Relationship Between Entry Into Child Welfare and Mental Health Service Use

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ObjectiveThis study examined the relationship between initiation of outpatient mental health service use and level of child welfare involvement.MethodsThree levels of child welfare involvement were examined: in-home care and no child welfare services beyond an initial investigation, in-home care and additional child welfare services, and placement in out-of-home care (foster care). Longitudinal data were collected for a subsample of children (N=3,592) aged two through 14 years who were enrolled in the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being, a nationally representative sample of children undergoing investigation for abuse or neglect. Event history analysis was used to model relative risk of initiation of mental health service use over time.ResultsHazard functions revealed a large increase in onset of mental health services immediately after the time of the initial contact with child welfare, varying by level of child welfare involvement and leveling off by three months after the initial contact. The multivariate Cox proportional-hazards model indicated that compared with children who were placed in out-of-home care, those in in-home care who did not receive any further child welfare services were about one-third as likely to use mental health services and those in in-home care who received additional child welfare services were one-half as likely to use mental health services. Other covariates in the model predicted mental health service use, including being older, being Caucasian, having a history of maltreatment (specifically, physical abuse, physical neglect, or abandonment), being uninsured, and need for mental health services, as measured by the Child Behavior Checklist.ConclusionsContact with child welfare functions as a gateway into mental health services for children in child welfare, even when need for such services is controlled for.

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