Surveillance bias in child maltreatment: A tempest in a teapot

Brett Drake, Melissa Jonson-Reid, Hyunil Kim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Children are believed to be more likely to be reported for maltreatment while they are working with mental health or social service professionals. This “surveillance bias” has been claimed to inflate reporting by fifty percent or more, and has been used to explain why interventions such as home visiting fail to reduce official maltreatment reporting rates. Methods: We use national child abuse reporting data (n = 825,763), supplemented by more detailed regional data from a multi-agency administrative data study (n = 7185). We determine the percentage of all re-reports made uniquely by mental health and social service providers within and across generations, the report sources which could be subject to surveillance bias. Results: At three years after the initial Child protective services (CPS) report, the total percentage of national reports uniquely made by mental health or social service providers is less than 10%, making it impossible that surveillance bias could massively inflate CPS reporting in this sample. Analysis of national data find evidence of a very small (+4.54%) initial surveillance bias “bump” among served cases which decays to +1.84% within three years. Our analysis of regional data showed similar or weaker effects. Conclusions: Surveillance bias effects appear to exist, but are very small.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number971
JournalInternational journal of environmental research and public health
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Child maltreatment
  • Nurse home visiting
  • Surveillance bias
  • Visibility bias

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pollution
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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