King, B., Fallon, B., Goulden, A., O’Connor, C., & Filippelli, J. (2019). What constitutes risk of future maltreatment among young mothers? An examination of child protection investigations in Ontario, Canada. Families in Society100(4), 409–421.    


Research indicates that young mothers face multiple long-term physical, emotional, social and psychological challenges, consequently increasing their child(ren)’s risk of being investigated for maltreatment by child welfare services (CWS). Studies have found that young mothers are more likely to have increased risk conditions and behaviours, a history of being personally involved with the child welfare system, and are at greater risk of being transferred to ongoing services (especially when caring for infants and struggling with mental health issues). In Ontario’s Child Protection Standards, the idea of risk of harm justifies a social worker’s decision to investigate a child and their family based on the possibility of future maltreatment. Given that child welfare involvement can be quite intrusive and destabilizing, the purpose of this study was to examine how a worker’s risk determination influences subsequent decision making for young mothers and factors (caregiver-, household-, and maltreatment-related) that contribute to the decision made regarding the risk of future maltreatment. 


  • Data was gathered from the 2013 Ontario Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect.  
  • Using a cluster sample design, 17 child welfare agencies in Ontario were selected. Cases investigated for child protection concerns between October 1 and December 31, 2013, were eligible for inclusion.  
  • The final weighted sample included 26, 906 children under the age of 4, who were investigated for child maltreatment. The investigating social worker completed a data collection form about the child and their family’s risk factors, demographic characteristics and the worker’s clinical judgement of determining future risk.  
  • Maternal age, maternal race/ethnicity, caregiver risk factors, prior investigationssocioeconomic status, and family and household composition was analyzed 
  • data was analyzed using descriptive bivariate comparisons and used chi-square tests to determine statistical significance. 

Discussion and Findings  

  • Confirming previous research, young mothers presented with more risk factors for maltreatment and child welfare involvement  
  • Children of young mothers in Ontario were more likely to be considered at risk of future maltreatment, transferred to ongoing child welfare services and be referred to external services 
  • Young mothers struggling with personal mental health issues and few social supports had higher odds of a risk determination  
  • Proportion of those considered at risk of future maltreatment increased at each decision point   


  • information was not independently verified 
  • the investigating worker may not have been aware of key variables at the time of reporting  
  • inability to measure severity of issues 
  • individual worker characteristics were not considered 


  • caregivers who have more risk factors be provided with appropriate and accessible resources that mitigate maltreatment risk.  
  • Referrals to evidence-based interventions should be considered 
  • child welfare organizations should develop better relationships with external service providers