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July/August 2004Vol. 5, No. 6Overrepresentation of Minority Children: How the Child Welfare System Is Responding

A recently released report by the Children's Bureau suggests that children of color, especially African American children, are overrepresented in the child welfare system for a variety of reasons, including poverty and racial bias. Children of Color in the Child Welfare System: Perspectives from the Child Welfare Community is one of the first studies to explore the attitudes and perceptions of the child welfare community regarding racial disproportionality. The report emphasizes the need for stronger administrative support, increased staff training in both general child welfare issues and cultural competency, and more internal and external resources to better serve families.

The qualitative study involved site visits to nine child welfare agencies across the country that were implementing a strategy, practice, or initiative to address the issue of disproportionality or to better meet the needs of families of color. Interviews were conducted with agency administrators, supervisors, and caseworkers. Child welfare staff proposed a variety of reasons why children of color are overrepresented in the child welfare system, including:

  • Poverty. Poverty and poverty-related circumstances are major contributors to the overrepresentation of minority children.
  • Visibility. Poor families are more likely to use public services such as public health clinics and receive TANF, making any problems they may be experiencing more visible to the community.
  • Overreporting. Some felt that disproportionality is the result of discriminatory practices within society; specifically, school and hospital personnel report minority parents for child abuse and neglect more frequently than nonminority parents.
  • Lack of experience with other cultures. Many of those interviewed felt that lack of understanding of the cultural norms of minority populations, along with racial bias, often interfered with good decision-making on the part of the case workers.

Those interviewed also noted the impact of Federal policies on the ways that agencies serve children and families. For example, some felt that transracial placements allowed through the Multi-ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) can be detrimental to African-American children's racial and ethnic identity, but others felt that this legislation has helped their agencies broaden the role of extended families in placement decisions. (MEPA, passed by Congress is 1994, is intended to remove barriers to permanency for children in the child protective system by facilitating the recruitment and retention of foster and adoptive parents who can meet the distinctive needs of children awaiting placement and eliminating discrimination on the basis of the race, color, or national origin of the child or the prospective parent.)

Study participants also described policies and practices that may help agencies better serve families of color, as well as programs and initiatives currently in place to address racial disproportionality, such as:

  • Emphasizing prevention. This includes providing more "front end" services to families to prevent child maltreatment. Some agencies have implemented alternative response systems that identify and engage at-risk families before they become involved in the child welfare system.
  • Engaging in partnerships. Partnerships with private, community-based, and ethnic-oriented agencies can provide public child welfare agencies with resources to better meet the needs of families of color. Many of the agencies interviewed have formal contracts with outside service providers or ethnic-based agencies to provide foster care, adoption, and support services.
  • Hiring culturally diverse and culturally competent staff. Agency staff should better reflect the population being served and, regardless of race, should understand cultural differences. Some agencies are making efforts to hire more ethnically and culturally diverse staff.

The report is available

Related Items

Read more about racial disproportionality in previous issues of Children's Bureau Express:

  • "Addressing Racial Disproportionality in Child Welfare" (November 2003)
  • "Seeking Causes: Racial Disproportionality in Child Welfare" (August 2003)