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 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.

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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.

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