Ethno-racial Categories and Child Welfare Decisions: Exploring the Relationship with Poverty

Kofi Antwi-Boasiako, Bryn King, Tara Black, Barbara Fallon, Nico Trocmé & Deborah Goodman


The Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect, 2013 (OIS-2013)1 is the fifth provincial study to examine the incidence of reported child maltreatment and the characteristics of children and families investigated by child welfare authorities in Ontario. In addition to collecting information about short term dispositions, information about the type of maltreatment allegation, ethno-racial status of the child, the functioning the caregiver(s) and household related risk factors is also documented by the worker. This information sheet examines the relationship of poverty and ethno-racial status to the decision to transfer an investigation to ongoing services and the decision to place a child in out-of-home care at the conclusion of a maltreatment-related investigation. The analyses presented in this information sheet were prepared by the authors with funding from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Connection Grant.

A recent analysis2 using data from the OIS-2013 and Census 2011 examined ethno-racial disparities in investigations and decision-making in Ontario. The findings indicate that compared to White children, Aboriginal children were more than twice as likely to be investigated, 41% more likely to be transferred to ongoing child welfare services, and 2.7 times as likely to be placed in out of home care. Compared to White children, Black children were 39% more likely to be investigated, 8% more likely to be transferred to ongoing services and 13% more likely to be placed in out of home care.

Income inequality and child poverty rates have been found to be positively and significantly correlated with child maltreatment rates.3 The relationship between race and poverty is complex. In one study conducted in the United States, the evidence of racial disparity with respect to child

  • Fallon, B., Van Wert, M., Trocmé, N., MacLaurin, B., Sinha, V., Lefebvre, R., et al. (2015). Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect-2013 (OIS-2013). Toronto, ON: Child Welfare Research Portal.
  • Fallon, B., Black, T., Van Wert, M., King, B., Filippelli, J., Lee, B., & Moody, B. (2016). Child maltreatment-related service decisions by ethno-racial categories in Ontario in 2013. CWRP Information Sheet #176E. Toronto, ON: Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal.
  • Eckenrode, J., Smith, E. G., McCarthy, M. E., & Dineen, M. (2014). Income inequality and child maltreatment in the United States. Pediatrics, 133(3), 454-461. doi maltreatment between Black and White children was not significant after accounting for poverty.4 In Canada, Black and White disparities in child welfare involvement are understudied, but research in the U.S. has documented that socio-demographic conditions, including and especially poverty, are significant drivers of racial differences in investigative child welfare decision-making.5 There is evidence that the disproportional representation of Black children in the U.S. child welfare system may be due in part to the fact that Black children are more likely to be poor.67

There is a significant amount of literature documenting the impact of poverty on Aboriginal children in Canada. The child poverty rate for all children in Canada is 17% compared to 40% for Aboriginal children.8 The increases in child welfare placements for Aboriginal children can be attributed to systemic disadvantages in Aboriginal communities and the under-funding of First Nations child welfare services. Aboriginal children are in child welfare placements because their families are at greater risk due to social exclusion, poverty and poor housing.8


The OIS-2013 used a multi-stage sampling design to select a representative sample of 17 child welfare agencies in Ontario and then to select a sample of cases within these agencies. Information was collected directly from child protection workers on a representative sample of 4,961 child protection investigations conducted during the fall of 2013. This sample was weighted to reflect provincial annual estimates. After two weighting procedures were applied to the data, the estimated number of maltreatment-related investigations (i.e., maltreatment and risk-only investigations) conducted in Ontario in 2013 was 118,011 maltreatment related investigations involving children 14 years of age and under.

Workers were asked to provide information about the child’s ethno-racial category. Bivariate analyses were conducted to explore the relationship between children’s ethno-racial categories, the decision to provide ongoing child welfare services, placement into out of home care, at least one caregiver risk factor (e.g., alcohol or drug abuse, mental health issues, few social supports), and proxy measures for poverty (i.e., household runs out of money for housing, food, and/or utilities in the last six months). An exploratory binary logistic regression was performed to

  • Drake,B., Lee, S. M., & Jonson-Reid, M. (2009). Race and child maltreatment reporting: Are blacks overrepresented? Child & Youth Services Review, 31, 309-316.
  • Putnam-Hornstein, E., Needell, B., King, B., & Johnson-Motoyama, M. (2013). Racial and ethnic disparities: A population-based examination of risk factors for involvement with child protective services. Child Abuse & Neglect, 37(1), 33–46.
  • Fluke, J., Harden, B. J., Jenkins, M., & Ruehrdanz, A. (2010). Research synthesis on child welfare: Disproportionality and disparities. Washington, DC: The center for the study of social policy and the Annie E. Casey Foundation on behalf of the Alliance for Racial Equality in Child Welfare.
  • Pelton, L. (2015). The continuing role of material factors in child maltreatment and placement. Child Abuse & Neglect, 41, 30-39.
  • Brittain, M. & Blackstock, C. (2015). First Nations child poverty: A literature review and analysis. First Nations

Children’s Action Research and Education Service (FNCARES). Retrieved June 21, 2016 from

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