Purpose: This study tests the relationship between individual child-level and community characteristics on the decision to place children in foster care. Research shows links between community context and child maltreatment rates. In particular, reports of maltreatment are positively associated with community level measures of economic impoverishment, childcare burden, residential instability, and crime (Coulton, 1995). There is, however, a dearth of research examining the potential relationship of these community characteristics with the child welfare system's response to maltreatment. This study examines the association of community characteristics, individual level factors, in particular race, and the decision to place children in foster care.
Method: Using child welfare administrative data, county level Census, and state police data, we analyzed the decision to place children in foster care following a maltreatment investigation (n=294,525) during a three-year period. A logistic multi-level model was used to examine the relationship between individual characteristics (level-one), and county characteristics (level-two), on the likelihood that children would enter foster care following maltreatment investigations. Level-one predictors included type of alleged maltreatment, age, gender, and race of investigated children. Level-two predictors included measures of economic impoverishment, child-care burden, residential instability, and arrest data for 102 counties in Illinois. We modeled the effect of level-one variables as conditioned by the effect of level-two variables. The best fitting model was determined using backward step-wise procedures in which level-one and two predictors were removed based on p-values and comparison of AIC scores for each model.
Results: Results show that the decision to place children in foster care is associated with the interaction of county level characteristics and individual factors, including race and type of alleged maltreatment. After adjusting for all covariates, the main effect for African American (compared to White) was not statistically significant. There was, however, a significant and positive (OR=3.99; CI=1.42, 8.12) cross-level interaction between increased levels of county-level economic disparity and the decision to place African American children in foster care. Similarly, although allegations of physical abuse were no more likely to result in placement than allegations of neglect, there were significant cross-level interactions with measures of impoverishment. In particular, as county rates of unemployment (OR=0.89; CI=0.81, 0.98), percent of African Americans in the county (OR=0.21; CI=0.05, 0.88), and levels of economic disparity (OR=.24; CI=0.07, 0.84) increased, physical abuse allegations were less likely to result in removal, compared to allegations of neglect.
Implications: Results suggest that the decision to place children in foster care may in part be influenced by community economic and racial factors in addition to children's race and the allegation type. In particular, African American children living in communities with greater economic disparities are more likely to enter foster care after a maltreatment investigation and children living in communities with greater economic disparities, higher percentages of African Americans, and higher rates of unemployment are more likely to enter foster care following allegations of neglect. These findings extend and refine our understanding of how community characteristics, specifically economic impoverishment, contribute to disparate rates of African American children in foster care.