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March 2016Vol. 17, No. 1Conceptual Framework: African-American Disproportionality in Child Welfare

Research demonstrates that children of color continue to be overrepresented in every level of child welfare. Nationally, African American children are overrepresented in foster care at a rate of two times their rate in the general population (see a report by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in this month's CBX). African American children are overrepresented in incident reports, investigations, and foster care entries. They also have disparate experiences in foster care, including longer stays in out-of-home care and lower reunification rates with their birth parents. While racial disproportionality and disparities in child welfare have been studied for decades, the field has done little to comprehensively define, explain, and understand why African-American children experience disproportionality and disparities in the child welfare system.

Increased precision and refining existing theoretical frameworks are needed to explain disproportionality and disparities. An article from the February 2014 issue of Children and Youth Services Review examines timely literature on racial disproportionality in child welfare systems. The article includes a review of the operational definitions and explanatory factors of and current conceptual frameworks for disproportionality and disparity for African-American children and families. The article also proposes an alternate conceptual framework aimed at strengthening the theoretical foundation needed for future research, analysis, and understanding.

The proposed framework builds on existing frameworks and knowledge, but focuses on the distinction between disproportionality and disparity—these terms are not interchangeable as the field has sometimes used them in the past—with explanatory factors organized into the following five pathways:

  • Disproportionate need
  • Human decision-making
  • Agency-systemic factors
  • Placement dynamics
  • Policy impact

The article thoroughly reviews each pathway and presents the associated explanatory factors, followed by a brief discussion section reiterating the need for more research in this area.

"African American Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare: Toward a Comprehensive Conceptual Framework," by Reiko Boyd, Children and Youth Services Review, 37, 2014, is available at


Related Item

Native American and Alaska Native children are also disproportionally represented in child welfare. The October 2014 issue of Children's Bureau Express spotlights "Tribal Child Welfare," highlighting cultural adaptations of trauma treatments, research on the use of social services by urban American Indian families, and a guide to help CASAs advocate for Native children.