Racial Disparities in Child Welfare: Time for Some Critical Thinking

On April 17, 2017, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Clinton Foundation is launching an initiative to study the foster care and juvenile justice programs in San Diego County. A particular focus will be

Subscribe and Get the Rest of the Story!

We are a nonprofit daily news site devoted to child welfare, juvenile justice and other youth services.

Our subscribers get access to expert analysis and insider news.

Click here to subscribe (or log in now if you already have a subscription).

Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at fosteringreform.blogspot.org, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.


  1. I agree with Mr. Hansell…well stated! For the author, I often believed that the information presented was usually objective but with the statement of “heavy handed training to help me discover my hidden biases” I now have a more clear picture of your position. You have attempted to separate bias and the conditions of Black families who have been unable to escape the poverty and undesirable social conditions; however, all of the factors go hand in hand. I worked for child welfare for several years in the San Francisco Bay Area and saw all aspects of disproportionality intersect and children suffer as a result. Furthermore, relatives of Black children were ruled out more quickly and often Black children were failed when they were not allowed to be adopted or placed into permanent situations because of bias. This promoted foster care drift and ultimately impacted these children into adulthood. I have witnessed Black children being deemed as “unadoptable” because of their “behaviors” which is how they manifested their trauma. I witnessed a fellow colleague recommend to the Court that a Black child’s permanency plan, at the ripe and tender age of five, be long term foster care! I was sick to my stomach. This little boy was successfully able to reunify with his mother who just needed someone to believe in her and support through her transition of receiving her children back in her care and custody. Poverty did not equal neglect in this case as in many. I am glad that there was a larger sample size in this most recent study to justify and support what people believe is the true cause of Black children and their numbers in foster care, but bias is hidden and often cannot be dug up and/or declared as the true reason until you peel back the cases layer by layer, case by case.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m curious about when you worked in San Francisco. I’m sure there was a lot more racial bias in the past; I’m just wondering if the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction in the effort to rectify that bias. I’m wondering if you have read the work of Stacey Patton, which I describe in another column. She is a passionate fighter against racism; yet she explains how the racism of the past has led to a present in which Black children are being abused and killed by their parents at a much higher rate than White children. As a child who survived physical abuse, she would rather save suffering black children than let them continue suffering so that they are not “disproportionately represented” in foster care.

    • I absolutely love Ms. Patton’s work…Spare the Child. I firmly honor and respect her work as a survivor of child abuse and her position that there is no separation of child abuse and corporal punishment and that the Black community has to begin to shift child-rearing methods so that our children do not “suffer” while in the care of their families. Believe me, I am well aware of the impact of “whupping children” as a former social worker and as well, as a mother. I just left San Mateo County a year and a half ago after working there for 11 years and prior to that another county in the East Bay for a few years. Hopefully the pendulum has gone in another direction at this time, but I am not there to speak to it. As you know, the CCR is the major focus for California and the Bay Area at this time and so it appears as if most of the matters at hand are related to foster care and placement as well as congregate care settings for children who deserve family-like placements and are least restrictive.

      My initial point was that the factors that correlate with the higher incidences of child abuse and child deaths within the Black community are related to the past; however, the component of bias does impact some of the outcomes for the children, which is a major issue at hand. I agree with the points that the institutions in which Black families have endured long standing trauma has impacted parenting practices of today. Black families raised children while in captivity and while enduring some of the worst abuse and those practices and beliefs were never extinguished. Coping skills and protective capacities were never honed in on or enhanced to ensure that children were protected, safe, and free of physical punishment. The education on certain practices has now begun to be provided, usually in the form of parenting classes which are now an order of the Court, after the abuse has occurred. Poverty has reared its ugly head throughout the community along with the undesirable conditions associated with the social conditions that Black folks have had to raise children within. The factors go hand in hand however when it comes to the the eventual outcomes of these children such as being placed with family or fictive kin, extended stays in foster care, a lack of adoptive homes for Black children and keeping in respect the time periods in which a child should be adopted if reunification is unsuccessful, aging out of the system without a permanent connection, entry into the penal system, access to educational supports, etc.. Racial disparities in the system are not only about what warranted the department’s intervention, but also, how was the child treated and cared for while in the system. I believe that the research is relevant that you shared; however, the picture is more than: Black people abuse their children more compared to White people because that appeared to be your bottom line. We have to look at the disparities from the beginning to the end and I would never support children suffering so that Black children were not “disproportionately represented” in foster care. The system has to be accountable starting at the beginning stages when assessing and investigating families, but as well, until these precious children are able to successful exit the system into a safe and loving environment free of abuse. I honor and respect your work as well but I was a little concerned about all aspects that were left out in the article.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You make some very good points. I’m sure you are right that there are still racial disparities in many jurisdictions in how kids are treated at all phases of their child welfare involvement. I’m so glad you like Stacey Patton’s work. I am honored that you took so much time to make your valuable comments on my column.

  2. This article seems to take the position that the child welfare system is the only part of our society free from racial bias. That is simply not supportable. Bias of course is present, from the bias in making initial reports of child abuse, to the bias inherent in workers making decisions once a case is referred. That said, the vast majority of reports which make it past initial screening present facts showing child maltreatment on some level, the initial bias and skewed numbers result from the reporting bias, underreporting of some races and over reporting of others. The most important issue from a child welfare perspective is what happens next. Why do more children of color end up in foster care as opposed to parental or relative care? They don’t have fewer loving relatives willing to care for them than white children, but their relatives may present in ways that are not seen as appropriate by the system and the filter of individual biases. Or the system may be set up to screen out relatives based on factors more likely to be found in relatives of color given the biases in other systems, i.e. the criminal justice system.
    It is unfortunate that the author was exposed to “heavy handed trainings” but it is essential that all of us in child welfare and in fact all of us in society confront and learn what our biases are and how they impact our decision making. Self awareness is key.

Comments are closed.