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Washington State Institute for Public Policy
May 2011
In 2008, an Institute study found that American Indian, Black, and Latino children were more likely to have referrals to Washington’s Child Protective Services (CPS) than White children. Following referrals to CPS, American Indian and Black children (but not Asian or Latino children) were more likely to be placed and remain in foster care significantly longer than White children. In 2009, the Washington State Legislature directed the Institute to examine whether DSHS’s recent adoption of the Structured Decision Making (SDM) risk assessment tool affected racial disproportionality in the foster care system. SDM is used as part of CPS investigations to classify families on their risk of further child maltreatment.

Our analysis took advantage of the fact that DSHS began using SDM statewide in October 2007. We compare rates of placement and re-referral to CPS for children with referrals in 2008 to children with referrals before SDM was implemented.

Disproportionality after CPS referral varied markedly from year to year for Black children. Some of the variation can be explained by annual differences in rates of referral. However, analyses that controlled for referral rates still revealed year-to-year differences in rates of out-of-home placement for Black children. We are unable to explain these yearly fluctuations.

When our analysis combined children of all races, we observed no effect of SDM on out-of-home placements or new referrals to CPS. We also analyzed outcomes for each race separately. For White, American Indian, Asian, and Latino children, we found no effect of SDM on placements or new CPS referrals. For Black children—but not for any other race/ethnicity—we observed a significant increase in the rate of out-of-home placements in 2008. We cannot be certain that the SDM risk assessment was the cause of the differences in 2008; differences may also be the product of the largely unexplained year-to-year fluctuations in disproportionality for Black children.

As implemented in Washington State, the SDM risk assessment did not reduce disproportionality after CPS referral for either Black or American Indian children.
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