Race and Child Welfare Services: Past Research and Future Directions

By Courtney, Mark E.; Barth, Richard P. et al. | Child Welfare, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Race and Child Welfare Services: Past Research and Future Directions


Courtney, Mark E., Barth, Richard P., Berrick, Jill Duerr, Brooks, Devon, et al., Child Welfare


As in social discourse regarding virtually every other facet of American life, the subject of race* looms large in discussions of child welfare services. Any thorough assessment of recent trends in child welfare populations (e.g., abused and neglected children, children in family foster care, children awaiting adoption) must take note of the disproportionately large number of children of color. For example, a recent analysis of prevalence rates in five states with large out-of-home care populations (California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Texas) found that the proportion of African American children ranged from three times as high to over ten times as high as the proportion of Caucasian children in care

Goerge et al. 1994

. Similarly, in California and New York, the point-in-time estimate of African American children in out-of-home care in 1990 exceeded 4% of all African American children

Goerge et al. 1994

.

Government policy, such as the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-608), reflects the struggle over how best to provide culturally sensitive protective services to families and children. The variety of state and local policies concerning transracial family foster care placement and adoption and the ongoing debate over these policies are further evidence of deep conflict over how much, and in what ways, race should be allowed to influence the functioning of the child welfare system.

In the interest of providing guidance for research and program development, the authors reviewed child welfare outcome research studies to gain a better understanding of the role that race plays in the provision of child welfare services and in outcomes. Most assessments of the relative "fairness" of the child welfare services system are ultimately based on the end result of the system for clients. Although even a cursory review of the child welfare literature leads to the conclusion that there is much more knowledge of outcomes than of the processes that lead to the outcomes, differences in service provision associated with race bear consideration.

This review does not include all child welfare research in which race was included as a variable. Large, rigorous studies are emphasized, with occasional attention to smaller studies that offer unique findings or hold out particular promise for future research. In some areas, only a handful of studies have the requisite sample size to make comparisons by race with acceptable statistical power. Several large and influential studies have been omitted because of methodological limitations that rendered their findings regarding race and outcome inapplicable for use here. Research studies were identified through searches of relevant electronic databases, review of salient academic journals, and reference to final reports of well-known studies.

In this article, the empirical literature on the relationships among race, services, and outcomes in selected domains of child welfare is first discussed, followed by a summary of what previous research suggests about the role of race in child welfare. Finally, conceptual and methodological considerations for future research on this subject, and on the development of culturally competent child welfare services, are presented.

Child Maltreatment and Race

For many children, a report of child abuse is their entry point into the child welfare services system. Many studies have noted a relationship between demographic and socioeconomic factors and child maltreatment reporting.

The data from various studies indicate that children of color are more likely than Caucasians to be overrepresented in child maltreatment reports, based on the proportion of children of color in the child population. The correlation between race and income, however, often clouds interpretation of most studies. Indeed, the second National Study of Incidence and Severity of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-2)

National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect 1988

found that families whose incomes fell below $15,000 annually were four and one-half times more likely to be reported for all forms of maltreatment than those with incomes above that level. …

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