Black Children and Foster Care

Every two minutes, a child enters the foster care system. Currently, there are over 513,000 young people in foster care in across America.  While African American children make up only 15% of the general child population, they are nearly 40% of the foster care population.

This is what is referred to as “disproportionality,” and it is a specific African American issue in approximately 46 states.  In New York City, 73% of the population in care is African American. In San Francisco, 70% of the foster care population is African American and in Chicago, 75%. You can name many other large urban areas that have very high numbers of African American children, and you will find a disproportionally high number of African American children in the system.  Unfortunately, this is not unique to large urban areas.  Across the state of Minneapolis in 2002, for example, children of color were 16 times more likely to be in the foster care system.

The system strives to treat all children equally, but the reality is that not all children in foster care stand on equal ground.  The problem is not simply that African American children are disproportionately represented, but it is also that they suffer disparately poor outcomes.  It is of such concern that in 2006, the Casey-CSSP Alliance for Racial Equity called these disparities in outcomes a “chronic crisis.” Statistics show that African American children are:

•      More frequently reported to Child Protection Services

•      Less likely to receive in-home prevention services

•      More likely to be removed from their home

•      Likely to stay longer in foster care

•      Less likely to be reunified

•      Less likely to be adopted

•      Less likely to be placed with relatives

•      More likely to age out without a family

Children primarily enter foster care because of abuse or neglect. However national studies, including the 1993 National Incidence Survey of Child Abuse and Neglect, show no statistically significant differences in maltreatment rates between African-American and Caucasian families. So why are there so many African-American children in foster care? This question has been asked for years, and still we have no concrete answer.  While available studies do not allow us to conclusively identify causes, we do know that African American children are treated differently once in the system.

More people are having discussions about institutional racism and the influences of implicit bias on the child welfare system.  Many working within the child welfare system still have preconceived ideas about African American families, and these biases can negatively affect important decisions that define a child’s future.  Would it surprise you to know that it was found that African American social workers removed African American children from their homes at no lesser rate than their white counterparts?  That simply demonstrates the level to which we have all been exposed to negative messaging regarding African American families and communities.

Some argue that the issue is more about economics than about race.  African American families and neighborhoods are disproportionately poor, and poverty is highly correlated with a higher risk of child abuse.  Overrepresentation in the child welfare system may have more to do with poverty and its related social problems (i.e., substance abuse) than with race.  Since race and economics are so often intertwined, it’s hard to isolate either as a specific cause.

So, what now?  Many states have begun to advance their own practices to reduce disproportionality.  The results are promising. Social workers across the country have begun to take workshops designed to help them identify their own personal biases.  The judges who help to decide the fates of our children, often based on insufficient information, now have “benchcards”—which ask specific questions in an effort to help them protect against institutional bias.

As a community, we need to work toward creating a greater support system for the children around us.  There should be more emphasis on parent education, more programs designed to help fathers have substantive involvement in their children’s lives, a greater number of family and community advocates, and more people to step up and wrap these children in “blankets of care.”

In the time that it has taken you to read this, at least one African American child has been placed into foster care.  Consider becoming an adoptive parent.  If that doesn’t work for you, perhaps you can volunteer with a youth serving agency. Still too much? How about becoming a mentor? Whatever you decide, make it count. All of our children deserve the chance at a healthy and productive life.

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