk, and evidence
predict the substantiation decision for every child, as we
discuss here. Note that the significance of harm contrasts
with a previous report from the 1993 Third National
Incidence Study, in which severity of harm was not sig-
nificantly associated with substantiation (King et al.,
2003). Evidence appeared to play the largest role. Even
when caseworkers believe that children have been
harmed or are at risk, substantiation is unlikely unless
evidence of maltreatment is sufficient.

The second research question asked how substantiation
rates varied on the basis of demographic and maltreatment

Figure 1
Percent Substantiated by Levels of Harm and Evidence

0

10

20

30

40

50

60

70

80

90

100

None Mild Moderate Severe

Caseworker ratings of harm

%
s

u
b

st
an

ti
at

ed

Clearly sufficient evidence Probably sufficient evidence Probably insufficient to no evidence

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Cross, Casanueva / Caseworker Judgments and Substantiation 49

characteristics and whether these effects were indepen-
dent of judgments of harm, risk, and evidence. Income
and prior report were initially significant but not so when
caseworker judgment variables were included. This sug-
gests that these two variables have an indirect effect on
substantiation through their effect on appraisals of risk,
harm, and evidence. On the other hand, child gender and
age were each significantly related to substantiation
beyond harm, risk, and evidence. Boys’ cases were less
likely to lead to substantiation than girls. Cases with
children aged 6–10 were more likely to be substantiated
than cases of younger or older children. Because of the
NSCAW’s weighting scheme, these effects cannot be
due to state or agency differences between cases.

Because caseworkers make the substantiation deci-
sion, the independent gender and age effects suggest that
some other judgment must be influencing the substanti-
ation decision in addition to harm, risk, and evidence—
something that differs by child gender and age. At a
given level of harm or risk, caseworkers may see the sub-
stantiation decision as more or less necessary depending
on gender and age. They may also tend to treat evidence
of maltreatment as more or less consequential for different

groups of youths. Caseworkers may also be more likely
to see mitigating factors for children of different genders
and ages that would lead them not to substantiate certain
groups of cases. Investigation, caseworker, and system
characteristics related to substantiation may also vary by
child gender and age, and so may caseworkers’ facility
with processing information about the case. Clearly,
more research is needed that examines caseworkers’
thinking in more depth and considers a wider range of
judgment constructs.

Other demographic and maltreatment variables were
not significant predictors. Previous studies have reported
an association between race/ethnicity and substantiation
(King et al., 2003; Trocmé et al., 2006), but a race/ethnicity
effect was only found for sexual abuse.

Regarding the third research question on specific
types of maltreatment, harm, risk, and evidence were dif-
ferentially important for predicting substantiation
depending on the type of maltreatment. Although evi-
dence was a significant predictor of substantiation for all
types of abuse, harm was not significantly associated
with physical neglect and risk was associated with nei-
ther sexual abuse nor physical neglect. It makes sense

Figure 2
Distribution of 100 Cases on Harm, Evidence, and Substantiation

Note: Each figure represents 1 out of 100 children. Shaded figures = substantiated. Total = 101 because of rounding.

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50 Child Maltreatment

that risk is not an important predictor of substantiation
for sexual abuse, because few circumstances exist in
which sexual abuse would be considered risky but not
harmful. There may be no additional independent role
for risk to play beyond harm and evidence. The lack of
effect of harm and risk on substantiation of physical
neglect may relate to lack of variation on harm and risk.
Such lack of variation may be substantial among
physical neglect cases, related in part to economic and
social conditions. Substantiation might then depend on
evidence that caregivers themselves are responsible for
the physical neglect of the child. Eckenrode et al. (1998)
found that substantiation of sexual abuse was more likely
in older children, but the present study did not find this
effect. We have no ready explanation for the finding that
being Hispanic and having an income over $15,000 were
associated with a lower likelihood of substantiation of
sexual abuse, independent of the significant effects of
harm and evidence. More research is needed on the
effects of race/ethnicity and social class on substantia-
tion of sexual abuse. The lack of effect of child age on
substantiation of physical neglect differed from
Eckenrode et al.’s (1988) finding that neglect cases with
younger children were more likely to be substantiated. In
contrast to previous studies on child physical abuse that
reported effects of child race and age on substantiation
(Eckenrode et al., 1988; Zuravin et al., 1995), only harm,
risk, evidence, and gender were associated with substan-
tiation of physical abuse in the present study. Two
caveats of comparison with previous studies are that (a)
variables in the predictive models differ and that (b) most
previous studies do not incorporate harm, risk, and evi-
dence in their models.

The fourth research question concerns the percentages
of children in different combinations of harm, evidence,
and substantiation. More than half (55%) were rated with
little or no harm and no evidence of maltreatment and
were not substantiated. The next largest percentage was
the 18% of cases with moderate to severe harm, probably
to clearly sufficient evidence, and a decision to substanti-
ate. Thus, in 73% of cases, there was a straightforward
match among harm, evidence, and substantiation.

What is most concerning is the group of children who
were judged to be at moderate to severe risk and harm
and did not have cases that were substantiated. We found
9 of 100 children in this category. This outcome in 5 of
these 9 cases could be attributed to insufficient evidence,
as Drake’s (1996) model predicted. In 4 of these 9,
however, cases seemed to meet all the criteria for sub-
stantiation, but caseworkers reported that they were
unsubstantiated. Nine of 100 is not a trivial percentage

of children. Children who have been harmed and/or
remain at risk without substantiation should be a group
of high concern for CWS. These cases should receive an
evaluation of need for child and family services to pro-
tect their safety and promote their well-being and devel-
opment. They also need regular monitoring. Because of
groups like this, most states, but not all, make CWS ser-
vices available in at least some cases that are not sub-
stantiated (Walter R. McDonald & Associates, 2003),
although children in substantiated cases are nevertheless
more likely to receive CWS services (see U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services, Administration for
Children and Families, n.d.).

For a different 9 of 100 children, cases were substan-
tiated, even though they were judged to have suffered
little or no harm or risk, because there was probably to
clearly sufficient evidence of abuse. States considering
an alternative response or dual track system may want to
consider this result in their decision making; these are
children who would probably be served by the alterna-
tive response pathway.

In many ways, the results are consistent with Drake’s
(1996) harm–evidence model, in that substantiation is
likely only when cases meet both a threshold level of
harm and a threshold level of evidence. However, there is
enough counterevidence to suggest that this model is
imperfect in explaining substantiation. In particular,
some cases are not substantiated even when both harm
and evidence are substantial. In addition, as discussed
earlier, the independent effects of child age and gender
suggest that there are other caseworker judgments that
influence substantiation but are not accounted for by the
model. More research is needed to test the harm–evi-
dence model and perhaps develop modifications to it.

The results here underline previous researchers’ con-
clusions that substantiation is an imperfect measure of
child maltreatment (Drake, 1996; Yuan, Schene, English,
& Johnson, 2005). Points to consider are (a) the element
of unpredictability of substantiation decisions; (b) the
relationship of the substantiation decision to child age
and gender, independent of harm, risk, and evidence; and
(c) the dependence of substantiation on the availability
of evidence even when harm and risk are judged to be
moderate to high. These results are likely to be relevant
to current work debating the wisdom of the current
reliance of CWS on substantiation (Drake, 1996; English
et al., 2002; Leiter, Myers, & Zingraff, 1994). The cited
researchers and other experts have argued that substanti-
ation does not rationally guide which families should
receive services, nor does it provide an accurate basis for
data on child maltreatment.

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Child welfare policy should take into account these
results and those from other studies on substantiation.
First, as other researchers have suggested, CWS agencies
should not use substantiation as a proxy variable for
maltreatment in data analysis and decision making.
Second, the policy of a number of states to reserve
child and family services for substantiated cases should
be re-examined, given that the substantiation decision
often does not correspond to the level of risk and harm
that children experience and, therefore, the need for ser-
vices they have. Likewise caseworkers should not let the
substantiation decision overly influence their decisions
on service delivery for individual cases. Third, CWS
agencies should assess carefully what judgments their
investigators are making that influence the substantiation
decision. If investigators have legitimate criteria that are
not included in the definition of substantiation, the defi-
nition may need to be changed. If investigators’ criteria
are not always sound, more training and quality control
is needed. Fourth, CWS agencies should consider the
limitations of substantiation in their decision making
about dual track systems. Assigning lower risk reports to
an assessment track that does not include a substantia-
tion decision is one way to mitigate the limitations of the
substantiation process (see, e.g., Yuan et al., 2005).

Limitations

The data used here for substantiation decision, level of
harm, risk assessment, and evidence were provided ret-
rospectively by the caseworker. This may introduce a
degree of subjectivity and error to the analysis. On the
other hand, caseworkers’ knowledge and perceptions are
exactly what would be operating to lead them to make
decisions about substantiation.

In addition, the time interval between the substantia-
tion decision and the caseworker interview may have
introduced some measurement error. It is possible that
the substantiation decision affected caseworkers’ retro-
spective judgments, despite the instruction to respond
regardless of the outcome of the investigation. Also, new
information learned after the substantiation decision may
have influenced caseworkers’ memories. However, given
that the different sources of possible measurement error
might lead either to higher or lower scores on harm, risk,
and evidence, we see no reason to expect a particular bias.

The caseworker judgment items have limitations as
well. The categories of mild, moderate, and severe harm
and risk were not operationalized, nor were the cate-
gories of probably or clearly sufficient or insufficient
evidence. Note, however, that it would often be a state,
an agency, or an individual worker’s own definition of

these categories that would influence the substantiation
decision. Another limitation is that the text of the evi-
dence question specifically mentions substantiation,
which may be one reason it was the most influential
caseworker judgment variable in this analysis.

Future Research

Additional research is needed on the processes under-
lying substantiation. Studies could gather a wider range of
judgments that might influence substantiation, such as the
likelihood of service delivery or other pragmatic consider-
ations. Research could also examine further how state and
agency policy interacts with worker decision making. A
study of states that use a three-category substantiation
process could examine how harm, risk, and evidence dif-
fer for substantiated, unsubstantiated, and indicated cases.
New studies could also compare determinants of substan-
tiation in states with a traditional, one-track investigation
system versus states with a dual-track, alternative
response system. More on substantiation could be done
with both the current NSCAW data set and data from a
new NSCAW study that begins data collection in 2008.
Data on substantiation from the 50 states are available
from the NCANDS (see http://ndacan.cornell.edu). State
and local agencies could also conduct their own studies of
substantiation using agency data systems.

Conclusion

According to caseworker reports on harm, risk, and
evidence, substantiation works in most cases as it should,
but there are many cases in which the relationship
between these caseworker judgments and substantiation
raises question about appropriate policy and practice.
Clearly, substantiation along with policy and practice
related to it are due for a fresh appraisal by state CWS
agencies, as well as researchers and policymakers.

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Theodore P. Cross is a clinical psychologist and is now a
visiting research professor at the Children and Family Research
Center in the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois
at Urbana–Champaign. He currently conducts research on place-
ment outcomes, service delivery, and well-being for children in
foster care. Over the past 23 years, his research has focused on
children’s services and on the criminal justice response to child
maltreatment.

Cecilia Casanueva is a research psychologist at RTI International.
She currently conducts research on developmental problems and
special health care needs among young children who have been
abused or neglected and their need for early intervention ser-
vices. In recent years, her research has focused on domestic vio-
lence, parenting, adoption, placement outcomes, service delivery,
and well-being for children investigated for maltreatment.

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