Vol. 11, No. 2 • May 2007

Race and Foster Care

“More than half of the 500,000 children in foster care on any day in America come from ethnic minority families even though children from minority communities make up less than half the children in this country. . . . At every age level, black children are more likely to be placed in foster care than Whites or Hispanics.”

These facts, presented by Robert B. Hill in his extensively researched Synthesis of Research on Disproportionality in Child Welfare: An Update, are not really news. Concerning and even alarming, yes. But not news.

We have known for decades that there are more children of color living in foster care, especially African Americans, than would be expected based solely on their numbers in the general population. For example, in the U.S. in 2005, non-Hispanic black children made up approximately 15% of all children under age 18 but accounted for 32% of foster children (ChildTrends, 2007). The term used to describe this phenomenon is “disproportionality.”

The figure below, from Hill’s report, illustrates the racial/ethnic disproportionality in foster care in 2000. In the figure, if a group’s number in the far right column is less than 1.0, it is underrepresented relative to its size in the general population; if it is more than 1.0, the group is overrepresented.

In line with national trends, nonwhite children are disproportionately represented in NC’s foster care population. In 2003, nonwhite children comprised 54.1% of children in foster care in our state (USDHHS, 2006), although they made up only 30.6% of the state’s population between the ages 0-17 (NC Data Ctr, 2006).

Why are so many children of color in the child welfare system? Hill says three explanations have been proposed:

Parent and family risk factor theories hold that minorities are overrepresented because they have disproportionate needs. The idea is that these children come from families that are more likely to have risk factors—such as unemployment, teen parenthood, poverty, substance abuse, incarceration, domestic violence, and mental illness—that result in high levels of maltreatment.

Community risk factor theories. Hill says these theories assert that overrepresentation has less to do with race or class and more to do with residing in neighborhoods and communities that have many risk factors—such as high levels of poverty, welfare assistance, unemployment, homelessness, single-parent families, and crime and street violence—that make residents more visible to surveillance from public authorities.

Organizational and systemic factor theories contend that overrepresentation results from the decision-making processes of CPS agencies, the cultural insensitivity and biases of workers, governmental policies, and institutional or structural racism.

Which of these theories is correct? According to Hill we lack the empirical evidence needed to answer this question because almost all studies have focused on the presence or absence of disproportionality, not its cause. That said, Hill does emphasize the general consensus among researchers that race is an important factor at many key stages in the child welfare system, including reporting, investigation, substantiation, placement, and exit from care. Hill concludes by cautioning us against a rush to judgment. Until further research is done, we cannot be certain what role—if any—bias or racism play.

No matter how you explain it, there is no denying that disproportionality and race in general have a huge influence on the child welfare system. Child welfare professionals owe it to themselves and the families they serve to learn all they can on the subject, and to continually work to increase their cultural competency.

Hill’s report is an excellent resource for this. In addition to disproportionality it explores in depth what the research has to say about race and patterns of child maltreatment, disparities in treatment, and more. You can find it at <www.racemattersconsortium.org>.

References for this and other articles in this issue

Copyright 2007 Jordan Institute for Families