Growing up in a house with a mother who is a children’s social worker made me privy to the many issues children and families involved with child welfare face, as well as the burden these issues may have on social workers. For example, I learned at a young age that some parents get their children taken away from them and placed into foster care because they are “bad parents” or cannot financially afford to care for them. However, it was not until my years as a graduate student that I learned some children have a greater propensity of entering the child welfare system and being placed into foster care, simply because of their race . . . More specifically, because they are Black. For example, Black children are disproportionately represented among foster care cases. In 2012, although Black children made up 14.0% of the population, they represented 27.5% of the children in foster care nationwide. When compared to other races/ethnicities, Black children were at least two times more likely to be in foster care than Non-Hispanic White, Non-Hispanic Asians/ Pacific Islanders, and Hispanic children.
After learning these interesting facts, I asked myself, “What’s race got to do with it?” Perhaps there is some truth to what my mother told me? Maybe more Black children are in foster care compared to children of other racial/ethnic backgrounds because they have more “bad parents” or are more likely to have parents who cannot afford to care for them? As I explored the answer to this question, I discovered several researchers have attempted to answer this question, but few have prevailed. At best, research findings have been mixed; making findings inconclusive.
So what do we know (besides the fact that more research is needed)? Well, based on a recent 2014 publication by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council summarizing child abuse and neglect research over the last two decades, researchers have demonstrated the following:
- Black children’s rates of disproportionality among child abuse and neglect reporting and investigations mirror their disproportionate risk of maltreatment. This disproportionate risk of maltreatment likely stems from racial inequalities.
- Black children are more likely to remain in the child welfare system following investigations compared to either Hispanic or white children, probably because they are less likely to be offered in-home services.
- The disproportionate rates of Black children within foster care population is a function of differences in entry and exit rates.
- The gap in the black/white disparity ratios decreases when examining urban counties relative to rural counties.
- Important research is warranted to understand why observed levels of disproportionality differ across a range of spatial units (e.g., counties, neighborhoods, states, census tracts).
In summary, although researchers have broken ground, additional research is needed to understand why racial disparities exist in the child welfare system. We cannot begin decreasing disproportionality rates, until we have a solid understanding of why Black children are overrepresented at both the referral point and key decision points after being screened (e.g., foster care, length of time in care).
Dr. Ogbonnaya is an Assistant Professor at the SDSU School of Social Work.