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By: David Lee Sexton, Jr., MS & Bari Sobelson

Pixabay[Kid by Madalinlonut on October 20, 2015, CC0]

Slack, Holl, McDaniel, Yoo, and Bolger (2004) provide extensive evidence documenting the relationship between poverty and child maltreatment, indicating the existence of a negative relationship between income and multiple forms of child abuse and neglect. This means that as the household level of income decreases, instances of child abuse and neglect are statistically more likely to occur. This is a startling revelation which suggests that children in low socioeconomic status families may be more susceptible to child maltreatment.

However, it is more alarming to note that the existence of a relationship between poverty and child maltreatment is about the extent of what is known. Slack et al. (2004) point out that a virtually endless number of outside variables could affect this relationship. For example, it is unknown which aspects of poverty are responsible for this relationship. To address this issue, Slack et al. (2004) combined survey research and child maltreatment data to examine the roles poverty and parenting characteristics might play in this relationship. They found support for the assumption that certain factors within these variables were more responsible for the relationship between poverty and child maltreatment. However, it is perhaps most interesting to note that this study indicates that reports of child neglect to Child Protective Services (CPS) were NOT significantly correlated with household income range or material hardships. This finding represents a foundation for families struggling economically to stand on, as it suggests that economic hardship alone will not lead to negative outcomes for their children.

More recently, Cancian, Slack, and Yang (2010) found that families who received greater amounts of governmental child support payments experienced fewer investigations from the child welfare system related to child maltreatment. Also, when accounting for poverty, mothers with larger families and younger children- factors that likely increase the difficulty of the parenting process- were more likely to become involved with the child welfare system. Finally, mothers who did not earn a high school diploma were also more likely to become involved. This reiterates the idea that other factors, such as education and family size, may play a role in the relationship between poverty and child maltreatment.

So, what does this mean for us as service providers? What can we do differently within our practice? Slack (2017) acknowledges that the central focus of child maltreatment prevention programs is parenting. This focus includes the use of interventions such as parent support groups, parenting classes, parent-child attachment therapies, home visiting, play groups, and respite programs. But, what if the parenting focus just isn’t enough? It is important to consider Slack’s suggestion that “parenting interventions may not work if economic context is in chaos”. Taking this into consideration, it would be beneficial to “inventory economic hardships during [the] service assessment phase (in CPS as well as in prevention programs)”. By acknowledging, listening, considering, probing, and understanding through assessments, service providers can gain a clearer path of intervention for families. Additionally, service providers can infuse the social-ecological framework by emphasizing more than just parenting strategies in prevention efforts.

Slack (2017) believes that through work towards changing policies, practices, and societal beliefs on community responsibility in preventing maltreatment, among other things, can lead us down a road of hope towards addressing poverty in child maltreatment prevention.


Cancian, M., Slack, K. S., & Yang, M. Y. (2010). The effect of family income on child maltreatment. Institute for Research on Poverty, Discussion Paper No. 1385-10.

Slack, K. (2017). Addressing the Connection Between Poverty and Child Neglect [1-29].

Slack, S.S., Holl, J.L., McDaniel, M., Yoo, J., & Bolger, K. (2004). Understanding the Risks of Child Neglect: An Exploration of Poverty and Parenting Characteristics. Child Maltreatment. 9 (4), 395-408. doi:10.1177/1077559504269193

This blog was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT and David Lee Sexton, Jr, members of the OneOp Family Development Team. The Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about OneOp Family Development team on our websiteFacebookand Twitter.