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2001 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 6, No. 2
May 2001

Addressing the Overrepresentation of African Americans in the Child Welfare System

Of the nearly 11,000 children in out-of-home care in North Carolina, almost half are African American, although blacks make up approximately 27% of the population 19-and-under across the state. On average, black children stay in the system over five months longer than whites (Jackson, 2001). If a child's plan is adoption, African-Americans tend to wait longer for an adoptive home.

This problem did not crop up over night—it has been with us for more than 20 years. It cannot be fixed over night. Yet reason and the experience of practitioners and researchers passionate about meeting the needs of black children and families tell us that there are areas where we can address this problem. Three important ones are: enhancing our ability to join with black families, improving our delivery of services to them, and recruiting black foster and adoptive parents.

Joining with Black Families

One of the recurring themes among those critical of our child welfare system is the way it assesses families of color. Most child welfare workers in North Carolina are white and middle class. Yet many families referred for abuse and neglect are black and poor. In addition, the parents in these families are often young, unmarried, female, and struggling with issues such as inadequate housing, unsafe neighborhoods, inadequate day care, substance abuse, and unemployment.

From the first knock on the door, the differences between social workers and their clients—let alone the abuse or neglect referral that is the reason for the visit—foster mutual mistrust and understanding. Ignorance and fear of cultural differences can further complicate matters.

Yet social workers are responsible for getting to know these families well enough to assess the safety of their children and provide them with the services they need.

Some workers attempt to bridge this divide with a commitment to treat white families and families of color the same. Although the desire to treat all families fairly is laudable, overlooking a family's race or culture (or the "color blind" approach) may do more harm than good. This approach may lead social workers to inadvertently assume that the values and behaviors of the dominant (white) culture are "right" for everyone. This can lead to misunderstandings about things such as discipline styles or the seriousness of a family's situation (Family Tree, 2001).

The color blind approach may also cause people to assume members of minority cultures who fail to meet the cultural expectations of the dominant group do so because of some cultural deficiency, lack of desire to achieve, or because of pathology. Subtle or unconscious assumptions such as these, in addition to being wrong ("the system" often works only for the most assimilated of the minority group), can distance clients and social workers (Family Tree, 2001). A product of this distance may be an increased likelihood that minority children will be removed from their families.

To effectively join with a family that is culturally or racially different from themselves, social workers need to make a long-term commitment to learn about that family's culture. To do this, social workers should be prepared to spend extra time with families to learn how they see things and to take extra care not to make assumptions. In addition, social workers should make an effort to place themselves in the context of the African American community outside of work hours. Attending church and community events is a good way to do this.

Another way to gain strength in joining with black families is to seek out the natural leaders in their community. If you do not know who these people are, ask people in your agency or in black neighborhoods. Because they are "gatepersons" for the community, knowing these leaders may prove helpful in overcoming distrust and other barriers between you and black families.

Developing relationships with people who work in family resource centers, community housing projects, city or county recreation departments, or Head Start programs is also a good way to build your understanding of and comfort in your African American community.

Experienced social workers have also emphasized how important it is for all child welfare workers to spend time reflecting on their personal beliefs, values, and life experiences, as these personal factors are sure to influence their work with families. As one social worker put it, "the better you understand your strengths and limitations, the better equipped you are to work effectively with families different from you." The Self-Assessment for Those Who Work with African Americans is one tool social workers can use to guide this kind of self-evaluation.

Taking these steps should help you form relationships and recognize and build on family strengths that will allow you to avoid removing black children from their families and communities needlessly.

Paying Attention to Who Gets Services

North Carolina data finds that whites are roughly twice as likely as blacks to receive either preventive or reunification services (Jackson, 2001). Another study (not in North Carolina) found that in the first three months after placement of their children, white parents had twice as many contacts with the agency as did black parents (Hollingsworth, 1998).

This discrepancy has at least two causes. For their part, African American families may resist involvement with DSS or any other official institution out of distrust. From a historical perspective, there is a sound basis for this distrust. Take, for example, the Tuskegee study (1928-1972), in which U.S. government-sponsored researchers allowed black men suffering from syphillis (some in Pitt County, NC) to go untreated so researchers could study the progress of the disease.

Even if blacks are unaware of abuses such as this, they are aware of the disproportionate numbers in which African Americans are entering our prison and child welfare systems. To counter this distrust, social workers should consider pursuing some of the strategies suggested in the section on joining with black families. The failure to provide services to black families may also be due to shortcomings in child welfare policy or practice. To address this, individuals should scrutinize policies or practices that discourage black families from having contact with their agency or that unfairly exclude them from preventive and reunification services.

Recruiting African American Adoptive Families

To recruit and retain adoptive African American families, policies and procedures must be sensitive to their needs and cultural context. McRoy and Oglesby (1997) suggest agencies make use of what research tells us about the types of families most likely to adopt children with special needs. For example, minority single parents have been found to be very likely to consider adopting children with disabilities and older children [Rodriguez & Meyer, 1990]. Thus, it would be helpful to "encourage prospective single-parent adopters by adapting policies and practices to reflect the characteristics of these applicants."

McRoy and Oglesby also encourage agencies to modify their procedures to screen in, rather than screen out, prospective adopters. They recommend responding quickly to all inquiries and adjusting office hours, group meeting times, and procedures for child-specific recruitment to the needs of African American families. An example of changes along this line would be sending out a two-page application in response to phone inquiries, rather than a longer application and supporting forms, and then to follow up soon after with a call to the prospective parent.


Child Welfare Watch. (1998, Spring/Summer). Introduction: The race factor in child welfare, Child Welfare Watch, 3. <>

Denby, R. & Alford, K. (1996). Understanding African American discipline styles: Suggestions for effective social work intervention. Journal of Multicultural Social Work, 4, 81-98.

Family Tree. (2001, March 29). Transracial adoption: Adopting a child of another race or culture. <>

Hollingsworth, L. D. (1998). Promoting same-race adoption for children of color. Social Work, 43(2), 104-115.

Jackson, D. (2001). Why are so many African-American children languishing in the state's foster care system? Independent Weekly (3-21-01).

McRoy, R. G. & Oglesby, Z. (1997). Achieving same-race adoptive placements for African American children: Culturally sensitive practice approaches. Child Welfare, 76(1), 85.