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Partner Perspective

Child Welfare and Racial Disparity: Taking Stock

Fred Wulczyn
Senior Research Fellow
Chapin Hall
University of Chicago

Although the issue of race within the broader child welfare system has been an issue for quite some time, questions about the overrepresentation of African American children in foster care have gained particular salience in recent years. The concerns are clearly justified. At each stage of contact with the child welfare system, the odds seem to favor deeper involvement for them compared with Caucasian children. With respect to foster care in particular, research suggests that black children are about 2.7 times more likely to enter care than whites. Once in foster care, African Americans leave at a rate that is about 30% slower. On other indicators—placement stability, access to services, use of group care—black children seem to fare more poorly than whites.

With so much overwhelming evidence pointing to significant disparities, it hardly seems time to take stock or reassess the situation on the ground. Taking action would seem like the more prudent choice. Indeed, taking stock may only serve as a distraction.

But there are a couple of reasons why we may want to reflect on what we have learned over the past decade about disparity. First, it is good practice to reexamine what one thinks one knows in the pursuit of better services for children. Knowledge is not static. What we know about the challenges of serving children and families is constantly changing. “Review and revise” is a staple of the continuous quality improvement cycle that guides child welfare agencies and their partners. In that spirit, asking whether everything we learned is still true or as true as we once thought it was is a fundamentally sound way to address such an important issue.

Second, although we talk about the child welfare system as though it is a uniform approach to serving children, the truth is, the system in the US is anything but uniform. State laws differ. In 11 states, counties provide child welfare services. A growing number of states rely on private agencies to provide a full range of child welfare services. In states that have long relied on private agencies, efforts are underway to restructure those relationships. The system is as diverse as it is dynamic. Yet we continue to paint the system with one broad brush. The system is broken; the system needs to be fixed. The temptation to use a broad brush is understandable. Whether that is helpful is unclear.

What have we learned in recent years that indicates taking stock is a good idea? Although it follows a broader interest in disparities in mental health and health care, the upswing in interest surrounding racial disparity in the child welfare system has its origins, in certain respects, in the National Incidence Study done in 1993. Findings from that study, which suggested that there were no differences in black/white maltreatment, were widely interpreted to mean that disparities in the system were the result of bias in the way children were handled. The argument was simple: with no difference in the underlying incidence of maltreatment, the significant overrepresentation of African Americans in the system could only come about because of how children were treated.

In the ensuing years, researchers interested in whether there is a black/white maltreatment gap have pursued the question with other sources of data including findings from a more recent National Incidence Study (NIS-4). Although the details of these studies are difficult to summarize in a short essay, the main conclusions from the body of work raise fresh questions about the black/white maltreatment gap. In essence, because African Americans are so much more likely to grow up in conditions of social disadvantage, maltreatment rates do appear to be higher. These data do not mean that black parents are more likely to maltreat their children. On the contrary, recent evidence suggests that where whites raise their children in the midst of poverty, maltreatment rates are often higher than those reported for black children. The data confirm what we already know: the burdens of poverty fall more squarely on African Americans—and their children in particular. One way the burden manifests itself is in the form of higher rates of reported maltreatment among African American children.

We are also learning more about the similarities and difference that define child welfare systems at state and local levels. Although it is generally true that African Americans are overrepresented, it is not always the case to the same degree, whether one is looking at different state systems, different populations or different time periods. At the national level, overrepresentation of black children in foster care has diminished, although this may be because of reductions in urban child welfare populations. Most black children live in urban areas. But what about rural areas? Is the problem getting “smaller” everywhere or simply in certain places? We are also learning that although African Americans generally leave foster care more slowly, this is not true everywhere. Recent studies show that a significant proportion of black children are admitted to foster care in counties where the rate of reunification is higher than it is for whites. We also know that for black infants, disparities are particularly acute. One characterization, one explanation, one brush simply isn't enough.

We can be unified in our concern for why there are so many African American children touching the child welfare system, but we have to be more nuanced strategically and programmatically if we hope to address the problem in effective ways. We also have to understand that because new data are changing the way we think about the big picture, it does not mean that bias in any one of its many forms is not a part of the storyline. It simply means the real story is far more complex. Treating it any other way will leave us far short of our aspirations.


Fred Wulczyn is the 2011 recipient of the James E. Flynn Prize for Research and has received the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators’ Peter Forsythe Award for leadership in public child welfare. Dr. Wulczyn is lead author of Beyond Common Sense: Child Welfare, Child Well-Being, and the Evidence for Policy Reform (Aldine, 2005) and coeditor of Child Protection: Using Research to Improve Policy and Practice (Brookings 2007). As a research and policy center, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago focuses on improving the well-being of children and youth, families and their communities.

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