Multidisciplinary child protection decision making about physical abuse: Determining substantiation thresholds and biases

Jason F. Jent, Cyd K. Eaton, Lauren Knickerbocker, Walter Lambert, Melissa T. Merrick, Susan K. Dandes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


The current study examined the threshold at which multidisciplinary child protection team (CPT) professionals substantiate physical abuse allegations and the extent that they utilize potentially biased constructs in their decision making when presented with the same case evidence. State legal definitions of child maltreatment are broad. Therefore, the burden of interpretation is largely on CPT professionals who must determine at what threshold physical acts by parents surpass corporal discipline and constitute child physical abuse. Biased or subjective decisions may be made if certain case-specific characteristics or CPT professionals' personal characteristics are used in making physical abuse determinations. Case vignettes with visual depictions of inflicted injuries were sent to CPT professionals in Florida and their substantiation decisions, personal beliefs about corporal discipline, and coercive discipline were collected. Results of the study demonstrated relatively high agreement among professionals across vignettes about what constitutes physical abuse. Further, CPT professionals strongly considered their perceptions of the severity of inflicted injuries in substantiation decisions. Although case specific characteristics did not bias decisions in a systematic way, some CPT professional characteristics influenced the substantiation of physical abuse. Practice implications and future directions of research are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1673-1682
Number of pages10
JournalChildren and Youth Services Review
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2011


  • Bias
  • Decision making
  • Multidisciplinary child protection assessment
  • Physical abuse
  • Substantiation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Education
  • Sociology and Political Science


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