The Community Loss Index

(Originally published Nov. 7, 2017)


In December 2013, Mimi Abramovich and Jochen Albrecht published in Social Service Review an article titled “The Community Loss Index: A New Social Indicator.” According to Abramovich and Albrecht, the Community Loss Index (CLI) is a tool for studying “the relationship between adverse neighborhood conditions and the concentration of health and social problems …” They suggest that communities, like individuals, can be deeply affected by an accumulation of losses, and that these losses “have the power to weaken neighborhood ties, diminish the size of social networks, limit the community’s social capital and efficacy and otherwise impair community functioning.” These scholars assert that an accumulation of losses “can reinforce a catastrophic downward spiral, from which it is difficult to recover.”

The CLI operationalizes the loss of household members due to foster placement, incarceration, long term hospitalization and untimely deaths due to murder, suicide or accidents. The loss of financial resources due to unemployment and foreclosure is also a part of the CLI. Abramovich and Albrecht maintain that these crucial losses lead to stigma, social isolation and demoralization of affected individuals and reduce the social interactions that create social capital and collective self efficacy. In so doing, these scholars assert, these losses affect whole communities, not just the families that have lost family members or financial resources.

Abramovich’s and Albrecht’s study of CLI in New York City found a sharp divide between high loss and low loss neighborhoods. Furthermore, they state, “… the loss of children to foster care placement represents the most severe community loss in high-loss areas.” This study found that high-loss neighborhoods were populated by four main groups: African Americans, low income families, families with children under age 5 and Hispanics. The authors view community loss “as a major component of the collective experience of poverty.” They comment that “such a high proportion of young children living in communities experiencing stress does not bode well for their development.”

The Prevalence of CPS Investigation and Foster Care

During the past few years, groups of scholars that include Christopher Wildeman, N. Emanuel, Hyunil Kim, Melissa Jonson-Reid, Brett Drake, John Leventhal and Emily Putnam-Hornstein have published studies with astonishing findings regarding the prevalence of CPS investigations, substantiated cases of child maltreatment and foster care among children, 0-17. In February 2017, Kim, Wildeman, Jonson-Reid and Drake published a study which estimated that 37.4% of all (not just poor) U.S. children experience a CPS investigation by age 18. Furthermore, this study found that more than half of African American children have been the subject of a CPS investigation by age 18! These remarkable findings have been met with skepticism from scholars with whom I’m acquainted, but I have yet to read an articulate critique of the research methods utilized in these studies.

In 2014, Wildeman and Emanuel published a study of the prevalence of foster care in the U.S. which estimated that almost 6% of all children (again, not just poor children) are placed in foster care by age 18, based on data from 2000-2011. They estimate that 11% of African American children and 15% of Native American children have had stays in foster care by age 18. Even if these estimates turn out to be exaggerated, it must be apparent that child protection and foster care are not programs that only effect small marginal populations of children and families, but programs that touch a surprising large percentage of children, especially in low income or African American neighborhoods and on Indian reservations. Wildeman and Emanuel found that African American children were 2.26 times more likely to have been placed in foster care than White children. They found that Native American children were 3.11 times more likely to have foster care stays than White children by their eighteenth birthday.

Child welfare systems exact a heavy cost on low income families and neighborhoods, costs that fall disproportionately on families living in neighborhoods and communities with high rates of concentrated poverty and on African American and Native American families, neighborhoods and communities. These costs involve elevated rates of child removal and exposure to CPS investigations, often without the protection afforded by legal representation, at least until children have been removed from the home. The loss of children is frequently compounded by the parents’ relative powerlessness in conflictual relationships with caseworkers, courts, foster parents, etc. (see MacFarquhar, 2017).

These costs would be buffered to some extent if public child welfare investigations and foster placements brought increased access to a wide range of poverty related services and to educational programs that offered the possibility of a better economic future. Instead, some states’ child welfare systems lack any poverty related services, and most have one time only or time limited services that have minimal (if any) positive effects on families’ living standards. In these circumstances, why would low income parents view child welfare involvement as anything other than an unwanted punitive intrusion with potentially catastrophic consequences?

Risk Terrain Modeling

In December 2016, a group of scholars in Texas (Daley, et al) published an article in Child Abuse and Neglect titled “Risk terrain modeling predicts child maltreatment.” Daley and her co-authors used geospacial mapping in Ft. Worth, Texas, to identify clusters of six main risk factors: poverty, domestic violence, aggravated assaults, runaways, murders and drug crimes to predict more than 50% of future substantiated child maltreatment cases in 10% of the city’s “cells”, i.e., sections of neighborhoods. Several of the same factors that entered into calculation of the Community Loss Index (as described above) were associated with the highest rates of substantiated child maltreatment in Ft. Worth neighborhoods, i.e., poverty combined with indicators of community violence. These two studies taken together suggest that the same factors that lead to elevated rates of CPS interventions in some (but not all) low income neighborhoods and communities also damage community capacity to mobilize effective responses to a wide range of social problems. In addition, it appears that, in some high risk neighborhoods and communities, child welfare interventions are compounding the damage to the collective self efficacy needed to restore and sustain healthy families.

The untimely loss of family members and various types of community violence are dimensions of trauma. Concentrated poverty combined with high rates of domestic violence, aggravated assault and homicide can lead to paralysis of whole neighborhoods and communities, i.e. an inability to mount a determined response to conditions that threaten children and families. It is distressing (to say the least) that involuntary foster care placements may be experienced as another assault on the integrity of a community or ethnic group, i.e., another type of social violence.

What is Collective Efficacy?

Imagine that communities or neighborhoods are in the midst of an opioid epidemic, or a large increase in gang killings, or a seemingly unstoppable increase in homelessness. How might a community or neighborhood respond to what most community members view as a crisis effecting everyone in the community or neighborhood? Residents of the community might wait for city, state and federal governments to “do something,” e.g., pass laws, provide resources, or, in some other way, come to the rescue. This is what most Americans seem to expect when entire communities suffer extensive damage from natural disasters. Citizens of communities could divide into political factions and engage in angry political debates over competing solutions while doing little or nothing to address urgent needs, e.g., the current status of American politics at the national level. Various factions could petition local, state and federal authorities to intervene. Local governments and/or community groups could hire expert consultants to inform them of the best solutions found in other communities or states. Communities and neighborhoods could also bring together community agencies and citizen groups in collaborative efforts to develop comprehensive initiatives and to seek resources to fund these initiatives.

Some communities might engage in some or all of these approaches, or they might do nothing, passively accepting whatever happens while despairing about their future. Emergencies often bring communities together in a way that transcends social class, but an extraordinary community spirit is difficult to maintain for long periods of time. Self interest, class divisions and political differences usually re-emerge after a few weeks or months. The opioid crisis, in its initial stages, was a delayed reaction to the Great Recession and to long term economic decline in many states and communities. Economic hopelessness, not poverty, per se, led to the opioid epidemic, thus the large increase in death rates among White middle-aged Americans. Emergencies and crises bring communities together, often in impressive ways. However, long term intractable problems fracture communities and states into competing interest groups which adopt different coping strategies. Once the communities and groups most negatively affected by a natural disaster, economic crisis, neighborhood violence or other extreme social conditions perceive that governments and other community groups have lost interest in their predicament, dysfunctional and harmful behaviors begin to occur with greater frequency.

Collective efficacy, like self efficacy, requires an active coping style. Doing little or nothing in response to threatening social problems is out of the question. Agencies and groups in mobilized communities need to be aligned in their goals, but not necessarily in their strategies or actions. A wide array of uncoordinated initiatives may be as effective as a single centrally directed plan.

During the past three decades, many U.S. communities have developed effective responses to drug epidemics (e.g., in response to crack cocaine and methamphetamine during the 1990’s and early 2000’s), gang violence, domestic violence, child sexual abuse and teen aged pregnancy. It has been more difficult to develop effective community responses to social problems driven by income inequality, for example, homelessness, child neglect and income disparities among racial/ethnic groups. When community residents and local groups or factions have fundamental differences over political goals and opposed “visions” of a good society, effective community action is next to impossible.

Social Norming is Powerful

One of the most fascinating and instructive trends of the past 25 years has been the 50-60% decline in physical abuse and sexual abuse which occurred between the mid-1990’s and 2012. I occasionally encounter veteran child welfare practitioners and advocates who have never heard anything about the decline in physical abuse and sexual abuse (but not neglect) over a 20 year period. This decline, as indicated by both NCANDS data and the most recent National Incidence Study, was arguably unrelated to or weakly related to prevention programs, poverty reduction, child welfare services, foster care increases or declines in various states. It appears to have been largely due to major shifts in social attitudes regarding the punishment and sexual exploitation of children which had occurred over decades, and which eventually led to a dramatic reduction in some types of child maltreatment. Essentially, communities and the courts decided that severe physical abuse and sexual abuse of children were unacceptable regardless of the identity of offenders and would not be tolerated. Attitudes that supported zero tolerance of the gross mistreatment of children led to unexpected large social change over a period of decades.

During recent decades, there have been a number of foundation funded initiatives that have tapped the power of social norming at the neighborhood and community level to achieve prevention goals. One of these initiatives is Strong Communities, a model used in South Carolina to strengthen the sense of community, change social norms and bring resources together in support of families with young children.

Strong Communities is guided by ten principles, one of which is that “strategies should be directed toward changing community norms and structures so that community members “naturally” notice and respond to the needs of children and their parents ” (McLeigh, et al, 2015). Social norming can be applied to both parenting standards and to developing a community ethos of reaching out to parents as needed and as the opportunity allows, rather than funding discrete programs. Volunteers play an important role in Strong Communities as a means of engaging the entire community in child protection. According to McLeigh, et al, “activities should be undertaken in a way that enhances parent leadership and community engagement.” This model emphasizes the facilitation of reciprocity as a means of “normalizing the need for help and to build efficacy by highlighting that everyone has something to contribute.”

In my view, programs that seek to develop collective efficacy in communities and neighborhoods with clusters of poverty and violence have a much better chance of achieving large scale reductions in rates of child maltreatment and other social ills than providing a single manualized evidence based program to high risk families. Local and state governments could fund both types of programs but, in the current fiscal environment, advocates and policymakers may be forced to choose one or the other.



Abramovitz, M. & Albrecht, J. “The Community Loss Index: A New Social Indicator,” Social Service Review, Vol. 8, No.4, December 2013.

Daley, D., Bachman, M., Bachman, B., Pedigo, C., Bui, M.T. & Coffman, J., “Risk terrain modeling predicts child maltreatment,” Child Abuse and Neglect , Vol. 62, December 2016.

Kim, H., Wildeman,C., Jonson-Reid, M. & Drake, B., “Lifetime Prevalence of Investigating Child Maltreatment Among US Children,” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 107, No. 2, February 2017.

MacFarquhar, L., “When Should A Child Be Taken From His Parents?,” The New Yorker, August 7-14 issue, 2017.

McLeigh, J., Melton, G., Kimbrough-Melton, R. & Wallace, N., “How can Strong Communities transform community norms and structures to promote children’s safety and well-being?”, Upbring, Austin,Texas, July 2015.

Wildeman, C. & Emanuel, N., “Cumulative Risk of Foster Care Placement by Age 18 for U.S. Children – 2000-2011,” PLOS One, 9 (3), March 2014.

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