Legislative Analyst's Office, January 1996

Child Abuse and Neglect in California
Part I


The abuse and neglect of children is a serious problem in California as well as in the nation as a whole. In 1994, there were over 664,000 reports of child abuse/neglect and about 90,000 children in foster care in California. Between 1987-88 and 1994-95, the number of children served by the Child Welfare Services (CWS) system, after controlling for changes in population, increased 27 percent.

This report presents a variety of information on the subject of child abuse and neglect. It is designed to serve both as a reference document and as a vehicle for stimulating further discussion and policy development on these issues.

Chapter 1 defines child abuse and neglect and describes the child welfare services system. In Chapter 2, we present trends and characteristics regarding child abuse and neglect in California. Chapter 3 provides information on the state's CWS Program. Chapter 4 displays cost data related to child abuse and neglect. Chapter 5 provides data to assess the CWS system. Finally, in Chapter 6 we provide an assessment of the CWS Program and discuss policy implications suggested by the information provided in the preceding chapters.

What Is Child Abuse and Neglect?

Definitions and Types of Child Abuse/Neglect

State law defines child abuse as (1) physical injury inflicted on a child by another person, (2) sexual abuse, or (3) emotional abuse. Child neglect is defined as negligent treatment which threatens the child's health or welfare. The different types of child abuse/neglect can be categorized as follows:

What Happens When There Is a Report of Child Abuse/Neglect?

Once a report of child abuse/neglect has been made, there are various steps that are taken as part of the resolution process. These steps generally involve California's CWS system and the juvenile dependency process.

Child Welfare Services System

The CWS system is run by the county welfare departments, which investigate allegations of child abuse/neglect and provide case management and support services to the children and their families. The state's CWS Program consists of four main components:

Juvenile Dependency Process

Children who are served by the CWS system generally come under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, which may decide that the child should be made a dependent of the court. The juvenile dependency process involves a series of hearings and case reviews and may result in several outcomes such as foster care placement or adoption. County welfare departments may offer services to children and their families without involving the juvenile dependency process when there is a voluntary agreement for such services between the family and the county welfare department.

The chart on the following pages shows the flow of a report of child abuse/neglect through the child welfare system.

What Happens When There Is A Report of Child Abuse/Neglect?

Trends and Characteristics of Child Abuse
And Neglect in California

The state collects information regarding the incidence of child abuse/neglect through reports made by county welfare departments. It is difficult, however, to measure the actual incidence of child abuse/neglect for several reasons. First, the definitions and guidelines used for determining child abuse/neglect are not precise. Second, some people may be reluctant to report child abuse or neglect because they do not want to become involved. Finally, it may be difficult for government agencies to substantiate a report, even though abuse or neglect has occurred.

In California, the number of child abuse/neglect reports per 1,000 children increased 76 percent between 1985 and 1994. While this suggests that child abuse/neglect has increased significantly, data are not available on the number of reports that were actually substantiated (that is, where it was determined that abuse or neglect had occurred).

Mandated Reporters Account for Over Half The Reports of Abuse/Neglect

January 1993

Who are the Victims and Perpetrators Of Child Abuse/Neglect?

January 1993

Physical or Sexual Abuse Account for Half the Reports of Abuse/Neglect


Reports of Abuse/Neglect Increased Significantly During the Late 1980s

California Has the Highest Rate of Reported
Abuse/Neglect Among the Ten Largest States


Rate of Reported Abuse/Neglect Varies Among Counties


Law Enforcement Involvement In Child Abuse Cases

Most Common Stress Factors In Abusive Households

January 1993

Return to the Table of Contents

Continue to Part II, The Child Welfare Services System Part A

Return to LAO Home Page