Child Welfare's Paradox

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION
I. THE THREE PARADOXES
   A. Caseworkers as Investigators and Helpers
   B. Foster Parents as Greedy and Altruistic
   C. Parents as Subjects of Regulation and
      Recipients of Support
II. IMPLICATIONS OF FAMILY RELIANCE ON
    KINSHIP CARE
III. CHILD WELFARE'S PARADOX AND THE
     FLAWED SAFETY NET
CONCLUSION

INTRODUCTION

Researchers and government officials now recognize racial disproportionality as a pressing problem facing the child welfare system. (1) In this country, most children in foster care are children of color. (2) Black children are especially overrepresented in the child welfare system: (3) they make up about one-third of the nation's foster care population, despite representing only 15 percent of the nation's children. (4) A black child is four times as likely as a white child to be placed in foster care. (5)

Although alarming, these statistics do not reveal the spatial dynamics of the child welfare system's racial disparities. (6) State custody of children has a racial geography. In the nation's cities, child protection cases are concentrated in communities of color. (7) Many poor black neighborhoods in particular have extremely high rates of involvement by public child welfare agencies, especially with respect to placement in foster care. (8) In 1997, for example, one in ten children in Central Harlem was in foster care. (9) In Chicago, most child protection cases are clustered in a few zip code areas, which are almost exclusively African American. (10) Such overrepresentation of black children in the foster care population represents considerable state supervision and dissolution of families concentrated in these neighborhoods. (11) Moreover, racial differences in foster care placement rates affect more than an individual child's risk of placement; they also affect his or her chances of growing up in a neighborhood where foster care placement is prevalent. (12) The racial geography of child welfare, then, "makes the child welfare system a distinctively different institution for white and black children in America." (13)

What is the sociopolitical impact of this spatial concentration of child welfare supervision in poor, black neighborhoods? Although researchers have investigated the reasons behind racial disparities in the child welfare system, (14) the community impact of these disparities remains obscure. (15) During the summer of 2005, I conducted a small case study to begin to explore the effects of concentrated child welfare agency involvement in black neighborhoods. (16) The study conducted and analyzed the results of in-depth interviews with twenty-five black women living in Woodlawn, a black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Woodlawn is an area exposed to a particularly high level of involvement by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). The study sought to evaluate how the involvement of child welfare agencies affects community and civic life and shapes residents' attitudes about government and self-governance. (17)

Almost all of Woodlawn's 27,000 residents are African American. (18) Furthermore, "Woodlawn is also one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.... Half of the female-headed households with children in Woodlawn live in poverty." (19) Additionally, the neighborhood has one of the highest rates of foster care placement in Chicago. At the end of 2005, almost 200 of Woodlawn's approximately 9,000 children were in state-supervised substitute care, living either with relatives or strangers. (20)

Conversely, in the vast majority of Chicago neighborhoods, the foster care rate is less than half of Woodlawn's. (21) Although several other poor African American neighborhoods, such as Grand Boulevard and the Near West Side, have double Woodlawn's rate, (22) there is not a single white neighborhood in Chicago whose children are placed in foster care at a level even approaching these black neighborhoods. …