02/11/2021 Reducing racial disparities in child welfare

Our country is having a renewed reckoning with its racist history and what systemic racism continues to look like today. 

After signing his January 26 executive order on racial equity, President Joe Biden said, “we face deep racial inequities in America” and “systemic racism that has plagued our nation for far, far too long.”

Biden was referring to ongoing racial inequities that disadvantage Black people and other people of color, while favoring white people. One example of this is housing policies that were put in place to segregate people by race and enforced by local, state, and federal governments beginning in the early 1900s. The Federal Housing Administration overtly denied mortgages on the basis of race and ethnicity. Although they are less overt, racist housing policies continue today — for example, they are why approximately 30 percent of the homes foreclosed on during the Great Recession affected Black and Hispanic families, while only 11 percent of foreclosed homes belonged to white families. 

These policies didn’t just block access to home ownership, one of the surest ways to build wealth in America, they also condemned many Black Americans to live in crowded, substandard housing, with reduced access to quality schools, clean air, outdoor play spaces, and even grocery stores stocked with nutritious food. These policies gave white Americans unfair advantages in securing mortgages, purchasing homes, and building wealth for future generations. These policies are part of what underpins today’s staggering racial wealth gap, in which the median wealth of a white family in the United States is over $134,000, compared to just over $11,000 for Black families.


Racism & the child welfare system

Numerous other examples of systemic racism abound. What makes such racism so pernicious is that these policies and practices are typically so embedded in the day-to-day operations of government agencies, schools, communities, and businesses that the individuals affected by them are often unaware that they are being penalized — or favored — on the basis of their race. 

We see this dynamic play out in all aspects of the child welfare system, and it’s why HopeWell explicitly identifies racism as the key driver of racial disparities in outcomes among youth involved with the foster care system.

A 2017 study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect investigations in the U.S. found that Black parents and guardians were nearly twice as likely to be investigated for alleged child maltreatment than white parents and guardians. 

Here in Massachusetts, Black children are 2.5 times more likely than white peers to be involved with the MA Department of Children and Families (DCF) according to DCF’s FY2020 annual report. The disparity is worse for Hispanic children at 2.9 percent. 

These disparities also exist in MA for out-of-home placements, including foster care: Black children are 2.5 times more likely and Hispanic children are 2.6 times more likely than their white counterparts to be removed from their homes. 

DCF states in its annual report that in FY2021, it is “mobilizing specific initiatives to address the disparities in child welfare in Massachusetts while paying close attention to racial equity work in child welfare agencies nationwide. Initially, the Department will look closely at available data and address workforce, policy, and program strategies to promote equitable outcomes for children and families.” 


Reducing racial disparities in child welfare 

As for reducing racial disparities in out-of-home placements, a study done in Nassau County, NY, points the way to a simple solution: race-blind decision-making about removing children from their homes. 

When Nassau County Department of Social Services officials began determining out-of-home placements without knowing a family’s race or ethnicity, names or addresses (which can provide clues about race/ethnicity), they saw a dramatic drop in the number of black children who were removed from their homes due to substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect. Decisions about whether to remove a child from a home or provide in-home services to help stabilize the family were instead made solely on the basis of information about current allegations, past allegations, and risk factors like mental health, substance abuse, parental stressors, and the number of children in the family. 

In 2011, 57 percent of the children placed in foster care by the agency were Black — even though Black people accounted for only about 13 percent of the county’s overall population. Five years later, thanks to race-blind removals, just 21 percent of children removed from their homes were Black — which evidenced the continued existence of racial disparities, but also demonstrated a significant improvement. 

The experiment was eye-opening for Nassau County social services officials as it forced them to confront their own racial biases, however well-intentioned they are about protecting children. One agency administrator told researchers that race-blind decision-making has brought objectivity to what traditionally has been a subjective task: 

“This particular field is very, very subjective because it’s a very emotional field. There’s no one that doesn’t have emotions around child welfare,” said the administrator. “And it’s very hard to leave all your stuff at the door when you do this work. And I don’t know that everyone is very good at it.” 

Another agency staffer acknowledged how preconceived notions about where someone lives could affect decisions about foster care placement: “Once you hear certain towns, right away, automatically you think the worst of that particular community,” the person said. “And it’s probably about six towns that I can think off the top of my head that they think is like, ‘Oh my God.’ So I think that the name and the address have a lot, and also the next part of it is the presentation of the [case]worker.” 

Sometimes the most effective solutions to problems are the most obvious. Race-blind foster care placement evaluations would be a good example. The practice will not fully eliminate racial disparities. But there is little doubt they can be a powerful tool in creating a more equitable child welfare system that responds appropriately and effectively to the needs of the children and families it serves. 

This detailed article by The Imprint is a great place to read more about the Nassau County study, the history of race-blind practices, and the political roadblocks to their wider use.