Working Together: Multidisciplinary Team Responses to Child Abuse & Neglect Investigations

Julia Dmitrieva & Anne P. DePrince

Child abuse and neglect investigations can span multiple systems, from child welfare and health to criminal justice. Given the complexity of such multi-system responses, practitioners and policy makers have called for personnel from different systems to coordinate their investigations and responses to families through multidisciplinary teams (MDTs).

Unfortunately, little research is available to guide policy and practice for communities considering MDT responses to child abuse and neglect allegations. Available research has tended to focus on child advocacy center responses (e.g., Brink et al., 2015). We set out to address this research gap by testing the impact of a MDT on case outcomes following child abuse and neglect allegations.

Here’s what we learned.

In a single urban county, we worked with government partners to analyze de-identified administrative data on child abuse and neglect referrals from January 2017 to September 2018. From the administrative data, we identified 1,237 cases that involved a MDT in the investigation, including child welfare workers, police, and forensic medical providers. We then identified 1,237 cases that did not involve the MDT, but were matched to the MDT cases in terms of the referral allegation (for example, physical abuse) and referral source (for example, whether the referral came from a mandated reporter).

When we compared case outcomes and the investigations, several important differences stood out. Relative to the control cases, MDT cases

  • Were 3 times more likely to result in substantiated allegations.
  • Took on average 1.72 days longer to investigate than control cases.
  • Had more documented contacts during the investigation. The differences were especially striking for face-to-face contacts, suggesting that multidisciplinary teams have more opportunities to engage with families.
  • Resulted in more out-of-home placements in the first 90 days after the referral allegation.

This research suggests that professionals working within a MDT to respond to child abuse and neglect allegations do their work differently than those working independently. The investigations involve more contacts and take longer, perhaps reflecting the time required for additional coordination and sharing of information. With higher rates of substantiation and more face-to-face contacts, opportunities expand for MDTs to turn their attention, then, to supporting child victims and their families in healing and safety.

These results are in line with other research from the Traumatic Stress Studies GroupTraumatic Stress Studies Group. For example, past research shows that multidisciplinary, coordinated responses to different forms of abuse and violence are linked with how providers do their work and case outcomes (e.g., DePrince, Belknap, Labus, Buckingham & Gover, 2012; DePrince, Labus, Belknap, Buckingham & Gover, 2012; DePrince, Wright, Gagnon & Labus, in press; Olomi, DePrince, & Gagnon, in press).

Taken together, the current findings and past research point to the importance of MDTs in responding to violence and abuse. Communities should consider investing in the infrastructure and resources, including time, that allow professionals working from different systems to coordinate child abuse and neglect investigations through a MDT.

 

Acknowledgements:

This research was supported by the Colorado Evaluation and Action Lab of the University of Denver. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Colorado Lab or the University of Denver. Thank you to our government partners as well as graduate student researchers, especially Maria-Ernestina Christl, Julie Olomi, Adi Rosenthal, and Naomi Wright; research assistants, especially Margaret Port, Francesca Dino, Hannah Branit, Avery Stackle, Madison Hakey, Sandra Dominguez, Veronique Calmels, and Halley Pradell; and Kristin Klopfenstein.

Reference:

Brink, F. W., Thackeray, J. D., Bridge, J. A., Letson, M. M., & Scribano, P. V. (2015). Child advocacy center multidisciplinary team decision and its association to child protective services outcomes. Child Abuse & Neglect46, 174-181.