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2009 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 14, No. 3
June 2009

Race and Child Welfare

Race can be challenging to discuss. Many people have strong feelings about the history of race relations. Others are reluctant to share opinions or questions for fear of appearing culturally insensitive. In addition, the interaction of race, culture, and child welfare services is complex and hard to untangle.

Yet the fact is that minority children have very different experiences in the child welfare system than white children. Understanding the trends and factors contributing to racial disparity and disproportionality can help practitioners and agencies develop strategies to improve outcomes for all children.

The Numbers
For much of our history, non-white children were excluded by many organizations that served children in need. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the civil rights movement and national migration patterns led to the steady increase in minority children’s presence in historically white child welfare institutions (Hill, 2006).

As the proportion of minority children involved in child welfare increased, it became clear that children of different races were receiving disparate treatment. We now have a wealth of research documenting some of the ways in which minority children and families tend to fare worse than their white counterparts. For example:

  • Many studies found black families are more likely than whites to be substantiated for maltreatment, even after controlling for other factors (studies cited in Hill, 2006).
  • African-American children were more than twice as likely as white children to enter care in 2004 (GAO, 2007).
  • African-American children remain in care, on average, 9 months longer than white children (GAO, 2007).
  • African-American and Hispanic children are twice as likely as white children to be in kinship care, but kinship care providers receive fewer services and benefits and less financial assistance (Hill, 2006).
  • Several studies suggest black and Hispanic foster children received fewer or poorer quality mental health services than white children—even after controlling for factors such as need, income, insurance status, maltreatment type, and severity of mental health problem) (studies cited in Hill, 2006).

Of course, data is only part of the story. To ensure high quality and equitable services for all children, we have to understand the possible causes of racial disparity. We have to uncover the story behind the numbers. Consider whether any of the proposed causes outlined in the box below ring true for your community or agency.

Possible Causes of Disparate Treatment and Disproportionality

Reporter Bias. Medical providers are one of the top three sources for CPS reports (GAO, 2007), and research suggests racial bias may play a role in their reporting patterns. For example, numerous studies have shown that hospitals report families of color more for child abuse and neglect, even when they have similar presenting problems (studies cited in Hill, 2006). One study found that women of color are more likely to be reported than white women for newborns who test positive for drugs (Chasnoff, Landress, & Barrett, 1990).

The Impact of Poverty. Nationally, African Americans are nearly four times more likely than others to live in poverty (GAO, 2007). This means that African Americans are also more likely to come in contact with mandated reporters who are among the most common sources of reports: law enforcement and social service agencies (GAO, 2007). It is conversely more likely that middle- and upper-class families avoid notice of public agencies, or have the financial resources to resolve issues outside of the child welfare system.

A number of poverty-related factors have also been linked by research to child maltreatment, such as depression, isolation, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, substance abuse, and domestic violence (Hill, 2006). Low income families also have less access to important supports and services, such as affordable housing, substance abuse treatment, family support services, and legal representation for birth parents (GAO, 2007).

Kinship Care and Length of Stay. Research has shown that children in kinship placements tend to stay in care longer than children placed with nonrelatives (studies cited in Hill, 2006). Since minority children are more likely to be placed with kin, they are more likely to experience this effect. One often cited reason for this difference is that relative caretakers may be reluctant to pursue termination of parental rights of family members in order to pursue adoption. To address this concern, federal and state policy now allows for alternative permanency goals for children, including legal permanent guardianship and Alternative Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA), both of which provide a permanent home outside of foster care without terminating parental rights.

Distrust and Racial Bias or Cultural Misunderstanding within Child Welfare. Many child welfare officials and researchers have suggested that families’ distrust of the child welfare system contributes to disproportionality. In particular, African Americans in some poor communities may consider child welfare agencies as more interested in separating children from parents than in helping families (GAO, 2007). As a result, families may not seek or cooperate with services, which can then increase the risk of a child’s removal.
In addition to possible bias by reporters, there may also be bias or cultural misunderstanding on the part of child welfare caseworkers and juvenile and family court judges (GAO, 2007). Those on the front lines may make unrecognized assumptions about someone from a different class, race, or ethnic group—and those assumptions can lead to more intensive and disruptive interventions in families’ lives.

Making Progress in NC
North Carolina has already adopted a number of promising practices thought to play an important part in addressing racial disparities (AECF, n.d.; Hill, 2007), such as:

  1. Use of Child and Family Team meetings to increase family participation and informal supports in decision making.
  2. Use of structured decision making tools to minimize potential bias.
  3. Implementation of cultural competency training for all child welfare staff.
  4. Increased attention and resources for front-loading individualized, preventive services, as done under the Multiple Response System.
  5. Increased efforts to find relatives and natural supports, including paternal relatives and “fictive kin.”
  6. Collaboration with community partners, as done in North Carolina’s System of Care model, to pool resources and share information about available services.

In addition, a number of North Carolina counties, including Guilford and Wake, have used the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Race Matters” Toolkit to assess and address disproportionality.

We still aren’t where we need to be on the issue of racial disproportionality, but North Carolina has made progress. The percentage of African American children in care has decreased steadily from 50.3% in April 2000 to 40.6% in April 2009. During the same time period, the percentage of Native American children in care decreased from 2.2 to 1.4% (Duncan, et al., 2009).

What About Me?
For this trend to continue, we must all take responsibility for examining our own practice as well as local and state policies and procedures. A few areas to consider:

What gets measured gets done. With all of the demands and stresses of child welfare practice, it is easy to let racial disparity fall off our radar. Yet we know that agencies make changes in the areas where they focus their attention. Track your agency’s data to see where things stood yesterday, where you are today, and where you end up tomorrow.

Cultivate an attitude of “cultural humility.” Every person has a story to tell about how their family, culture, and community shaped who they are and how they view the world. Let families be your teacher: don’t be afraid to ask questions and demonstrate your interest in their background and values. Nothing helps us recognize our own preconceived notions more than realizing how they compare to someone else’s. Simply remaining aware of our own culture (however we define it) and our own judgments of others can improve our interactions and decision-making.

Think broadly. Culture is about more than just race: religion, geography, socioeconomic status, and many other factors shape who we are. Even someone who looks like us may have grown up in a very different culture.

Spread the word. Mandated reporters, court personnel, foster parents—many of those who interact with child welfare may not realize the prevalence of racial disparity. Seek opportunities to provide training and discuss the impact of race and cultural competency.

Child welfare professionals are passionate about improving the lives of children and families, regardless of their ethnicity or background. To make progress towards equitable outcomes for all children, practitioners can remain informed about trends and contributing factors and stay open to recognizing the influential role of culture in all of our lives.

References for this and other articles in this issue