Infants in the child welfare system: Epidemiology and development
Infants are placed in foster care at a higher rate than children of all other ages. Nationally, infants make up approximately 22% of children entering foster care and, once in care, stay in care longer than older children. Given infants’ sizeable representation in the system, they warrant particular attention as child welfare agencies develop and implement policies and practices.
This post summarizes a presentation recently delivered by Fred Wulczyn and Zach Martinez at Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child. The presentation describes from a risk perspective how infants represent a unique sub-population of children involved in the child welfare system. By bringing infants’ particular characteristics and experiences to the fore—e.g., the circumstances under which they come into contact with the child welfare system, their specific risk factors, and their trajectories toward permanency—the findings provide valuable information that can guide state efforts to improve infant well-being.
To view the presentation slides, click here.
Using data from the DHHS Child Maltreatment Report, The Center for State Child Welfare Data’s Multistate Foster Care Data Archive, and the National Study of Child and Adolescent Well-being (NSCAW), the presentation lays out characteristics of infants who come into contact with the child welfare system, and describes patterns in their experiences in child protection and foster care services. It also presents analysis of how specific events (i.e., foster care placement and adoption) influence dimensions of infant development.
Investigation and substantiation of infant maltreatment
- In 2012, 21.9 per 1,000 infants under the age of 1 were victims of maltreatment. The rate of victimization for children age 1 through 17 ranged between 3.6 and 11.9 per 1,000 children.
- African Americans make up a larger proportion of infants investigated for maltreatment than they do of the investigation population in general. The same is true for the representation of African Americans in the population of infants with substantiated allegations of maltreatment.
- Infants are more likely than older children to have a substantiated investigation based on an allegation of parental substance abuse.
Placement in foster care
- After a substantiated allegation of maltreatment, infants are nearly three times more likely than teenagers to be placed in foster care.
- Infants are placed in foster care at a higher rate than children of all other ages.
- Infants placed in foster care are more likely than older children to have a first placement of non-kinship foster care or “other care” (e.g., emergency or hospital); infants are less likely than older children to have a first placement of congregate care or kinship care.
Length of stay in foster care and exit type
- Children entering foster care under the age of 1 stay in care longer than children entering at older ages. Children placed at age 1 month or younger stay in care longer than all other children.
- Longer length of stay for infants is due in part to differences in the likelihood of adoption, which generally takes longer to achieve than reunification. Children entering care under the age of 1 month are the most likely to exit to adoption, followed by children entering care between ages of 1 month and 1 year, followed by older children.
- In general, infants are adopted faster than older children and reunify slower than older children. However, rates of infant adoption and reunification vary by state.
Infant risk factors
- When compared to the entire birth population, infants placed in foster care are more likely to be born to mothers under the age of 25.
- When compared to the entire birth population, infants placed in foster care are more likely to be born after a less than full term pregnancy and more likely to have low APGAR scores at birth, low birth weight, teen mothers, mothers who smoke, and mothers who had late or no prenatal care.
Infant cognitive development
- Children in the infant subsample of NSCAW I were assessed for their language development using the PLS instrument (Preschool Language Scores) at five times between the ages of 6 months and 5 years. Some children spent that entire period in their own homes, some spent the entire period in foster care, and some were adopted at various points.
- Between Wave 1 and Wave 5, all children’s PLS scores dipped then rebounded.
- Children who remained in their homes the entire time had the highest PLS scores at Wave 1; however, by Wave 5, their PLS scores were lower than all children except for those who spent the entire period in foster care.
- Children who were adopted at Wave 5 had the lowest PLS scores at Wave 1 but were among the highest scorers at Wave 5.
- HOME scores for these children show that children who spent the entire study period at home generally had less stimulating and less emotionally supportive home environments than children in all other living arrangements.