African American Children in the Modern Child Welfare System: A Legacy of the Flemming Rule

By Lawrence-Webb, Claudia | Child Welfare, January/February 1997 | Go to article overview

African American Children in the Modern Child Welfare System: A Legacy of the Flemming Rule


Lawrence-Webb, Claudia, Child Welfare


Children of color throughout America-and especially those who are African American-are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system. This article links this current child welfare condition to the most significant but little known ruling in the historical development of the modern child welfare system-the Flemming Rule. The Flemming Rule, although intended to be constructive, was negatively implemented in a way that has had long-term serious consequences for African American children and their families. Implications for future policies are discussed.

Children of color throughout America, and especially African American children, are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system [Leashore et al. 1991; Children's Defense Fund 1990; National Black Child Development Institute 1990]. One explanation for this phenomenon may lie in the historical evolution and implementation of the Flemming Rule. This landmark administrative decision by Dr. Arthur Flemming, who was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Eisenhower administration, had an enormous impact on the implementation of AFDC policies and child welfare services.

The Flemming Rule was an administrative response to discriminatory practices in the AFDC program under the Social Security Act of 1935, practices that resulted in mass expulsions of needy children from state welfare rolls.* The rule evolved as a result of widespread flagrant abuses of home suitability requirements by some states to deny AFDC benefits to African American children and their mothers. The evolution and implementation of this fundamentally important rule has been ignored in discussions and debates about AFDC and child welfare policies and the connection between these two vital aspects of social welfare.

Background

Racial oppression was built into the AFDC program when it was created as part of the 1935 Social Security Act [Mink 1990; Gordon 1990; Quadagno 1988; Skocpol 1988; Abramovitz 1988]. Rules regarding suitability of the home and other restrictions on the provision of AFDC were the creation of state governments and were implemented from 1935 to the early 1960s with the tacit approval of the federal Bureau of Public Assistance (BPA) [Skocpol 1988; Quadagno 1988; Bell 1965]. State AFDC programs were established with matching federal funds. In the early years, there was a 50-50 match; over time, the federal share became larger. Despite the large federal role, states had great discretion in choosing policies in AFDC [Bell 1965]. These policies included "home suitability clauses," "substitute father rules," man-in-the-house rule," and "illegitimate child clauses" [Piven & Cloward 1971; Bell 1965]. The policies arbitrarily denied benefits to African Americans because their homes were seen as immoral, men other than biological fathers were identified by workers as assuming care of the recipients' children, the worker believed a man was living in the home, and/or the mother had children born out-of-wedlock.

For example, home suitability rules of the 1940s and 1950s evolved from the federal government's failure to provide clarity concerning a definition and specific criteria for determining the suitability of a home.l This led to variability at the state level and allowed public welfare agencies to become instruments of local interests and prejudices, a situation that ultimately led to debate about the usefulness of the policy and the real purpose it served.2

Ostensibly, home suitability requirements were created to ensure that public support was provided only to "moral" homes. States could reject at the point of application, or subsequently expel from the rolls, clients whose homes were labeled "immoral." Cases of expelled or rejected homes were closed without follow-up services under the rationalization that services to the children could not be provided because cases were no longer active [Bell 1965]. …

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