The Increasing Colorization of America's Child Welfare System: The Overrepresentation of African-American Children

By Morton, Thomas D. | Policy & Practice of Public Human Services, December 1999 | Go to article overview

The Increasing Colorization of America's Child Welfare System: The Overrepresentation of African-American Children


Morton, Thomas D., Policy & Practice of Public Human Services


Although African-American children constituted only 15 percent of the U.S. child population in 1995, they accounted for 28 percent of founded allegations of abuse or neglect and represented 41 percent of the child welfare population (Petit & Curtis, 1997). They also represented 49 percent of the children in foster care and group care that year. The same year, 40 percent of the children considered to have died from abuse or neglect were African American. In contrast, while constituting 66 percent of the U.S. child population, Caucasian children made up 57 percent of the substantiated allegations, 46 percent of the child welfare population, 36 percent of the children in out-of-home care, and 52 percent of the child fatality cases.

What may account for this apparent difference in incidence of child maltreatment, placement in foster care, and child fatality? Does it reflect sociocultural differences that predispose African-American families to maltreat their children more frequently? Or does it reflect differential treatment of African Americans in the U.S. child welfare system? The answers to these questions are complex and it is difficult to explore them without provoking emotion. Failure to pursue an answer, however, could ignore the increasing colorization of America's child welfare system, a signal that something is terribly wrong.

Natural Selection or Bias?

If the outcomes for African-American children in the child welfare system were equivalent to other groups, their increasing rate of penetration into the system would be of less concern. But the outcomes are not equivalent. According to the National Study of Protective, Preventive and Reunification Services Delivered to Children and Their Families (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1994), 56 percent of African-American children are served in foster care and 44 percent in their own homes. Only 28 percent of white children are served inffoster care. Seventy-two percent receive services in their own homes. Forty-three percent of white children entering the child welfare system are out in less than three months, and only 31 percent are still in open cases at 18 months. In contrast, only 16 percent of African-American children leave the system in three months or less. Sixty-four percent still have their cases open after 18 months. These differences are significant because 83 percent of children who were placed in foster care received services for 18 months or longer. Only 16 percent of children who did not enter foster care received services for 18 months or longer.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) may have tremendous consequences for African-American families. The imposition of new 15-month timeframes and possible mandatory filing-of-termination proceedings has the potential of making thousands of African-American children legal orphans if child welfare agencies are not aggressive about permanency planning, which includes reunification as well as adoption or guardianship. Quite simply, the child most likely to have been in care 15 of the past 22 months is African American.

In recent years, the child welfare field has raised concerns about the cultural competence and responsiveness of its own system. Few would argue that such competence actually exists pervasively, or that interventions are not constructed appropriately due to a lack of understanding of family life in other cultures. Yet, the cultural competence debate masks one important reality: the child welfare system has a more extensive and invasive impact on African-American families than any other ethnic group. In 1995, Latino or Hispanic children constituted 14 percent of the U.S. child population but only 12 percent of the subjects of founded allegations of abuse or neglect. They represented 11 percent of the child welfare population in 1994, and in 1995 represented 12 percent of children in foster care and 4 percent of child fatalities due to abuse or neglect. …

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