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2001 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol.6, No. 2
May 2001

Understanding the Overrepresentation of African Americans in the Child Welfare System

African American children are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system. Researchers and practitioners have offered many theories as to the causes of this situation. Some focus on poverty. Others see laws and policies as the culprit. Others blame a racist society.

Why are there so many African American children in foster care? Unfortunately there is no short, easy explanation. We still lack the objective information to completely understand the roots of this problem. It is almost certain, however, that each of the following contributes in some way to this serious situation. Though this list is not comprehensive, it is a good place to begin exploring why so many African American children enter and remain in foster care.


Poverty is strongly correlated with reports of abuse and neglect. For example, the National Center for Children in Poverty found in 1990 that "the incidence of child abuse and neglect, as well as the severity of the maltreatment reported, is much greater for children from low-income families than for others." Since a significant number of African Americans live below the poverty line (24% in 1999, according to the US Census), one might see the numbers of black children in foster care simply as a result of poverty.

Yet if poverty is a cause of the high number of child welfare interventions among blacks, one would expect to find poor whites and others disproportionately represented among the child welfare population as well. In his work on this topic Pelton (1994) did find that as a group the poor are overrepresented in child welfare. Indeed, Pelton found that children in families with incomes below $15,000 were five times more likely to be victimized by their parents than those with incomes above that level.

But Courtney and colleagues (1996) found that even among poor families, African Americans were more likely to be reported and substantiated for physical abuse. For example, although more Latino children are born into poverty in New York than black children, as a proportion of the total population, far more black children are placed in foster care (Child Welfare Watch, 1998).

These findings suggest that poverty is not the only factor involved.

Laws and Policies

Others see federal laws and policies as a cause of the disproportionate number of African American children in foster care.

Adoption and Safe Families Act. For example, some believe the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) has done more harm than good for African American families. Intended to reduce the amount of time children spend in foster care, this law contains provisions that allow states to pursue termination of parental rights sooner so that children can be adopted.

One such provision compels states to seek termination of parental rights for any child who has been in foster care 15 of the past 22 months. Some see this provision as unfair to African Americans. "Quite simply," says Thomas D. Morton, president and CEO of the Child Welfare Institute in Atlanta, "the child most likely to have been in care 15 out of the past 22 months is African American" (Kellam, 1999). Jacquelyn Bailey Kidd, of the National Center on Permanency for African American Children, also objects to ASFA's emphasis on one year to permanence. She asks, "What's the rush? This is just creating legal orphans" (Kidd, 2000). Kidd also finds fault with the provision in ASFA requiring criminal records checks of prospective foster or adoptive parents, arguing this has a disproportionately negative affect on African American families, since in general blacks are more likely to have criminal records. In this way, ASFA could possibly be preventing same-race and kinship/foster placements.

But ASFA is too recent to be the primary cause of the racial disparity in foster care; the growth in the numbers of African Americans in care was noticed well before 1997. Lawrence-Webb (1997) argues that the Flemming rule, a policy designed to combat discrimination during the Eisenhower presidency, is one of the major reasons for the current overrepresentation of black children in care.

The Flemming Rule. The Flemming rule was created in response to the tendency of welfare agencies, particularly in the South, to ignore African American children in need. One way the agencies justified this was by citing an "immoral" life-style, which usually meant that the children's father was not living in the home, or was not married to their mother.

To correct this racist practice, the Flemming rule mandated that, rather than ignoring "unsuitable" families, the state had to provide services to all needy families. But in the effort to guarantee blacks access to services, the Flemming rule may have gone too far. Once a family accepted public assistance, "unsuitability" or "immorality" of parents became cause for bringing children into the child welfare system. According to Lawrence-Webb, this rule created "a service system from which [African-Americans] could not withdraw once the neglect label was invoked" (p. 21).

Lawrence-Webb makes a compelling argument. Though the racism found in the 1950's is rare today, agencies continue to pursue neglect charges for what they perceive to be immoral behavior by parents (Lawrence-Webb, 1997). African Americans are incarcerated more often than whites (Genty, 1998), and more likely to live in single-parent homes, two characteristics that are considered by some to be immoral. And the families accepting welfare assistance, who are disproportionately black, remain vulnerable to long legal battles over neglect charges.

MEPA and Amendments to MEPA. Seeing social service agency policies that favored same-race adoption as partly responsible for the overrepresentation of African American children in foster care, federal legislators passed the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA). MEPA barred the practice of "categorically deny[ing] to any person the opportunity to become an adoptive or foster parent solely on the basis of race." In 1996 congress used the "Removal of Barriers to Interethnic Adoption Provision" (IEP) of the Small Business Job Protection Act to further restrict race-based adoption and foster placement. Current law prohibits the denial or delay of adoption or foster placement based on race.

Hollingsworth (1998) criticizes MEPA and IEP as simplistic attempts to reduce the number of black children in foster care through unnecessary transracial adoptions. Rather than promote transracial adoptions, Hollingsworth suggests a more successful strategy would be to increase the numbers of available black foster and adoptive parents, improve the provision of preventive and supportive services to African Americans, expand the definition of permanency further to include kinship care, and improve services to families, especially services that address issues of poverty.

Hollingsworth writes, "The direction of public policies currently is to speed up the transracial adoption of children of color without first correcting the resource deficiencies that cause the children to be in out-of-home care. Such policies ignore the complexities of this situation and risk giving one group (those desiring to adopt young children) an advantage while failing to protect those who are among the most vulnerable (poor children and families)" (p. 112).


Racism is another factor that contributes to the overrepresentation of African American children in the child welfare system in several ways.

Few would dispute that racism exists in society at large, and that the stresses of everyday living are therefore higher for minorities than they are for those who belong to the majority. Conceivably this additional stress could contribute to a higher incidence of child maltreatment among minorities. But if this were the case, we would see overrepresentation in the child welfare system of all minority groups, and we do not.

Much more likely, however, is that conscious or unconscious stereotypes and beliefs about African Americans lead professionals and others in society to scrutinize them more when it comes to issues of child maltreatment. For example, in 1990 Chasnoff and colleagues conducted a study of drug use during pregnancy. They found that although white and black women were equally likely to test positive (15.4% vs. 14.1%) for drugs, African American women were ten times as likely to be reported to health authorities after delivery. To explain this difference, the researchers speculated that physicians believed that drug use is most likely to occur in minority, poor, urban populations, and therefore were more likely to suspect, test, and report African American women than Caucasian women.

Consciously or unconsciously, racism may come from within the child welfare system, which may in turn lead to more children of color entering foster care. Predominantly staffed and run by Caucasians, critics say the system does not understand and is not set up to support and serve African Americans and other minorities. As a result, they charge, the system hurts families.

According to the advocacy group Child Welfare Watch (1998), the "prevalence of this perception should serve as a warning to those who believe race is not a significant factor defining the methods and style of our child welfare system, and as a call to action for those who do understand its significance. Those of us involved in child welfare and other social service systems must ask ourselves again and again: Are my decisions influenced by racism and/or class bias? If so, how can I change it? These questions need to be asked by African Americans and Latinos as well as whites."


There is no simple explanation of why African American children are overrepresented in our child welfare system. In addition to racism, laws and policies, and poverty, those seeking to understand this situation must contend with a host of other factors affecting black families, including single motherhood, substance abuse, inadequate housing, incarceration, lack of appropriate social support systems, teenage pregnancy, and violence (Brown & Bailey-Etta, 1997).

Yet we need not wait for a perfect understanding of the causes of this problem before seeking a solution to it. Rather than blaming the system or society at large, each of us should strive to understand and respect the cultures of those we serve, recognize the strength that resides in every family, and challenge racism when we meet it in our institutions, our peers and clients, and ourselves.


Brown, A. W. & Bailey-Etta, B. (1997). An out-of-home care system in crisis: Implications for African American children in the child welfare system. Child Welfare, (76)1, 65-83.

Chasnoff, I. J., Landress, H. J., & Barrett, M. E. (1990). The prevalence of illicit-drug and alcohol use during pregnancy and discrepancies in mandatory reporting in Pinel County, Florida. New England Journal of Medicine, 322, 1202-1206.

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

Courtney, M., Barth, R., Berrick, J. D., Brooks, D., Needell, B., & Park, L. (1996). Race and child welfare services: Past research and future directions. Child Welfare, 75, 99-133.

Genty, P. (1998). Permanency planning in the context of parental incarceration: Legal issues and recommendations. Child Welfare, 77, 543-560.

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

Kellam, S. (1999). The color of care. Connect for Kids web site. <>

Kidd, J. B. (2000, March). Improving outcomes for families and children of color. Workshop conducted at the 2000 North Carolina Children's Services Conference, Charlotte, NC. Children of Color.

Lawrence-Webb, C. (1997). African American children in the modern child welfare system: A legacy of the Flemming rule. Child Welfare, 76, 9-29.

Pelton, L. H. (1994). The role of material factors in child abuse and neglect. In Melton, G. B. & Barry, F. D. (Eds.). Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect. New York: Guilford Publications. pp. 131-181.