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.

Officers on School Campuses Negative Impacts

The ability to teach a child something carries excellent weight on how they gain knowledge to understand the lessons learned in that taught experience. “Reducing recidivism should be the goal of public safety, not more punishment,” as stated by Alycia Castillo, aligns with the lessons youth are taught. Black children are punished at a much higher rate than their white counterparts for crimes. The punishments served are more severe, as “[c]hildren of color, particularly Black children, are overrepresented in arrests and other police contact.” As these Black children are taught that being arrested is the result of punishment, they then accept arrest as a punishment. Many of these cases do not deserve punishment, but it does not need to be as severe as an arrest if needed. There should be better ways of rehabilitating all but predominantly Black and Brown children rather than punishing them severely for their unfortunate run-ins with the law.

The punishment issues can arise with the presence of police on school campuses. “Arrests increase the likelihood that students will drop out of school.” This is a byproduct of punishment that Black and Brown children face from police in schools. Many students may give up on their studies if facing run-ins with the law is part of it. Some may see that no matter if their inside or outside the school, they will still be a run-in with the law. This unfortunate event is an occurrence that happens too often in Black and Brown communities. “When youth come into contact with police, including through arrests, they miss classroom learning time, are stigmatized by peers and teachers, and may experience trauma related to the physical and psychological humiliations of arrest.” This is a negative impact on Black and Brown children, especially in Harris County as “[i]n 2020, in Harris County just for example, Black kids were 19 times more likely to be confined than white kids, and Latino kids were about seven times more likely to be confined than their white peers,” stated by Castillo. There is a substantially higher population of white children to Black children in Harris County, yet many children being confined as punishment are Black children.

The unfair practice of punishment is one of many practices done to marginalized communities. To have police on school campuses increases the chances that Black and Brown children experience these unfair punishments. Additionally, the resources used on policing in schools affect Black and Brown children more negatively than white children. These resources should be reallocated to resolve run-ins with the law as a rehabilitation effort. The unfair treatment of Black and Brown people with the law outside of school is already extreme, and we shouldn’t allow the treatment of Black in Brown children in school to be the same.

Police Officers in Schools

How youth feel about police in their schools has an interesting outlook in Connecticut. Based on the article Report: School Officers Don’t Make Students, the risk of arrest is five times higher for Black and Latino students in schools with police officers. This shows another way police in schools are used to build on the school-to-prison pipeline system.

A research and policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, Samailla Adelaiye, states having school police officers “defeats that purpose” of building an environment for children to raise their academic performance and build emotionally sound young people. This can be further seen when looking into school financial resources and programs that use the school’s expenses. It takes away the funds to create a program for offenders who commit similar crimes. Some counselors may be hired to replace the police officers that may be better for developing the child rather than the actions that police take when a child is breaking a rule in school. To switch the policy to aim funds to go towards counselors, social workers, and psychology will better aid the children. Additionally, acts of recidivism are more likely to occur when the children are not being properly rehabilitated if a criminal act occurs. The goal of the juvenile justice system should be aimed to support children who have bad practices that hurt the community or themselves. Many of these situations are better handled by having children rehabilitated with positive practices rather than arresting them and treating them like adult offenders.

Having police officers in schools may improperly intimidate children at times and can be unfair. If a police officer is in school, children should be taught their rights. It is unfair to have an officer in a school building when students do not know what rights they have when they are confronted by the officer. As Adelaiye stated in the article, “We recommend that policymakers should pass laws to ensure that parents are present any time a student is questioned about potentially criminal activity, even if it’s not a criminal activity involving that student,” parents should be the first alerted in these moments. Too much history shows where Black and Latino children have been mistreated during routine police practices. If there is a system in place to allow the police officers to question children for an alleged crime, there should also be a system when allowing the child to exercise their constitutional rights.