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March 2016Vol. 17, No. 1Racial Bias in Child-Serving Systems

The overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system is an issue that has been well documented in literature and investigations. However, the racial disparities in other social services systems that coordinate with and "feed into" the juvenile justice system have a significant effect on disparities in this system. A report from the National Center for Youth Law seeks to shed light on how racial bias in the child welfare, education, and mental health systems affects racial disparity in the juvenile justice system.

The report particularly focuses on how ambiguities in evaluation criteria for determining outcomes in each of these systems often allows room for professionals' personal biases to impact decision-making. In the child welfare system, for example, racial disparities exist despite the fact that research has shown families of color are no more likely to abuse or neglect their children than White families. The National Center for Youth Law report suggests that this may "reflect a distortion of reality and that the decision-makers malleably apply the definition of maltreatment." The report also discusses the following manifestations of bias in the child welfare system:

  • Referral and investigation: Black families are overreported for suspected maltreatment.
  • Substantiation: Caseworkers are more likely to substantiate abuse and remove a child in cases involving neglect (which disproportionately involve Black families) than those of physical and/or sexual violence (which disproportionately involve White families).
  • Removal and out-of-home placement: Black and Latino children are more likely than White children to be removed and placed into out-of-home care and less likely to receive treatment services. Black children are more likely to be placed into foster care, while Black caregivers receive less-than-equitable economic and social resources to help support the child. White youth in foster care are more often referred to mental health treatment. Upon referral, they are also more likely to be diagnosed and treated for a mental health disorder.

The report includes a chapter discussing strategies to help systems and professionals become more culturally competent, and its appendices feature decision-making maps for child protective, education, and mental health services.

Access Implicit Bias in the Child Welfare, Education and Mental Health Systems, prepared by Jina Lee, Zenobia Bell, and Mae Ackerman-Brimberg, and edited by Michael Harris and Hannah Benton, on the National Center for Youth Law website at