Neighborhood racial & ethnic diversity as a predictor of child welfare system involvement

Sacha Klein, Darcey H. Merritt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Using U.S. Census and child maltreatment report data for 2052 Census tracts in Los Angeles County, California, this study uses spatial regression techniques to explore the relationship between neighborhood social disorganization and maltreatment referral rates for Black, Hispanic and White children. Particular attention is paid to the racial-ethnic diversity (or 'heterogeneity') of neighborhood residents as a risk factor for child welfare system involvement, as social disorganization theory suggests that cultural differences and racism may decrease neighbors' social cohesion and capacity to enforce norms regarding acceptable parenting and this may, in turn, increase neighborhood rates of child maltreatment. Results from this study indicate that racial-ethnic diversity is a risk factor for child welfare involvement for all three groups of children studied, even after controlling for other indicators of social disorganization. Black, Hispanic and White children living in diverse neighborhoods are significantly more likely to be reported to Child Protective Services than children of the same race/ethnicity living in more homogeneous neighborhoods. However, the relationships between child welfare system involvement and the other indicators of social disorganization measured, specifically impoverishment, immigrant concentration child care burden, residential instability, and housing stress, varied considerably between Black, Hispanic and White children. For Black children, only housing stress predicted child maltreatment referral rates; whereas, neighborhood impoverishment, residential instability, and child care burden also predicted higher child maltreatment referral rates for Hispanic and White children. Immigrant concentration was unrelated to maltreatment referral rates for Black and Hispanic children, and predicted lower maltreatment referral rates for White children. Taken together, these findings suggest that racial-ethnic diversity may be one of the more reliable neighborhood-level demographic indicators of child welfare risk across different racial/ethnic groups of children. However, many of the other neighborhood characteristics that influence child maltreatment referrals differ for Black, Hispanic and White children. Consequently, neighborhood-based family support initiatives should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to child abuse prevention and strategically consider the racial/ethnic make-up of targeted communities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)95-105
Number of pages11
JournalChildren and Youth Services Review
StatePublished - Jun 2014


  • Child maltreatment
  • Diversity
  • Ecological models
  • Neighborhoods
  • Race
  • Spatial analysis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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