The Intersection of Race, Poverty, and Risk: Understanding the Decision to Provide Services to Clients and to Remove Children

By Rivaux, Stephanie L.; James, Joyce et al. | Child Welfare, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Intersection of Race, Poverty, and Risk: Understanding the Decision to Provide Services to Clients and to Remove Children


Rivaux, Stephanie L., James, Joyce, Wittenstrom, Kim, Baumann, Donald, Sheets, Janess, Henry, Judith, Jeffries, Victoria, Child Welfare


Studies have found that certain racial groups, particularly the children of African American families, are placed in foster care at a higher rate than children of other races. These families are also sometimes found to be afforded fewer services that might prevent these removals, relative to families of other races. It is unclear why this is so. Poverty has been suspected, and sometimes found, to be the primary cause of the disparity. Lacking in some of these analyses, however, was how risk of future abuse / neglect to the child entered into the decisions and particularly, how assumptions about race, poverty, and risk are factored into the decision-making process. It is important to understand this process if we are to find a way to correct it. The current study addresses this process.

Findings indicate that even when controlling for risk and poverty (as well as other relevant factors), race affects the decision to provide services and to remove children. We find that poverty is associated with higher risk scores. We also find that the risk scores of African American families in cases that are closed, those receiving Family Based Safety Services, and those resulting in children being removed are lower than the risk scores for Anglo families in the same groups. This suggests that rather than racial bias in the assigning of the risk score itself, disproportionality may be better explained by racial / ethnic differences in the risk threshold workers use to decision to take action on a case. In particular, the risk threshold for providing services or removing a child is higher for Anglo Americans than for African Americans.

The young caseworker stands at the doorway of the home. As she looks at her surroundings, she sees a home in some disrepair and a neighborhood that has seen better times. From her drive down the block, she recalls cracked sidewalks and streets, broken and boarded windows on homes, graffiti, and groups of African American youth standing on corners. She needs to make several decisions soon that will affect the safety of the child she is about to see. The intake call sounded serious. Aside from deciding whether or not to substantiate the case, she must determine whether the risk of future harm is sufficient to provide services or regrettably, if high enough, to place the child in foster care. How will she make this decision? How will the poverty she has seen affect this judgment? Will race play a role? Will she confuse them with risk?

It is important to know the answers to these questions because if the judgment she makes is unduly influenced by these external factors, we would want to know this so that steps can be taken to improve the uniformity and consistency of caseworkers' responses. Knowing these factors would allow us to do two things. First, if we could determine that the risk instrument is racially biased, we could repair it. Second, if the decision error is a misjudgment associated with the way in which she thinks about risk, race, and poverty, it is possible that we can inoculate her against this through training or other strategies. An example of one type of error that may be implicated here is the fundamental attribution error, which refers to the tendency to underestimate the influence of situational forces in the lives of those we are observing and to overestimate the influence of personal factors, such as traits and attitudes (Ross, 1977). In the example of our caseworker, it means that poverty (a situational factor) is discounted in decision making in favor of race (a personal factor).

How might we proceed in order to learn more about how risk, race, and poverty may impact our caseworker's decision to close, open the case for services, or remove the child? Research in this area has focused on identifying a racial difference in the rate at which children in the Child Protective Services system are removed or given Family Based Safety Services (FBSS).1 These researchers have found that African American children are more likely to be removed from their homes and less likely to be given FBSS than Anglos (Curtis, Dale, & Kendall, 1999; Garland, Hough, et al. …

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