The Color of Care: Legislators Are Seeking Answers to Difficult Questions about Race and Child Welfare

Article excerpt

Thirty-three percent of kids in foster care are African American, but they make up only 15 percent of the child population. Yet federal studies indicate that child abuse and neglect is actually lower for black families than it is for whites.

Why the disparity?

Lawmakers in a number of states are requiring answers, and social service agencies are doing some difficult soul searching. One of the major questions is whether the nation's child welfare system undermines the strength of families, particularly families of color.

The statistics are troubling. A series of large, federally mandated studies found that parents of color are no more likely than white parents to abuse or neglect their children and showed no significant difference in overall maltreatment rates between black and white families. In fact, an analysis of the 1993 National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect by Westat researchers found that rates of maltreatment for black families are lower than rates for white families, once we control for other factors, says Robert H. Hill, a senior researcher at Westat, a research corporation based in Maryland.

Some people believe the issue is economic, not racial. African American families and neighborhoods are disproportionately poor, and poverty is highly correlated with a higher risk of child abuse.

Overrepresentation in the child welfare system may have more to do with poverty and its related social problems such as substance abuse and single parenthood than it does with race. "The available studies do not allow us to identify causes," says Hill. "You can't assume that racial differences are the result of bias or racism. On the other hand, some racial differences may indeed result from race-related factors. At this point, we just don't know."

Although racial bias may not be the cause of overrepresentation in child welfare, it is clear that black families and children are treated differently than whites once they are in the system. Studies have shown that families of color receive fewer and lower quality services, fewer contacts by caseworkers, and less access to mental health and drug treatment services. Black and Hispanic children are twice as likely as white children to be placed with relatives, and yet relative foster parents tend to get less training and fewer support services than do non-relative foster parents.

"There is widespread agreement that, compared to white children and families in the child welfare system, children of color and their families have less access to services and their outcomes are poorer," says Peter Pecora, senior director of research for Casey Family Programs, a private operating foundation based in Seattle.

Several studies have also shown that children of color are more likely to be removed from home and to remain in foster care longer, and are less likely to be returned to their parents than are white children.

MAKING RACIAL EQUITY A PRIORITY

Raising these issues, let alone solving them, can be a challenge. But it is an important first step toward change.

"Action begins when state or local leaders identify racial inequities as a serious problem and resolve to address it," says Ernestine Jones, a child welfare researcher at Howard University. Jones is involved in a national initiative called the Casey-CSSP Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare. Jones recently completed a study of 10 jurisdictions working on the problem. They include sites in San Francisco; San Antonio, Texas; Sioux City, Iowa; King County, Wash.; and Guilford and Wake counties in North Carolina. Programs in Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota were also part of the study.

"What we learned is that impetus for action can come from inside or outside the child welfare agency, but that it seems most powerful when it comes from both," she says.

While the work of each jurisdiction studied by Jones is different, she did find similarities. …