The Standard of Proof in the Substantiation of Child Abuse and Neglect

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We measure the extent to which requiring a high standard of proof for substantiation of child abuse or neglect by child protection agencies actually influences the disposition of a report of abuse or neglect. Using data on nearly 8 million reports from fiscal 2000–2012, we show that a high standard is associated with lower rates of substantiation and that an increase in the standard decreases the probability of substantiation by up to 14 percent. After a change to a high standard, children may be less likely to be placed in foster care, and children and families are more likely to receive other types of services. Increases in the standard seem to be driven by perceptions of the costs of Type 1 error—that is, substantiating a report when no abuse occurred. Indeed, states’ decisions to increase the standard are strongly correlated with fatalities in foster care and the size of the foster care system, suggesting that public concern about Type 1 error leading to overly invasive child protection agency action can spur a shift in the standard of proof.


© 2017 Cornell Law School and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

First published: 25 April 2017