Risk of child maltreatment varies dramatically across age and ZIP codes, according to new analysis

There is no single factor that is predictive of child maltreatment risk in a community, according to new analyses and searchable maps from researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler and The University of Texas System.

There are many factors that are associated with community-level maltreatment risk, including child and family poverty, crime, enrollment in school, health behaviors, and child safety.

The research draws on data from five different sources to build a stronger understanding of the factors that contribute to a community’s child maltreatment risk. This research, which focuses on community-level risk and not on the risk-level or identification of individuals, shows that risk varies dramatically across the state and that the factors contributing to that risk vary as well.

The goal of the project, which is funded by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) and Casey Family Programs, is to assist state and local agencies in more effectively allocating resources and providing support to communities to prevent child maltreatment by helping families before they are in crisis.

“Prevention of maltreatment in Texas will take coordinated efforts between many community-level groups,” said David Lakey, MD, Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and Chief Medical Officer for UT System. “Achieving that level of coordination first requires an agreed upon understanding of the problem. These analyses and maps represent the first step toward understanding the scope and geographic distribution of child maltreatment risk.”

Across communities the importance of risk and resilience factors differs widely. For example, ZIP Code 75474 outside of Dallas and 78239 in San Antonio have the same level of overall child maltreatment risk but different risk profiles. In 75474 this risk is associated with low school enrollment for 18- and 19-year-olds and poor health behaviors in the community. The risk in 78239 is associated with affordability issues and crime.

“The agency’s goal is to prevent child abuse or neglect before it ever happens. With our prevention programs, our goal is to support communities so they have the knowledge and resources necessary to help families thrive,” said Sasha Rasco, Associate Commissioner of Prevention and Early Intervention at DFPS. “To do that effectively, we need to understand the risk factors as well as the drivers of resilience in these communities. That is what this research is intended to support.”

The risk profile also changes based on the child’s age. One of the most significant predictors of risk for infants, for instance, is what the researchers call the “health and disability” factor, which reflects health behaviors in the community. This risk factor is defined by a high percent of women smoking during pregnancy and low rates of infants being breastfed in the hospital. It also includes a relatively high rate of adults between the ages of 35- and 64-years old receiving disability benefits. For the 1- to 4-year-old range, family poverty rates within a community become more of a factor (along with “health and disability” and other factors).

“What this research demonstrates is not just that some communities would particularly benefit from efforts at reducing the risk of child maltreatment, but that within communities there are many potential targets for intervention,” said Dorothy Mandell, PhD, professor of community health at UT Health Science Center at Tyler. “It’s complex, but in that complexity there is reason for a great deal of hope.”

New Contact Info: Daniel Oppenheimer: doppenheimer@utsystem.edu • 512-852-3269 (direct) • 512-745-3353 (cell)