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 to identify the factors that lead to racial disparities in both systems.
County Supervisor Greg Cox told the paper that he hoped “that one of the deliverables we would find is a decrease in out-of-home placement of African Americans.”
I can’t speak with experience on the juvenile justice system. But I am disappointed that the Clinton Foundation does not appear to have kept up with the research about racial disparities in child welfare.
Nobody disagrees that African Americans are more likely to be involved with child welfare and placed in foster care. In 2014, according to federal data, black children were 13.8 percent of the total child population in the United States. Yet, they constituted 22.6 percent of those identified as victims of maltreatment, and 24.3 percent of the children in foster care.
Many parent advocates and others have long argued that these disparities do not stem from higher maltreatment rates for black children, but rather from racism embedded in the child welfare system. Their theory was that black children are more likely to be reported, judged to be abused or maltreated, and removed from their families because of racism among child maltreatment reporters; and, in the end, by the child welfare system itself.
The idea of racial bias in child welfare found support in the first three National Incidence Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect, which were published in the 1980s and 1990s. These studies, which attempt to get at all incidences of abuse and neglect rather than just those that are reported and substantiated, suggested that there was no difference in black and white rates of abuse and neglect. The study authors suggested that black families received differential treatment by child welfare systems, resulting in their over-representation in these systems.
Starting about 2004, a coalition of foundations, nonprofits, and academics formed around the idea that this disproportional representation of black children in child welfare stemmed from a racist system. This coalition launched a well-funded campaign to reduce the representation of black children in child welfare and especially foster care. They issued reports, held conferences, and provided training and technical assistance to help states analyze their disproportionality problems.
As a result of this work, agencies around the country have adopted strategies like staff training, creating special administrative structures to advance racial equity, and special data collection efforts. As a social worker in the District of Columbia, I was subjected to multiple low-quality, heavy-handed trainings that tried to help me discover my hidden biases. Many diversity trainers have done really well out of the presumption that disproportionality stems from racial prejudice.
But a larger and more rigorous National Incidence Study published in 2010 estimated that black maltreatment rates are almost twice as high than those of whites. Further analysis showed that this difference was present in the earlier study, but due to small sample sizes, the differences were not statistically significant and hence not reported.
The evidence continues to accumulate that black and white maltreatment rates differ. A new study just published in the journal Pediatrics concluded that the child abuse fatality rate for children aged four and under was 8.0 per thousand African-American children, compared with 2.7 per 100,000 white children.
A conference, convened in 2011 by Harvard, Chapin Hall, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the National Court Appointed Special Advocates, brought together leading scholars on child welfare and race in front of an audience of child welfare leaders from around the country.
A research brief summarizing the conference concluded that “there is a significant black/white maltreatment gap, one that roughly parallels the gap in official maltreatment reports. This evidence contradicts the belief that black children are included at high rates in the child welfare system because of bias.”
The brief’s authors based their conclusions on the National Incidence Studies as well as other empirical work reinforcing the conclusion that child maltreatment rates are significantly higher for black children.
The authors suggest that the higher rate of maltreatment among African-Americans stems from the history of slavery and racism, which led to higher poverty and concentration in impoverished neighborhoods characterized by crime, substance abuse, unemployment, and limited community services.
The researchers concluded that trying to reduce racial bias in the system is not the way to address the inequity between blacks and whites in child welfare. Instead, we need to address the underlying social conditions. And until we can do that, we need to protect children, both by preventing maltreatment and by providing appropriate protective services.
Unfortunately, many child welfare agencies around the country are either not aware of, or do not want to recognize, the new consensus among researchers. As The Los Angeles Times put it:
“Many left the conference believing that any caseworker bias against black families accounted for only a small portion of the disparity in foster care rates … Yet, Los Angeles County officials pressed forward with programs that assumed that racial bias was a significant cause for the high rate of [foster care placement] of black children.”
This focus on reducing alleged systemic bias may do more harm than simply wasting child welfare resources. If black children are more likely to be maltreated, equalizing black and white representation in the child welfare system would leave many black children in danger of years of suffering or even death.