Discrimination In Multi-Phase Systems: Evidence From Child Protection


Large racial disparities have been documented in many high-stakes settings—such as employment, healthcare, housing, and criminal justice—raising concerns of discrimination by individual decision-makers. At the same time, there is growing understanding that a focus on individual decisions can yield an incomplete view of discrimination. An extensive theoretical literature shows how discrimination can arise and compound across multiple decision-makers within interconnected systems (e.g., Loury, 1976; Pincus, 1996; Powell, 2008; Small and Pager, 2020). From this “systems-based” perspective, an analysis of individual discrimination by, for example, bail judges, may understate the true level of inequity in pretrial release decisions by failing to account for previous discrimination by police officers. Broader analyses of how discrimination arises and perpetuates across such multi-phase systems may be necessary to understand and form appropriate policy responses.

Measuring discrimination in multi-phase systems is challenging for several reasons, however. Raw disparities may either overstate or understate true levels of discrimination because of omitted variables bias (OVB), while conventional regression adjustment may add included variables bias (IVB) by controlling for channels of discrimination. Datasets linking multiple phases are often unavailable and may not include the kinds of exogenous variation that can help address such biases (e.g., Arnold, Dobbie, and Hull, 2022). Interpreting and integrating findings of discrimination across systems may also require new analytic tools (Bohren, Hull, and Imas, 2022).


The CPS system aims to protect children from maltreatment in their home environment. Figure I summarizes the process in Michigan and most states. CPS involvement begins when a call is made to the state’s central hotline to report suspected child abuse (e.g., bruises or burns) or neglect (e.g., improper supervision due to parental substance abuse). Anyone can make a report to the hotline, though the most common reporters are educators and law enforcement personnel (Benson, Fitzpatrick, and Bondurant, 2022).

Calls to the Michigan CPS hotline are answered by screeners in two central offices—one in Grand Rapids and one in Detroit—which share a hotline number. Calls typically last about 15 minutes. Screeners have substantial discretion in whether to screen-in a call, though they follow general guidelines in screening-out calls that do not conform with state law and guidance from Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). Screeners are instructed to screen-in calls to minimize the likelihood of subsequent maltreatment if the call is screened-out.7 Screeners play no other role in the process. Screened-in calls (roughly 60% of all calls) are sent to the alleged victim’s local child welfare office for formal investigation. A screened-out call concludes MDHHS involvement. Screeners do not systematically learn the eventual outcome of a given investigation or screened-out call.

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