Disproportionate Representation of Children of Color in the Child Welfare System

The child welfare system and foster care were initially implemented as tools to help provide assistance to dependent children while the biological parents were temporarily unable to do so either because of neglect or abuse in the home. At face value, this purpose seems commendable. However, families and children of color have been disproportionately represented in these systems and are “more likely to experience negative outcomes compared to white families.”[1] According to 2019 data from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Black children only comprise 14% of the population, but account for 23% of children in foster care.[2] Similarly, non-Hispanic children with multiple race groups only comprise 5% of the population, but account for 8% of the children in foster care.[3]

The American Bar Association has identified five factors that may explain the disproportionality and disparity surrounding racial groups and low-income families in the child welfare system:

  • correlation between poverty and maltreatment;
  • visibility or exposure bias;
  • limited access to services;
  • geographic restrictions; and
  • child welfare professionals knowingly or unknowingly letting personal biases impact their actions or decisions.[4]

Notably, many of these factors boil down to (1) families lacking resources and access, and (2) child welfare reporter and investigator bias.

At the individual level, addressing the disproportionality and disparities in the child welfare system call for confronting one’s own implicit and explicit biases in reporting, investigating, intervening, and making decisions in the placement process.[5] This is not only important for attorneys, judges, social workers, and other professionals involved in making decisions in child welfare cases, but also anyone who plays a role in referring a child to the system. At the systematic and policy level, other strategies for addressing the disparities include, “developing culturally responsive practices, recruiting and retaining foster families of color, engaging communities of color when developing new policies, and using data to identify and address disparate outcomes.”[6] For a deeper analysis of these strategies see the additional resources linked at the bottom of the Disproportionality and Race Equity in Child Welfare article.

Legislative measures have been enacted at both the federal and state level to address the disparities in the child welfare system. Federal acts include the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018, the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994, and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. While state legislation varies, it typically aims to engage communities of color in creating child welfare policies or requires states to examine outcomes for children of color in the child welfare system.[7]

So, why does this matter? Simply put—there is a cost that each child pays for entering the child welfare system, even though they enter the system through no fault of their own. Furthermore, this cost is often higher for children of color. Children of color are “​​more likely to experience multiple placements, less likely to be reunited with their birth families, more likely to experience group care, less likely to establish a permanent placement and more likely to experience poor social, behavioral and educational outcomes.”[8] So long as disparities in outcomes exist for children of color and White children who enter the child welfare system, it cannot be said that the system is working equally for all children. Thus, it is imperative that individual actors and legislatures continue to pursue strategies to address the disproportionality and disparities in the child welfare system.

[1] Disproportionality and Race Equity in Child Welfare, Nat’l Conference of State Legislatures (Jan. 26, 2021) https://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/disproportionality-and-race-equity-in-child-welfare.aspx#Numbers.

[2] Child Population by race in the United States, The Annie E. Casey Foundation: Kids Count Data Center (2019)

https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/bar/103-child-population-by-race?loc=1&loct=1#1/any/false/1729/68,69,67,12,70,66,71/424; Children in foster care by race and Hispanic origin in the United States, The Annie E. Casey Foundation: Kids Count Data Center (2019) https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/bar/6246-children-in-foster-care-by-race-and-hispanic-origin?loc=1&loct=1#1/any/false/1729/2638,2601,2600,2598,2603,2597,2602/12993

[3] Child Population by race in the United States, supra note 2; Children in foster care by race and Hispanic origin in the United States, supra note 2.

[4] Krista Ellis, Race and Poverty Bias in the Child Welfare System: Strategies for Child Welfare Practitioners, Am. Bar Ass’n (Dec. 17, 2019) https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_interest/child_law/resources/child_law_practiceonline/january—december-2019/race-and-poverty-bias-in-the-child-welfare-system—strategies-f/.

[5] Ellis, supra note 5; Disproportionality and Race Equity in Child Welfare, supra note 1.

[6] Disproportionality and Race Equity in Child Welfare, supra note 1.

[7] See id.

[8] Id.

Leave a Reply