The Racial Geography of Child Welfare: Toward a New Research Paradigm

Article excerpt

This article examines the community-level impact of concentrated child welfare agency involvement in African American neighborhoods. Based on interviews of 25 African American women in a Chicago neighborhood, the study found that residents were aware of intense agency involvement in their neighborhood and identified profound effects on social relationships including interference with parental authority, damage to children's ability to form social relationships, and distrust among neighbors. The study also discovered a tension between respondents' identification of adverse consequences of concentrated state supervision for family and community relationships and neighborhood reliance on agency involvement for needed financial support. The author discusses the implications of these findings for a new research paradigm aimed at understanding the community-level effects of racial disproportionality.

Racial disproportionality is now recognized by many researchers and government officials as a critical issue in child welfare policy and practice (Courtney, Barth, Berrick, Brooks, Needell, & Park, 1998; Derezotes, Poertner, & Testa 2005; Hill, 2006). An understudied aspect of racial disproportionality, however, is its community impact. Many poor African American neighborhoods have very high rates of child welfare agency involvement, especially placement of children in foster care. Researchers have yet to investigate the sociopolitical impact of this spatial concentration of child welfare supervision - the system's "racial geography." By conducting and analyzing in-depth interviews of 25 residents of an African American neighborhood in Chicago, this study aimed to better understand how intense child welfare agency involvement affects community and civic life.

Neighborhood is used to signify the geographical site of study, and community is used to signify the social relations that neighbors engage in with one another. In short, this study focused on the impact of concentrated child welfare agency involvement in the geographical space of a neighborhood on the community relationships within that neighborhood.

The residents were all aware of intense child welfare agency involvement in their neighborhood and identified profound effects on family and community social relationships, including interference with parental authority, damage to children's ability to form social relationships, and distrust among neighbors. The study also discovered a tension between respondents' identification of adverse consequences of concentrated state supervision for family and community relationships and neighborhood reliance on agency involvement for needed financial support. This article explores the implications of these findings for a new research paradigm for understanding the community-level effects of racial disproportionality and identifies themes that can serve as a starting point for future studies and policy change.

The Racial Geography of the Child Welfare System

Most of the children in foster care in this country are children of color (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS], 2006). Black children are especially overrepresented in the child welfare system: they make up about one third of the nation's foster care population, although they represent only 15% of the nation's children. A black child is four times as likely as a white child to be in foster care (Child Welfare League of America, 2000). Children of color not only enter foster care at disproportionate rates, but they also remain in care longer, experience a greater number of placements, and are less likely to be reunified with their parents or adopted than white children (Hill, 2006). The Casey-CSSP Alliance for Racial Equity recently concluded, "[T]he disparities in outcomes are so great that racial /ethnic inequities can best be described as a 'chronic crisis'" (Center for Community Partnerships in Child Welfare, 2006).

Although alarming, national and state statistics do not reveal the spatial dynamics of racial disproportionality. …