According to federal data, black children were 13.8 percent of the total child population in the United States in 2014. Yet, they constituted 22.6 percent of those identified as victims of maltreatment, and 24.3 percent of the children in foster care. In Minnesota, the disparities appear to be even greater. Citing these disparities, two legislators have proposed the Minnesota African American Preservation Act.
The Act would create an “African American Child Well-being Department” within the Department of Human Services to receive notification of all cases involving African-American children and “directly oversee, review, and consult on case plans and services” offered to these children. It would also create an African American Child Welfare Oversight Council. Similar to the Indian Child Welfare Act, it would set a higher bar for removing African American children from their homes than white children and require greater efforts to reunify children once removed from their families.
The bill’s sponsors argue that racial disparities in child welfare are caused by differential treatment of minority families in terms of how allegations of maltreatment are investigated, resolved, and responded to. This is belief, which was supported by early research, has become accepted by the child welfare establishment.
The idea of racial bias in child welfare found support in the first two National Incidence Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect, which were published in the 1980s and 1990s. These studies, which attempt to count all episodes of abuse and neglect rather than just those that are reported and substantiated, suggested that there was no difference in black and white child maltreatment rates. The study authors suggested that black families received differential treatment by child welfare systems, resulting in their over-representation in these systems.
Starting about 2004, a coalition of foundations, nonprofits, and academics formed around the idea that this disproportional representation of black children in child welfare stemmed from a racist system. This coalition launched a well-funded campaign to reduce the representation of black children in child welfare and especially foster care. They issued reports, held conferences, and provided training and technical assistance to help states analyze their disproportionality problems.
As a result of this work, agencies around the country have adopted strategies like staff retraining, creating special administrative structures to advance racial equity, and special data collection efforts. As a social worker in the District of Columbia, I was subjected to multiple, often poor-quality trainings that tried to help me discover my hidden biases so that they would not affect my treatment of families.
The fact that child welfare workers in many jurisdictions are disproportionately African American has not influenced the consensus in favor of such strategies, as pointed out in an excellent article by Naomi Schaefer Riley. When I pointed out in a training class that most District of Columbia child welfare social workers were African-American, I was told that did not matter, as Black social workers could be as racist as white ones.
But a cascade of new research has cast grave doubts on the accepted theory of disproportionality. The third (larger and more rigorous) National Incidence Study published in 2010 estimated that black child maltreatment rates are almost twice as high than those of whites. Further analysis showed that this difference was present in the earlier study, but due to small sample sizes, the differences were not statistically significant and hence not reported.
A conference, convened in 2011 by Harvard, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the National Court Appointed Special Advocates, brought together leading scholars on child welfare and race in front of an audience of child welfare leaders from around the country. A research brief summarizing the conference that was published by Chapin Hall concluded that “there is a significant black/white maltreatment gap, one that roughly parallels the gap in official maltreatment reports. This evidence contradicts the belief that black children are included at high rates in the child welfare system because of bias.”
The brief’s authors based their conclusions on the National Incidence Study as well as other empirical work reinforcing the conclusion that child maltreatment rates are significantly higher for black children. They suggested that the higher rate of maltreatment among African-Americans stems from the history of slavery and racism, which led to higher poverty and concentration in impoverished neighborhoods characterized by crime, substance abuse, unemployment, and limited community services.
In other words, disproportionality is rooted in racism. But It’s not a racist child welfare system that results in disproportional representation of black children in the child welfare system. Rather, it is the racist history of our country that has created the difference in child maltreatment which in turn resulted in disproportional representation.
The researchers concluded that trying to reduce racial bias in the system is not the way to address the inequity between blacks and whites in child welfare. Instead, we need to address the underlying social conditions. And until we can do that, we need to protect children, both by preventing maltreatment and by providing appropriate protective services.
Since the Harvard conference, the evidence continues to accumulate that black and white maltreatment rates differ. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics concluded that the child abuse fatality rate for children aged four and under was 8.0 per thousand African-American children, compared with 2.7 per 100,000 white children.
Unfortunately, many child welfare agencies, advocates, and legislators, including the sponsors of the Minnesota legislation, are either unaware of, or do not want to recognize, the new consensus among researchers. As The Los Angeles Times put it:
“Many left the [Harvard/Chapin Hall] conference believing that any caseworker bias against black families accounted for only a small portion of the disparity in foster care rates … Yet, Los Angeles County officials pressed forward with programs that assumed that racial bias was a significant cause for the high rate of [foster care placement] of black children.”
As I have written in the past, Native American children have been victimized by a similar type of reasoning. The Indian Child Welfare Act has been responsible for separating Indian children from loving foster families and placing them with relatives they do not know. On some occasions, these relatives have hurt or killed them.
This focus on reducing alleged systemic bias may do more harm than simply wasting child welfare resources on bureaucracy and training. If black children are more likely to be maltreated, equalizing black and white representation in the child welfare system would leave many black children in danger of years of suffering or even death. As Naomi Schaefer Riley put it, “No it’s not racist to save minority children’s lives.”