Prevalence and context of firearms-related problems in child protective service investigations

Sokol, R.L., Victor, B. G., Piellusch, E. K., Nielsen, S. B., Ryan, J. P., & Perron, B. E. (2020). Prevalence and context of firearms-related problems in child protective service investigationsChild abuse & neglect107, 104572.


Background: Despite the significance of firearm safety, we need additional data to understand the prevalence and context surrounding firearm-related problems within the child welfare system.

Objective: Estimate proportion of cases reporting a firearm-related problem during case initiation and the contexts in which these problems exist.

Sample and setting: 75,809 caseworker-written investigation summaries that represented all substantiated referrals of maltreatment in Michigan from 2015 to 2017.

Methods: We developed an expert dictionary of firearm-related terms to search investigation summaries. We retrieved summaries that contained any of the terms to confirm whether a firearm was present (construct accurate) and whether it posed a threat to the child. Finally, we coded summaries that contained firearm-related problems to identify contexts in which problems exist.

Results: Of the 75,809 substantiated cases, the dictionary flagged 2397 cases that used a firearm term (3.2 %), with a construct accuracy rate of 96 %. Among construct accurate cases, 79 % contained a firearm-related problem. The most common intent for a firearm-related problem was violence against a person (45 %). The co-occurrence of domestic violence and/or substance use with a firearm-related problem was high (41 % and 48 %, respectively). 49 % of summaries that contained a firearm-related problem did not provide information regarding storage.

Conclusion: When caseworkers document a firearm within investigative summaries, a firearm-related risk to the child likely exists. Improved documentation of firearms and storage practices among investigated families may better identify families needing firearm-related services.

Keywords: Child protective services; Child welfare; Firearms; Text data.