Poverty and Child Maltreatment in the UK :
Lessons for the U.S.
(Originally published January 2021)
In 2016, the Joseph Roundtree Foundation published (and posted on its website) a lengthy report, “The relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect: an evidence review,” by Paul Bywaters with several English and Irish scholars. This report contains a thorough and insightful summary and discussion of research regarding the relationship between poverty and child maltreatment, including both UK and U.S. research studies completed since the late 1980’s.
This is a scholarly report that discusses (at length) gaps in the research and methodological limitations, yet also reaches straightforward conclusions and makes sensible recommendations for improving child protection practice. The report also contains a concise discussion of the “inverse intervention law,” one of the most surprising discoveries in child welfare research in recent years, with (to date) undetermined application to U.S. child welfare systems. This report also reveals both major differences and similarities between child welfare practice in the UK and U.S.
Child welfare in the UK
The UK includes four countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales with a combined population of 63 million people, slightly less than one-fifth of the U.S. population (330 million). These countries’ child welfare systems have different administrative and organizational structures, but all four place children found to be abused or neglected (or viewed as at risk for child maltreatment) on a child protection register, or (in England) on a child protection plan (CPP). Children placed on child protection registers or CPPs are analogous to U.S. children in substantiated CPS investigations, or children assessed as needing services to reduce the risk of child maltreatment following a CPS investigation or assessment.
The authors assert that in 2012-13, “more than 60,000 children were placed on a child protection register (or child protection plan in England), around 1 in 200 children under 18,” and “around 16,000 children started a period of period of out-of-home care … attributed to abuse and neglect …” To put these statistics in perspective: Child Maltreatment 2012, the annual report from the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) asserts that there were more than 678,000 unique child victims as measured by substantiations reported by states, and almost 1.2 million children who received post- investigative services in the U.S. in FY 2012. In other words, after taking population differences into account, the UK had a rate of child victimization and/or rate of child welfare involvement in 2012 one-half to one-fourth of U.S. rates for substantiation, delivery of post investigation services or out-of-home placement. This is a large difference in rates of child welfare involvement which (in my view) national differences in poverty rates cannot adequately explain.
Definitions of poverty
This report defines poverty as “having an income below 60 per cent of the median (mid- point) income for all UK households.” This is a broader definition of poverty than the U.S. federal poverty standard. Sixty per cent of U.S. median family income in 2020 was about $40,000 vs. the federal poverty standard for a family of four of about $26,000. In other words, this report employs a poverty standard that is about 150% of the U.S. federal poverty standard. The authors comment that “This broad definition operates against a background of a growing lack of consensus among policy-makers and others in the UK about how poverty should be defined and measured.” However, some poverty standards are more defensible than others if a working definition of poverty is “when your resources (especially your material resources) are substantially below your needs (including social participation).” Concretely, imagine supporting a family of four anywhere in the I-5 corridor on an income of less than $40,000 per year, or a family of three with an income of less than $30,000 per year!
In Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty (2020), Jeff Madrick recommends an Official Poverty Measure (OPM) of $37,000 for a family of four, or about 150% of the current federal government’s poverty standard, close to the poverty standard used in UK report. According to Bywaters, et al, approximately one- fourth to one-third of children in the UK have lived in poverty during the past 25 years.
Almost one-fifth of American children live in poor families, according to the narrower poverty standard utilized by the federal government. Applying a poverty measure that is 150% of the current federal policy standard would add about 8 million children to the number of poor children in the U.S., i.e., increase child poverty by more than 50%, according to Madrick.
Summary of research findings Bywaters, et al, summarize the research evidence as follows:
“There is a strong association between families’ socio-economic circumstances and the chances their children will experience CAN (child abuse and neglect). Evidence of this association is found repeatedly across developed countries, types of abuse, definitions, measures and research approaches, and in different child protection systems.”
“There is a gradient in the relationship between family socio-economic circumstances and rates of CAN across the whole of society; it is not a straightforward divide between families in poverty and those which are not … The greater the economic hardship, the greater the likelihood and severity of CAN.”
However, “poverty is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition in the occurrence of CAN. Many children who are not from families in poverty will experience CAN in some form, and most children who are living in poverty will not experience CAN.”
Nevertheless, rates of child welfare involvement among families living in low income are much higher for families in low-income neighborhoods and communities: “ … CPP rates in neighborhoods among the most deprived ten per cent in England as a whole were almost 11 times higher the rates in the most advantaged 10 per cent (decile) of neighborhoods. … there were more than 36 children on CPPs living in the most deprived decile of neighborhoods for each child in the least deprived decile.”
“The interactions between poverty and other contributory factors” (such as substance abuse, mental health conditions and domestic violence) “are complex and frequently circular.”
“The conception of poverty as a contributory causal factor (in child maltreatment) is supported by evidence from experimental studies and quasi-experimental studies in the US that raising the income of families has a statistically significant impact in reducing CAN rates.”
“Evidence suggests that … practitioners and child protection systems currently pay insufficient direct attention to the role of poverty in CAN.” And:
“No data is collected by the UK governments on the socio-economic circumstances of families in which children are, or have been at risk of significant harm.“ Furthermore, “Official data does not allow for the production of any population data about the poverty or otherwise of children who have experienced abuse and neglect.”
Explanations of the relationship between poverty and child maltreatment
This report begins to flounder in its discussion of the causal relationships between poverty and child maltreatment in the same way that U.S. research studies frequently seem clueless on this subject. Bywaters, et al, are clearly uneasy with the usual appeal to material hardship and/or the stresses of poverty as explanations of poverty’s impact on child abuse and neglect, but do not offer better ideas or zero in on why these explanations are superficial and inadequate:
Any plausible causal explanation must account for the combination of poverty, and/or substance abuse, mental health conditions and domestic violence in most serious cases of child maltreatment.
Cogent explanations must describe various causal pathways between and among poverty, chronically relapsing conditions such as substance abuse, mood disorders and interpersonal violence.
In many Sounding Board commentaries, I have repeatedly emphasized the multiple ways in which poverty, drug/alcohol abuse, chronic mental illness and DV, individually and in combination, lead to a loss of power and control over life -- circumstances, body, brain, and mental/emotional processes. In most chronic neglect and chronic maltreatment (neglect combined with physical and or sexual abuse) cases, parents present as hopeless/helpless; or, in some cases, as angry and anti-social.
Bywaters, et al, comment that child welfare practitioners in the UK seem to view economic deprivation as a near omni-present background condition in which substance abuse, disabling mental health conditions and family violence lead to child maltreatment. This is a theory of sorts, but like many poor theories that guide child welfare case planning, is usually implicit, and rarely examined (or “interrogated”, to use current social work jargon). Concretely, what this means is that in-home service plans and court mandated services are likely to focus on parents’ behavioral health issues that impact parenting and on children’s mental health problems, while ignoring a family’s economic circumstances except (perhaps) to offer one time only emergency assistance.
The authors discuss (at length) “the lack of joined up thinking action about poverty and CAN in the UK; and their discussion is equally applicable to the U.S. in all respects. The disjunction between thinking about poverty and about CAN “is apparent in the lack of official data and research evidence, the absence of a focus on families’ circumstances in assessment protocols and decision-making about CAN, and in the dearth of policies and programs that directly address the financial and material circumstances of families in contact with children’s services. It is equally apparent in the near total absence of discussion of CAN in most policy documents and research reports about child poverty.“ The authors add that “There is a deeply rooted cultural gap to be bridged …. embedded in all dimensions of current policy, practice, education and research.”
The authors assert that effective primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention require:
Universal actions to address both family poverty and child maltreatment, e.g., use of child allowances of $300-$400 per month per the current proposal of the Biden Administration.
Targeted economic assistance for at-risk families, e.g., families reported to CPS who cannot meet their children’s basic needs due to poverty.
Case plans for parents who misuse drugs or alcohol, have recurrent mood disorders and/or interpersonal violence which provide child-care assistance, affordable housing, and respite care.
(Note: The examples in the bullets are my suggestions, not the author's.)
In addition, there needs to be a dramatic shift in how the harms to children to children resulting from poverty and/or child maltreatment are weighed and addressed. Which of the following should states’ neglect laws define as conditions requiring a CPS response?
A child living with a homeless parent in a cardboard box under a freeway, or in a city park.
A school age child, 6-10 years of age, left alone for 3 hours after school due to the mother’s work schedule.
Children who are periodically food insecure such that they eat one limited meal per day at home, as well as meals and snacks they receive in school or at Head Start.
A child who occasionally receives harsh spankings that sometimes leave bruises on the buttocks and lower back, but which do not require medical attention.
Many readers may view all the examples above as adequate grounds for CPS intervention, but in Washington State homelessness, in and of itself, is not grounds for a CPS investigation or FAR assessment, absent other allegations of abuse or neglect; while a parent’s failure to make supervisory arrangements for a young school age child would be investigated or assessed by FAR. In many state child protection systems, the CPS response to allegations that a child was periodically receiving inadequate food would be to investigate low-income parents for failure to apply for food stamps or TANF, or to maintain eligibility for these benefits, or for misusing welfare benefits to buy drugs or some other reason, if there was a CPS response. Public policy in a wealthy country that invests billions of dollars in child protection programs; but leaves 15-20% of American children food insecure and 4% of children living in families whose incomes are $2 a day or less per person, plus food stamps, is seriously deranged.
The Inverse Intervention Law
For the past few years, Bywaters and some of his colleagues have been publishing articles regarding the ‘inverse intervention law’ which the report explains as follows:
“When we compared equally deprived or advantaged neighborhoods in different local authorities, authorities with low overall deprivation scores had higher child welfare intervention rates than authorities with high deprivation scores….Rates (of CPPs) in advantaged authorities were roughly double those in disadvantaged neighborhoods across every quintile of neighborhood deprivation. A child in an
advantaged authority had twice the chance of being on a CPP as a child in a disadvantaged authority once you controlled for neighborhood deprivation.”
A surprising consequence of the "inverse intervention law" in the UK is “that CPP rates for Black and Asian children were substantially lower than for White children, and those identified as having Mixed ethnicity once the population was controlled for neighborhood deprivation.” And “ … in the English West Midlands sample … the CPP rates for White and Mixed heritage children were more than double those for Black children, and more than three times for Asian children.”
Bywaters, et al, speculate that the ‘inverse intervention law’ reflects “a relatively higher level of service provision for a given level of demand” in less disadvantaged local authorities; but there are other possible explanations with implications for the discussion of racial disproportionality in child welfare in the U.S. It’s possible that social norms around parenting are shaped by a neighborhood’s or community’s level of economic deprivation, or that families of different ethnicities have different family cultures and living arrangements among extended family members that affect rates of child maltreatment, e.g., in non-White Hispanic families in the U.S.
There is also another possibility: Low-income families in the UK may have a more positive view of child welfare than similarly poor families in the U.S. Low-income (but not severely poor) families in the UK may frequently seek out child welfare services, whereas low-income families in the U.S. usually fear CPS with its investigative mindset, thin array of concrete poverty related services and
reputation for placing children in foster care.
Bywaters, et al, have yet to adequately account for the "inverse intervention law" though the pattern it describes appears to be robust, something real rather than a quixotic scholarly invention. The application of the ‘inverse intervention law’ to U.S. child welfare system remains uncertain, though there have been a few U.S. studies in recent years that point in the same direction.
Bywaters, P., Bunting, L., Davidson, G., Hanratty, J., Mason, W., McCarten, C. & Steils, N., “”The relationship between poverty, child abuse and neglect: an evidence review,” (2016), Joseph Roundtree Foundation.
Madrick, J., Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty (2020), Alfred A. Knopf, New York City.