Racial harm: Dorothy Roberts explains how racism works in the child welfare system. (Child Welfare).
A recent class action lawsuit brought by battered women in New York City, Nicholson v. Scoppetta, highlights the injustice of child welfare practice that relies on child removal. In a March 11, 2002 opinion, federal district judge Jack B. Weinstein ruled that New York City's child welfare department violated the constitutional rights of battered mothers by routinely and unnecessarily placing their children in foster care. Judge Weinstein attributed the city's child removal policy in cases of domestic violence to deeper flaws in a system that is unfairly stacked against poor families. Poor mothers threatened with losing their children lack adequate legal representation, in part because the state pays their court-appointed lawyers so poorly. In addition, bureaucratic inefficiency and caution lead caseworkers to rake what they perceive to be the path of least resistance. Instead of devising ways to keep battered mothers and their children safely united, agencies find it easier to snatch children from their home s. Most important, child protection agents fail to consider the trauma caused to children by needlessly separating them from their mothers. After all, a child killed by parents often makes frontpage news and can ruin the careers of judges and administrators. The emotional damage to thousands of children wrongfully relegated to foster care usually goes unnoticed.
But this list of flaws overlooks another critical dimension of the child welfare system reflected in the state's excessive intervention in families. By placing children in a forced state custody" under these conditions, Judge Weinstein wrote, the city's child removal policy constituted "a form of slavery." Judge Weinstein's reference to slavery is especially apt, given the child welfare system's staggering racial disparity. Black children make up nearly half of the national foster care population, although they represent less than one-fifth of the nation's children. Latino and Native American children are also in the system in disproportionate numbers. The system's racial imbalance is most apparent in big cities where there are sizeable minority and foster care populations. In Chicago, for example, 95 percent of children in foster care are black. Out of 42,000 children in New York City's foster care system at the end of 1997, only 1,300 were white. Black children in New York were 10 times as likely as white children to be in state protective custody. Spend a day in the courts that decide child maltreatment cases in these cities and you very well may see only black or Latino parents and children. If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system, you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor families of color.
State agencies are far more likely to place black children who come to their attention in foster care instead of offering their families less traumatic assistance. According to federal statistics, black children in the child welfare system are placed in foster care at twice the rate for white children. A national study of child protective services by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that "[m]inority children, and in particular African American children, are more likely to be in foster care placement than receive in-home services, even when they have the same problems and characteristics as white children." Most white children who enter the system are permitted to stay with their families, avoiding the emotional damage and physical risks of foster care placement, while most black children are taken away from theirs. And once removed from their homes, black children remain in foster care longer, are moved more often, receive fewer services, and are less likely to be either returned home or adopted than any other children.
Why are black children placed in foster care at higher rates? Despite recent declines, the U.S. child poverty rate is still exceptionally high by international standards, extreme poverty is actually growing, and black children still lag far behind. State disruption of black families reflects the persistent gulf between the material welfare of black and white children in America. But racial differences in child poverty rates don't tell the whole story. Race also influences child welfare decision making through strong and deeply embedded stereotypes about black family dysfunction. Some case workers and judges view black parents as less reformable than white parents, less willing and able to respond to the treatment child protection agencies prescribe. The "predisposition toward counterproductive separation" that Judge Weinstein observed stems not only from "bureaucratic caution" but also from an indifference to the bonds between parents of color and their children. In the past several decades, the number of chi ldren receiving child welfare services has declined dramatically, while the foster care population has skyrocketed. As the child welfare system began to serve fewer white children and more children of color, state and federal governments spent more money on out-of-home care and less on in-home services.
A Wider Damage
All of the cruelties inflicted by overzealous child protective agents fall disproportionately on nonwhite families. But the impact of the state's destruction of families extends beyond harm to individual parents and children. The child welfare system also inflicts damage on the communities where state disruption and supervision of families is concentrated. Placing large numbers of children in state custody interferes with a community's ability to form healthy connections among its members. Excessive state interference in family life, for example, damages people's sense of personal and community identity. Family and community disintegration weakens communities' collective ability to overcome institutionalized discrimination and to work toward greater political and economic strength. The system's racial disparity also reinforces the quintessential racist stereotype: that nonwhite people are incapable of governing themselves and need state supervision.
The racial harm caused by disproportionate state disruption of families helps to explain why current federal and state policies that emphasize adoption are misguided. The campaign to increase adoptions has hinged on the denigration of foster children's parents, the speedy destruction of their family bonds, and the rejection of family preservation as an important goal of child welfare practice. Adoption is increasingly presented not as an option for a minority of foster children who cannot be reunited with their parents, but as the preferred outcome for all children in foster care. More fundamentally, turning to adoption to fix the foster care system ignores the injustice of excessive removal of children in the first place. Placing all foster children in adoptive homes would only exacerbate the system's racial harm, not end it.
The racial politics of adoption are intensified by the promotion of transracial adoption in particular as a way of addressing the influx of black children to the foster care rolls. Although most white people seeking adoption want only a white child, many commentators and politicians support eliminating any consideration of race, along with expediting termination of parental rights, to move more black children into white adoptive homes. (It should be noted that abolishing race-matching means allowing white people to choose the race of the children they adopt, not ending the more common matching of white adoptive parents with white children or even considering the adoption of white children by blacks.) The asserted benefits of transracial adoption further obscure the system's racial bias and masquerade as reasons to oppose policies that preserve black families.
The price of a child welfare philosophy that relies on child removal rather than family support falls unjustly on minority families. The number of black and Latino children in state custody--those in foster care combined with those in juvenile detention, prisons, and other state institutions--is a national disgrace that reflects systemic injustices and that calls for radical reform. The child welfare system's racial harm is a powerful reason to replace our current child protection practices with policies that generously and non-coercively support families.