Using capture-recapture methods to better ascertain the incidence of fatal child maltreatment

Child Abuse Negl. 2010 Jun;34(6):396-402. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2009.11.002. Epub 2010 Apr 18.


Objectives: To (1) test the use of capture-recapture methods to estimate the total number of child maltreatment deaths in a single state using information from death certificates, child welfare reports, child death review teams, and uniform crime reports; and to (2) compare these estimates to the number of maltreatment deaths identified through an in-depth "gold standard" review.

Methods: Child maltreatment deaths were identified in four existing administrative data sources: (1) death reports in our state vital statistics (DC); (2) child death review team reports (CDR); (3) homicide reports filed by our state police agency as uniform crime report (UCR) supplements for the FBI; and (4) abstracted reports of a minor's death from our state child protective services (CPS) agency. Capture-recapture pair-wise and pooled comparisons were then applied to estimate the numbers of abuse and total maltreatment deaths and were compared to the number of cases identified by independent case review.

Results: There were a total of 194 child maltreatment deaths in Michigan during 2000-2001 with 66 due to physical abuse. Capture-recapture analysis estimated the mean number of total child maltreatment deaths as 101.02 (95%CI=92.52, 109.53), with abuse deaths of 64.55 (60.85, 68.25). Most pair-wise and pooled comparisons worked equally well for abuse deaths, but estimates for total child maltreatment deaths were low.

Conclusions: Capture-recapture methods applied to existing administrative datasets produced accurate estimates of child abuse deaths but were not useful in producing reliable estimates of total child maltreatment deaths due to undercounting neglect-related deaths in all existing administrative data sets. The underlying assumptions for capture-recapture methods were not met for neglect deaths. Local and/or state teams conducting ongoing intensive case review may yet remain the best way to identify the total number of child maltreatment deaths.

Practice implications: Capture-recapture methods allow for more accurate estimation of the true number of child physical abuse deaths than does using single existing sources of child fatality information, but deaths from causes other than abuse are undercounted. Child maltreatment fatality surveillance requires a systematic process and standard criteria for identifying cases of maltreatment, particularly neglect-related child deaths.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / classification
  • Child Abuse / mortality*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Death Certificates
  • Epidemiologic Methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • International Classification of Diseases
  • Male
  • Medical Records
  • Michigan / epidemiology