Racial disproportionality is well documented in the child welfare system, both nationally and in Texas. Child welfare disproportionality primarily affects African American and Native American children and families. Latino/Hispanic children are generally not overrepresented in the U.S. child welfare system. Nationally and in Texas, in fact, they are slightly underrepresented in intakes, investigations, and removals compared to their population demographics. Conversely, compared to White children, African American children are substantially more likely to be reported for maltreatment, investigated, substantiated (RTB’d), and removed. They also spend more time awaiting adoption if parental rights are terminated.1
When disproportionality in the child welfare system first came into widespread attention, there was an initial assumption that racial bias among child welfare professionals was the cause of the racial differences. As a result, interventions to address disproportionality have largely focused on trainings to reduce bias among caseworkers and those making decisions about investigations, dispositions, removals, termination of parental rights, and other critical points in the life of a CPS case. Unfortunately, these interventions have not made a meaningful impact on the problem, even after years of applying them in Texas and nationally.
Disproportionality persists in spite of efforts aimed at reducing bias among child welfare professionals. In fact, African American disproportionality in Texas has worsened every year since 2013.2 We now have some empirical knowledge of why this is the case. While some studies do report evidence of racial biases in CPS caseworker assessments3, the strongest, most robust, and most recent body of research all points in the same direction: when you control for poverty in the analysis of child welfare disproportionality, the group differences by race and ethnicity disappear.4 This provides strong evidence about the nature of the problem: racially disparate socioeconomic conditions are the primary drivers child welfare disproportionality.
Deep, entrenched economic disparities, created by the history and ongoing legacy of racism and white supremacy in this country, have concentrated the risk factors for maltreatment in communities of color. Economic and social deprivation among African American and Native American communities, resulting from the systemic and institutional racism woven into the fabric of our society, lead to housing instability, maltreatment, domestic violence, community violence, mental health difficulties, substance abuse, unsafe housing, unemployment, lack of access to childcare, and other circumstances that drive child welfare system involvement. These disparities are not just seen in the child welfare system, but in the criminal justice system, the education system, the healthcare system, and in the unequal access to resources in all these areas. The takeaway from this is clear: we must address the economic injustices affecting communities of color to address child welfare disproportionality.
To affirm that racism exists in all corners of our society, including among those who work in the child welfare system, is an understatement. But we must approach policy solutions to racial injustices based on the best possible knowledge of what is driving the problem; in this case, research tells us that driver is primarily economic disparity. If we limit our scope to the assumption that implicit or explicit racial bias among child welfare professionals is causing the scope of the disparities in the system we work in, we are doing a disservice to the communities that are affected. The most effective activism is always based on sound evidence about the nature of a problem.
The difficult thing about this is that the child welfare system alone cannot fix the problem. Macro-level interventions to promote economic justice must be the focal point; if not, we will never see the change we want to see. In this vein, the question I would pose is not How do we address implicit bias and racism in the child welfare system? but rather, How can we as an organization, and as a community, use our power to create and contribute to large-scale policies that will create meaningful change toward racial and economic justice in our society?
There is not an easy answer to this, but we believe this is where we need to be centering our work and creating dialogue in our circles of influence.
1 DFPS Disproportionality webpage: https://www.dfps.state.tx.us/Child_Protection/Disproportionality/how_big.asp
2 Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services webinar. (2020). Critical conversations: A symposium on the intersections of race, child welfare, and criminal justice in Texas. Recording link: https://us02web.zoom.us/rec/play/vcIrIb_-rzo3H4CdswSDAKcrW420faisg3MXq6Bcnk_kW3lSNFbyb7MaZOTS6_JOdm4chsqyiksXEPAT?autoplay=true&continueMode=true&startTime=1592334600000
3 For example:
Ards, S. D., Myers, S. L., Jr., Ray, P., Kim, H. E., Monroe, K., & Arteaga, I. (2012). Racialized perceptions and child neglect. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(8), 1480–1491.
Dettlaff, A. J., Rivaux, S. L., Baumann, D. J., Fluke, J.D., Rycraft, J. R., & James, J. (2011). Disentangling substantiation: The influence of race, income, and risk on the substantiation decision in child welfare. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(9), 1630–1637.
4 For example:
Drake, B., Jolley, J. M., Lanier, P., Fluke, J., Barth, R. P., & Jonson-Reid, M. (2011). Racial bias in child protection? A comparison of competing explanations using national data. Pediatrics, 127(3), 1–8.
Kim, H. & Drake, B. (2018). Child maltreatment risk as a function of poverty and race/ethnicity in the USA. International Journal of Epidemiology, 47(3), 780–787.
Maguire-Jack, K., Lanier, P., Johnson-Motoyama, M., Welch, H., & Dineen, M. (2015). Geographic variation in racial disparities in child maltreatment: The influence of county poverty and population density. Child Abuse & Neglect, 47, 1–13.
Putnam-Hornstein, E., Needell, B., King, B. & Johnson-Motoyama, M. (2013). Racial and ethnic disparities: A population-based examination of risk factors for involvement with child protective services. Child Abuse & Neglect, 37, 33-46.