Institutionalizing Inequalities: Black Children and Child Welfare in Cleveland, 1859-1998

By Morton, Marian J. | Journal of Social History, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Institutionalizing Inequalities: Black Children and Child Welfare in Cleveland, 1859-1998


Morton, Marian J., Journal of Social History


In May 1997, a public ombudsman reported that children were beaten by staff and other children in the Cuyahoga County Detention Center in Cleveland, an "overcrowded, unsanitary, dehumanizing facility." In September, a team of consultants described the center as "one of the most adult-oriented, bleak, depressing, unsafe and psychologically harmful facilities that anyone ... has ever visited." The Detention Center kept "a disproportionate number" of black children behind bars: "black children constituted 54.7 percent of the children brought into the center for processing but 67 percent of children kept at the center ... The ... team doubts that the poor conditions of confinements ... would be tolerated by the general public, if [the Center] held an overwhelming number of white youths [italics in the original].... [T]he high number of African-American youths ... helps to perpetuate the lessons that many of the minority youths ... receive from the larger society--'[You] don't matter and [you] are not important."' [1] Opened in 1932 to provide temporary shelter for dependent and delinquent children, this detention facility today symbolizes a child welfare system which has institutionalized and sustained the city's racial inequalities.

This prejudicial treatment of black children has been a national phenomenon. From the mid-nineteenth century through the Great Depression, most dependent children in the United States were cared for in orphanages; but in 1883, 276 of the 353 orphanages across the country excluded black children; 68 institutions, most of them public, admitted a tiny handful; only nine orphanages sheltered black children exclusively. From 1890 to 1933, although the number of orphanages for both white and non-white children increased, the number of racially integrated institutions actually decreased. [2] Although national child welfare leaders were aware of the needs of black children, [3] it was not until the 1960s that private orphanages--by then residential treatment centers for emotionally disturbed children--admitted significant numbers of black children. Even so, black children were less likely than white to be placed in private institutions where they might receive psychiatric help and more likely to receive placement in public correctional facilities, "likely to be the most harsh, the least rehabilitative." [4]

These racial inequities appear with special force at the local level, for cities and counties have historically borne the primary responsibility for dependent children. Recent scholarship on local child-care institutions, however, has paid scant attention to black children--as did the institutions themselves. In contrast, black children are at the center of this study of Cleveland, where for almost a century and a half, the city's public and private child-care agencies provided for them often separately, almost always unequally, and at worst punitively. [5]

Only part of this story is revealed in quantitative data. The federal census has recorded the numbers of blacks in the Cleveland population. (See Table

1) Orphanages were less methodical, keeping more careful track of children's religion and nationality than of their race; public agencies seldom kept systematic records. Only the Cleveland Welfare Federation, in its effort to oversee the city's social service organizations, collected demographic data on the children in all Cleveland institutions--and only occasionally. However, since black children have been more likely than white to need institutional care, an accurate count of black children in institutions compared to the numbers of blacks in the general population would not provide an accurate picture of the children's inequitable treatment.

It is possible, however, to glimpse the children occasionally--their names, their ages, their families, their unique qualities and circumstances--in the institutions' handwritten admission records or the social workers' typed case studies. …

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