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2001 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 6, No. 2
May 2001

Overrepresentation May Not Be The Problem Many Believe It Is

Conventional wisdom says that the fact that African American children are disproportionately represented in foster care is a problem, an indication that the child welfare system isn't working fairly or well.

Richard Barth and his colleagues challenge this way of thinking. After a thorough review of the literature related to this issue, they propose an explanation of the overrepresentation of black children in foster care that does not place much blame on the child welfare system itself. Instead, they attribute this phenomenon to a combination of factors, including substantially greater risks of child abuse and neglect for African American children; a higher incidence of abuse and neglect among African Americans (despite some mediating factors); substance abuse, incarceration, and higher mortality rates for African American parents; small differences in the way black children are treated in child welfare's decision making process; and substantial differences in the likelihood that African American children will experience long stays in foster care. (This last factor may be partially attributable to more African American children living with relatives, which is often considered to be a culturally-responsive placement).

As children are exposed to each of these factors, the number entering the system grows. The result is disproportionate representation of African American children in the child welfare system.

Barth and colleagues also find no evidence that would lead them to think this disproportionality is not, generally, in the best interests of the children served. To support this conclusion they point to studies that show that black children benefit significantly from receiving child welfare services (i.e., reduced mortality and incarceration rates and increased access to services). Disproportionality would be a problem, they say, if the system was not providing children with what they need to be safe. But it is.

Though the conclusions Barth and colleagues have reached are not shared by everyone working in child welfare, we should consider them for two reasons. First, because they weigh scientific evidence from hundreds of studies, these researchers gain a perspective on this issue that is not available to those of us confronting it on a case-by-case, family-by-family basis. Second, based on this same objective evaluation, they tell us something people in child welfare don't hear very often: we're doing the right thing. Regardless of the race or culture of our clients, the services we provide are needed, and they do make a positive difference in the lives of children.

Source: Barth, R. P., Miller, J. M., Green, R. L., & Baumgartner, J. N. (2000). Children of color in the child welfare system: Toward explaining their disproportionate involvement in comparison to their numbers in the general population. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC, School of Social Work, Jordan Institute for Families (unpublished report).