Discriminating against communities of color in the child welfare system

ShatteredbondsIn trying to figure out how to begin this
post on communities of color and child protection issues, I found it
difficult to know where to begin and where to end. Trying to finger the
exact places and times that the child welfare system discriminates
against communities of color is like trying to pick out which piece of
hay in the haystack is to blame. The issues are so intertwined that it
is impossible to sort through.

The discrimination occurs on micro,
mezzo and macro levels; everything from the federal legislations that
either purposely targeted communities of color or structurally
supported hidden bias against these populations to the individual
social worker whose inexperience or bias resulted in discriminatory
treatment. Most of the time, it’s a combination of many levels of
discriminatory interventions by the child welfare system and society at

To begin, I feel it is important to clarify some definitions and themes that you will often see in discussions and research about communities of color and child welfare:

  • When we talk about research we need to keep in mind that correlation does not equal causation.
    One thing often miss-communicated in articles about child welfare is
    when a correlation becomes misrepresented as causation. For example,
    there is a correlation between being poor or in poverty and having
    child protection interventions. This does not mean that being poor or
    in poverty causes child protection interventions; it means that
    of those people involved in child protection there is a stronger
    likelihood of being poor or in poverty.
  • Over-representation refers to a group’s percentage or number is larger than other groups. An example of over representation would be the number of African American men in prison in the U.S. in 2003. Of the 1,316,415 men in prison that year, 586,300 were African American versus 454,300 white males. African American men are overrepresented.
  • Disproportionate refers to a higher percentage in a
    given circumstance than in the overall population. An example of
    disproportionate would be that African American children were 21.4% of
    the children in foster care for the state of Minnesota in 2003– despite the fact that African American children made up only 5% of the overall population.

There are two important books that are must-reads for anyone interested in examining the historical and current practices of child welfare discrimination towards the African American population. These are Dorothy Robert’s Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare and Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare by Andrew Billingsly and Jeanne M. Giovannoni. I believe every single social worker who works in the child welfare system should be required to read these books.

As I pointed out in my previous post, Shireman (2003) calls our society
guilty of maltreatment when “schools, legal authorities, or
institutions designed to care for children and families fail to provide
adequately for all children.” To me, this includes the structural
discrimination that negatively targets certain populations – that includes access to equal
education, housing, medical care, finance, employment, etc. that
have/continue to purposely discriminated against some populations. If
we are structurally contributing to suppressing the opportunities for
targeted populations, and those children suffer as a result, then we
are guilty for the maltreatment of those children.

Overwhelmingly we have, as a society, neglected communities of color. And it is no wonder that these communities are thus overrepresented in child welfare.

One of the philosophies the colonists brought to the U.S. was a belief they brought with them from England –  the Elizabethan Poor Law philosophy that poverty was directly tied to one’s own faults or moral defects. No matter what racial or cultural heritage, the overarching method of dealing with poverty was, as Billingsley and Giovannoni write, "not so much of reform for the poor as reform of the poor" (p.22).

Early asylums and orphanages were white institutions created and run by wealthy white women, often with affiliations of their church or religious denomination. Most of the children who were accepted in these institutions were those from poor families of that particular faith. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, children’s orphanages and asylums sprung up in many large cities as the influx of Europeans emigrated to the U.S. Most of these excluded African American children. Like our schools and offices, institutions and charitable
organizations set up to help the needy would not serve African
Americans. The few that did prior to WWII were more likely to place
African American children in homes for delinquent children rather than homes for dependent children. According
to Billingsley and Giovannoni, "the major child caring institution for
Black and other nonwhite children was the prison" (p. 80).

Once African American specific agencies and
organizations began to form, often they were often requried to have
white board members, executive directors and staff in order to serve
"not only Black people, but all people in need" and to have credibility in the larger society (Billingsley and Giovannoni, 1972). They also found that
"The notion that all Blackness must be legitimated by a bit of
whiteness is an extention of the negative conception of Blackness that
is evident in the structuring of social institutions," citing that
until 1968, the Child Welfare League of America had an official policy
to discourage culturally specirfic agencies or institutions in African
American communties.

For clues, we must take a long look back to see all the structural events that shaped our child welfare system to where it is today. The proverbial elephant in the room is the lasting effects of slavery. African Americans were denied access to education, jobs, home ownership and access to opportunities for financial independence – and financial independence in our society is equated with moral standing. Many Americans still believe that people in poverty deserve their hardships because of inherent personal defects, not larger macro issues that have helped keep those in poverty down.

So we must look at how the practice of red-lining and denial of mortgage loans and insurance and  overt racism prevented African American families from buying homes, which is one of the most effective ways of building financial independence and one that lasts for many generations. We can look at the generational effects of the early 20th century practice of placing Black children in prisons or delinquent homes rather than homes for dependent children and how many of those children grew up and were able to get jobs and buy homes for their future families.

We also would need to look at post WWII and how the move towards foster care and away from institutional care led to more white children being adopted and African American children were the ones to end up living in foster care until emancipation. And with the professionalization of social work and the shift from removing children from care due to abuse to removing children due to neglect – which affects those families in poverty the most – African American and American Indian children began to be removed at dramatically higher rates than white children.

A 1997 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found that social workers were more likely to place African American and American Indian children  in foster care than receive in-home services when compared to white children with the same family issues. Once in foster care, African American children typically stay there twice the length of white children. Often this is a result of bias all the way from the social worker to the judge.

Social workers often have prejudicial biases towards communities of color and pathologize the parents for everything that doesn’t seem to look like compliance. Research has found that the reasons children come to attention of child protection is greatly due to reporting. When the federal legislation I mentioned in my previous post after the 1962 study of "Battered Child Syndrome" by C. Henry Kempe emphasized mandated reporting of child abuse and neglect, children of color were disproportionately targeted as being abused or neglected than white children.

It’s easy to see how this could happen. Most of the people who come into contact with children in professional capacities – that is, mandated reporters – are white. Teachers, social workers, hospital doctors and nurses. Research has shown that hospital admitting staff (nurses, emergency workers) have a bias towards children of color who come in for injuries and suspect abuse in disproportionate numbers than children with the same injuries who are white; and will often call in child protection for interviews if the families are of color.

In addition, there was a widely publicized media frenzy about so-called "crack babies" being born addicted due to the mom’s drug use. First of all, and this deserves an entire post of its own, African American women are over targeted in the hospital for toxicology screening. A little secret most people don’t know about is that there is no mandated standard for screening and testing pregnant women for drugs at delivery. That means it is up to a nurse to decide if they want to test for drugs when a baby is born and since it is more often assumed that an African American woman with "bizarre" behavior is high than a white woman with the same "bizarre" behavior. If a baby is tested positive then a social worker comes and takes that baby instantly to foster care. How many white women who had positive-tox babies went home because the nurses or doctors did not suspect they were high?

Secondly (and again this maybe deserves another post and I recommend you read Dr. Laura Briggs’ excellent paper, “Crack, Abortion, the Culture of Poverty, and Welfare Cheats: The Making of the ‘Healthy White Baby Crisis ) – but women who use crack are imprisoned and sentenced at rates that are unequal to women who use powder cocaine – and crack is most often found in communities of color while cocaine is most often found in middle and upper class suburban communities. So even though both powder cocaine and crack cocaine have roughly the same amount of drug per gram, a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in prison for possession of crack is 5 grams, versus 500 grams for powder cocaine.

I have not even discussed thus far the American Indian community, which has been the other population of people discriminated against and targeted in child protection issues. When we consider the attempted genocide of the American Indian communities, the robbery of their land and the decimation of their social and familial culture it is not difficult to see why this community has such struggles today. One of the biggest factors in the continual struggle of American Indian families today is the legacy of the forcible removal of Native children in order to Christianize them and, as General Pratt proclaimed, to "Kill the Indian, save the man" (Pratt, 1892).

Beginning in 1870s, children were removed, sometimes at gun point, from their parents and placed in Catholic and Protestant boarding schools where they were forbid to speak their language, wear their native clothing or practice their spirituality. They were forced to practice Christianity and then at 18, were forced out into the world. I remember a guest at one of my classes who spoke about her experience in the boarding school; her brother, 2 years older than she, was also at the same institution. They were never allowed to talk to each other or visit. The only time in 5 years that she saw him was when the boys and the girls passed by each other in lines going opposite directions. As this guest speaker explained, this devastated an entire generation of American Indians, which has in turn devastated a few more generations of Native kids. Outcome studies by Fischler (1980) and Guerro (1979) found that American Indian youth raised outside of their culture had two times the suicide rates as the national average, and Dr. Samuel Roll stated that Indian children adopted outside their culture faced severe identity crisis at adolescence (Matheson, 1996). We also know that there is a high incidence of mental health and chemical dependency for those who experienced the boarding schools and were placed in abusive adoptive homes.

It has been estimated that 30% of all American Indian children were forced into boarding schools or adoptive homes before 1978 when the Indian Child Welfare Act was legislated, and of that 30%, more than 85% were in non-Indian homes or placements (NICWA, 1997). The last boarding school, the Phoenix Indian School, was still in operation at the time ICWA was enacted in 1978 – the year I turned 10 years old.

My next post will be demystifying some of the common misconceptions and myths about why it appears that African American and American Indian communities don’t adopt. 


Billingsley, A. & Giovannoni, J.M. (1972). Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Fischler, R.S. (1980). Protecting American Indian children. Social Work, 25, 341-349.

Guerrero, M.P. (1979). Indian Child Welfare Act of 1979: A response to the threat to Indian
culture caused by foster and adoptive placements of Indian children. American Indian
Law Review, 7, 51-77.

Matheson, L. (1996). The politics of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Social Work, 41:2, 232-235.

National Indian Child Welfare Association (1997). Testimony of the National Indian Child Welfare Association regarding proposed amendments to the Indian Child Welfare Act: S. 569 and H.R. 1082.

Ortiz, Ana Teresa and Laura Briggs, “Crack, Abortion, the Culture of Poverty, and
      Welfare Cheats: The Making of the ‘Healthy White Baby Crisis,’” Social Text 75
    (September 2003): 39-57.

Pecora, P.J. & Whittaker, J.L. (1992). The child welfare challenge: Policy, practice and research. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Pratt, R.H. (1892). Official report of the nineteenth annual conference of charities and correction.
Reprinted in “The advantages of mingling Indians with whites,” Americanizing the American Indians:Writings by the ‘Friends of the Indian’ 1880-1900 (1973), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 260-271.

Roberts, D. (2002). Shattered Bonds: The color of child welfare. New York: Basic Civitas Books.

Shireman, J.F. (2003). Critical issues in child welfare. New York: Columbia University Press

For more information:

Disparities and bias in mandated reporting:

Multicultural considerations in the application of child protection laws

A great article about the "Color of Child Welfare"

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

3 thoughts

  1. Interesting reading.
    As I experienced the system myself as a ten year old white kid, with an African American woman as my primary social worker, I never thought of these kinds of issues as a young adult. It seemed quite “even” to me.
    Then I volunteered as a mentor to a young man that lived in the projects of a inner city in Ohio and saw a completely different perspective. I am still stunned to this day.
    I just wish that the great conscience of this country would get the idea that all children must receive the greatest support we can give them, and that THAT would strengthen our society more than anything else we could possibly do.

  2. Great post, and very thought-provoking. I think you’re so right to place the blame on our society as a whole rather than on individual families. There are so many ways that we fail these parents and kids.
    I’ve often noticed that the helping professions are dominated by white women, and wondered why that is the case.

  3. Rachel, I am reading a book right now that I think might explain how this occured – it’s called “Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945” by Regina G. Kunzel.

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