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Introduction: race, class, and the child welfare system.

In their book, Children of the Storm, Billingsley and Giovannoni (1972) reported that black children were largely excluded from the child welfare system up until the end of World War I, and that it was not until the end of World War II that they began to enter the system in large numbers. The proportion of the public child welfare caseload in the United States consisting of nonwhite children almost doubled between 1945 and 1961, from 14 percent to 27 percent. This increase was due not only to reduced racial discrimination within the child welfare system, but also to a large increase in the number of black children in the general population, and not coincidentally, to the fact that increasing proportions of poor children in the United States were black (Billingsley and Giovannoni, 1972). The vast majority of children in the child welfare system had always been from impoverished families (Pelton, 1989).

It is a seeming irony that whereas once we would have been rightly concerned about the exclusion of African-American children and families from our child welfare system, due as it was to the obvious racial discrimination that pervaded our society (including our child welfare system) at the time, in recent decades we have been concerned about their overinclusion. This irony is quite revealing. If we believe that the child welfare system is basically oriented toward helping, then why should we be concerned if it is engaging children and families in need of such help? The short answer is that we have deep misgivings about the nature of much of the "help" it provides.

Cheesman and Waters (2010, this issue) find that, in Ohio, juvenile offenders from minority groups were more likely than white offenders to be transferred to adult criminal court than to be handled as blended sentencing cases. The concern here is obvious: we believe that offenders processed in juvenile court or who receive a juvenile sentence are likely to receive at least some sort of treatment, while transfers are more likely to receive punishment only. We wish to learn, then, whether there are non-arbitrary, legitimate reasons for the disproportionate transfer of minority-group youth to adult criminal court, or whether such disproportion in processing is due to racial bias.

Similarly, because we believe that involvement in our child welfare system might frequently be more detrimental than helpful to children and families, and in effect, punitive, we are concerned if, for example, African-American children are disproportionately reported to the system, confirmed as "abused and neglected" with cases opened on them by the system, placed in foster care, and kept longer in foster care than other children. We wish to learn, then, whether there are non-arbitrary, reasonable explanations for such group disparities, or whether such disparities are due to racial bias.

But as Richardson and Derezotes (2010, this issue) suggest, such disproportionality in the child welfare system might be a reflection of past and even current racism at the societal level, and not of racial bias within the system itself. Indeed, if poverty, low income, and unemployment are strongly related to child abuse and neglect, as they are, and if societal racism has contributed to a disproportionate presence of such factors among African Americans, as it has, then we would expect African-American families to be disproportionately represented in the public child welfare system, for non-arbitrary reasons. After all, the child welfare system is the final social safety net that a family arrives at after falling through all other safety nets.

It is thus the nature of the "help" given by the child welfare system that is at issue when we raise the question of racial disparities within that system. Ordinarily, if a system were to provide help to those in need, and provided it disproportionately to members of a group that was disproportionately in need, such provision would reflect nondiscrimination, based as it were, on need rather than on group identity. It is the opposite--the proportionate provision of help to members of groups based on group identity and not need--that would sound the alarm of possible systematic discrimination. But because the child welfare system's interventions are coercive and intrusive, and frequently family-splitting rather than family-preserving, without adequately addressing need with preventive supports and services, it is the disproportionate representation of minority groups within that system that concerns us, whether it is due to discrimination within that system or not.

In fact, findings as to current racial discrimination within the child welfare system are rather mixed. After controlling for disproportionate poverty rates, there is little evidence of disparities due to race in child maltreatment reports, although report rates may be more strongly linked to poverty for whites than blacks (Drake, Lee, and Jonson-Reid, 2009). Moreover, there is little evidence of racial bias in the substantiation of reports, since Mumpower (2010, this issue) finds that while blacks are disproportionately represented in reporting rates (when uncontrolled for disparate poverty rates), such reports are no more likely to be substantiated by the system for blacks than whites. But nonetheless, since blacks are reported in disproportionate numbers, they enter the system in disproportionate numbers, and we can thus expect that they will be overrepresented in foster care, as they are, even without any racial discrimination within the operations of the child welfare system itself. As Roberts (2002, p. 94) has commented: "Black children are no more likely to be removed from their parents all else being equal. But all else is not equal. And all else is not equal because of a continuing legacy of racial discrimination" (italics in original). Yet why black children have remained in foster care for longer stays than white children is still not entirely clear.

Mumpower (2010, this issue) finds a far higher rate of false positives (reports not substantiated by the child protection agency) for African Americans than for other groups, and a higher rate of false negatives (abuse and neglect that was not reported). The author concludes that the system is less accurate for blacks than for other groups. It is important to examine the implications that this might have for outcomes for black children and their families. Unfortunately, the most common situation, in which impoverished parents are experiencing child welfare difficulties which can be alleviated by provision of supports and resources appropriate to the problems, will most likely not be adequately addressed even if a report is made and substantiated. Given the state of the current child welfare system, focused as it is on parental culpability, investigation, and the "service" intervention of foster care placement, many children may be worse off if they were to become subjects of substantiated reports. Extreme situations in which foster care placement is truly needed to protect the child are those least likely to go unreported and unsubstantiated, even if definitions of child abuse and neglect were to be greatly narrowed.

Even when supportive services are given, they are less often related to the dangers at hand--such as inadequate housing or homelessness, lack of child care, and lack of money to pay the utility bills--and are more often such services as parent education, aimed at a mother's supposed lack of parenting skills. Yet it is the services that are infrequently offered within the child welfare system that are the ones most appropriate to the child welfare problems being experienced by poor African Americans, as well as other poor families.

In describing the use of three instruments to monitor and stimulate changes in racial and ethnic disproportionalities and disparities in Woodbury County, Iowa, Richardson and Derezotes (2010, this issue) indicate that such rates have been reduced. However, it would be possible, theoretically, for racial and ethnic disparities in foster care placements to decline while parents of all races and ethnicities equally receive little help and the overall foster care population rises or remains constant. This would not be a positive development for children and families. But the authors suggest that in the case of Woodbury County, at least, the disparities have been reduced through increased provision of preventive supports, including housing and employment, to Native-American families. One hopes that such supports are also being provided to other families in need.

Dorch et al. (2010, this issue) develop an approach for assessing whether city areas in which black children are disproportionately represented in foster care contain reasonably accessible (in terms of existence, travel distance, hours of service, etc.) child welfare services, in adequate amount, that might prevent foster care placement. Although the authors examine parent education programs, their approach can be used to examine many other services. They find that many of these areas are ill-served: some areas even had no parent education agencies, despite having many referrals to parent education from the child protection agency. This is a useful approach that can be extended to other services and to other areas in which foster care populations are high, regardless of racial or ethnic disproportionalities. Services and resources should be disproportionately situated in geographical areas in which there is the greatest need.

The approaches outlined in these two studies, toward the objective of making resources and services equally available to all families in need of them, are steps in the right direction. Ultimately, however, the system itself needs to be restructured. While racial and ethnic disparities draw our attention and impel us toward solutions to "correct" them within the system as it currently stands, we have shown less concern that the system itself is an instrument for the selective coercive control of poor people. We should be concerned that poor families, white or black, experiencing child welfare problems, are subjected to an oppressive and coercive child welfare system that gains entry into their lives by stereotyping a broad range of such problems as "child abuse and neglect," thus accusing them of wrongdoing, even if many of these problems could be addressed by provision of concrete resources, which are not forthcoming. The injustices of the child welfare system pertain to class more so than to race: we have designed a system to police and paternalistically control poor families and we refuse to replace it with one designed to actually provide them with supportive aids of their choosing. It is to be hoped that current findings, discussions, and debates pertaining to the meaning of racial and ethnic disparities in the child welfare system will finally lead to a collective recognition that our current child welfare system should be radically restructured.


Billingsley, A., and Giovannoni, J.M. (1972). Children of the storm: Black children and American child welfare. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Cheesman, F.L, and Waters, N.L. (2010, this issue). Who gets a second chance? An investigation of Ohio's blended juvenile sentence. Journal of Health and Human Services Administration, 33 (3), 407-449.

Dorch, E.L., Bathman, J., Foster, D., Ingels, L., Lee, C., Miramontes, C., and Youngblood, J. (2010, this issue). The Influence of Service Availability & Proximity and the Over-Representation of Black Children in Foster Care. Journal of Health and Human Services Administration, 33(3), 277-319.

Drake, B., Lee, S.M., and Jonson-Reid, M. (2009). Race and child maltreatment reporting: Are Blacks overrepresented? Children and Youth Services Review, 31, 309-316.

Mumpower, J.L. (2010, this issue). Disproportionality at the "front end" of the child welfare services system: An analysis of rates of referrals, "hits," misses," and "false alarms." Journal of Health and Human Services Administration. 33(3), 365-406.

Pelton, L.H. (1989). For reasons of poverty: A critical analysis of the public child welfare system in the United States. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Richardson, B., and Derezotes, D. (2010, this issue). Measuring change in disproportionality and disparities: Three diagnostic tools. Journal of Health and Human Services Administration, 33(3), 324-353..

Roberts, D. (2002). Shattered bonds: The color of child welfare. New York: Basic Books.


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Author:Pelton, Leroy H.
Publication:Journal of Health and Human Services Administration
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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