Adoptalk & Publications



  Adoption Month




Leadership Needed to
Address Disproportionality
in Child Welfare

From the Spring 2008 Adoptalk

By Diane Riggs, NACAC Staff, and Joe Kroll, Executive Director

“The situation facing First Nations children and their families today has never been worse,” noted Canadian Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Phil Fontaine at the 2006 launch of AFN’s Leadership Action Plan on First Nations Child Welfare. “There are more than 27,000 First Nations children in care today…. three times the number…in residential schools at the height of their operations.”

Dr. Robert Hill, in a 2007 report for the Casey-CSSP Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare, states, “Both black children and Native American children are overrepresented…within the [U.S.] foster care system at the national level.” In some regions, Latino children are also overrepresented. If we are to reverse this trend, federal and local leaders must address factors that drive out-of-home placements, and provide the financial flexibility agencies need to explore more child safety and permanency strategies.

Disproportionality and Disparity
Child welfare disproportionality means that children of a particular race, culture, or ethnicity are involved in child welfare at a rate higher or lower than the rate at which they appear in the general population. In 2004, for example, African American children were about 15 percent of the U.S. child population, but 34 percent of children in foster care. By contrast, while 59 percent of U.S. children were white, only 40 percent in foster care were white.[U.S. Census Data; AFCARS Report 11]

“Disparity,” note Fred Wulczyn and Bridgette Lery in Racial Disparity in Foster Care Admissions, “means a lack of equality.” Racial disparity shows up in the rates at which children of color are reported and investigated for abuse or neglect, enter care, and leave care. Entry rates are highest for children under one, and in 2005, infants of color entered care at nearly three times the rate of their white counterparts, despite evidence that black families are no more likely to abuse or neglect their children than similarly situated white families.

A July 2007 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report [African American Children in Foster Care: Additional HHS Assistance Needed to Help States Reduce the Proportion in Care] also notes that, “at each decision point in the child welfare process the disproportionality of African American children grows.” Disparity and disproportionality increase still more, Dr. Hill finds, as Native American children travel through foster care.

  • According to Hill’s data, 1 percent of children in Washington State were American Indian in 2005; yet 7 percent of children investigated for abuse or neglect, 8 percent whose cases were substantiated, and 12 percent placed in care were American Indian.
  • In Ramsey County (St. Paul), Minnesota, where in 2005 12 percent of youth were black, 44 percent of investigations, 46 percent of substantiated cases, and 49 percent of foster care placements involved black children.
  • A study released by a British researcher found a startling overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in Alberta. According to a February 27 Edmonton Sun article, while only 9 percent of Alberta’s children are Aboriginal, 59 percent of children in care are indigenous.

Factors That Influence Disproportionality
Why do black and native children enter care in such great numbers? Poverty is a legitimate factor that many sources cite. Yet, in a January 10 racial disparity conference, Fred Wulczyn asserted that the direct link between poverty and out-of-home placement in the U.S. holds only for white families. Whether African American families are poor or somewhat better off, placement rates hardly vary.

Other factors are at play. The Urban Institute identifies disparities caused by unequal access to education, employment, income, and health care—problems that plague both black and native families. Youth with consistently poor school outcomes are ill-prepared to hold jobs with good pay or benefits, and more likely to encounter severe life stresses that can make parenting extra challenging.

Personal and institutional bias also propel more minority children into care. Cited by Dr. Hill in his 2006 Synthesis of Research on Disproportionality in Child Welfare, various researchers have found that children of color are more often reported, investigated, and found to be victims of abuse or neglect than white children.

Overrepresentation is most dramatic at the reporting stage, perhaps due to where many families of color live. Reports come from inner city black hospitals that, unlike suburban hospitals, routinely drug-screen new mothers. They come from police officers who patrol urban streets.

Funding practices keep American Indian and Aboriginal families at distinct disadvantage. As stated in a February 5 Amnesty International Canada article, “federal funding for health and social services on reserve is dramatically lower per child than that provided by the provinces or territories” for non-Aboriginal children. U.S. tribes must contract with states for social service support and, overall, have far fewer funding options than states.

Disproportionality Reduction Strategies
During the January 10 conference, Marla McDaniel of the Urban Institute stressed that, “just focusing on child welfare is not likely to solve all the problems of disparities within child welfare.” Within child welfare, however, agencies and workers must have more alternatives and resources for helping children and families.

First, governments must support efforts to keep children safely at home. Crucial are:

  • Opportunities for open dialogue about race and child welfare, such as the December 2007 Capitol Hill briefing by the Casey-CSSP Alliance that echoed GAO’s call for federal legislative action. Indiana’s new state Commission on Disproportionality in Youth Services and the proposed cabinet-level Office on Racial Disproportionality in Kentucky offer other forums for honest, action-oriented discussions.
  • Programs to support healthy pregnancies and safe newborn care. “Substance abuse treatment in conjunction with prenatal care,” Wulczyn and Lery assert, must be part of a larger effort to prevent foster care entries.
  • Access to high quality family support, preservation, and reunification services. The Casey-CSSP Alliance favors public investment in child care services, job training, housing assistance, and mental health and substance abuse treatment. Parent education, family group decision making, concurrent planning, and goal-focused in-home services can also help children to safely stay at or return home. As Wulczyn stated in January, service “access, quality, and utilization—relative to need—must be equalized” for all communities.
  • Education of other systems about child welfare disparities. Mandated reporters—teachers, police officers, doctors—need options when they suspect abuse or neglect. When circumstances warrant, inner city teachers should (like their suburban peers) be able to refer children and families to services rather than child protection. Law enforcement must also consider how the rate of minority arrests ties to the rate at which children of color enter care.
  • Culturally competent practices. Agencies must seek to employ workers who mirror the families and children being served. At the same time, every worker must be repeatedly sensitized to the ways in which race, culture, ethnicity, and life experience shape each family’s response to social service involvement.

Some states and local governments have already realized the value of preventive services. In Pennsylvania, where birth families have access to in-home counseling and parenting education services, the number of children in foster care dropped 11.2 percent between 2002 and 2007. In addition, substantially fewer children have entered residential care since 2004.

Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Travis (Austin) County, Texas are also working to keep children out of care. Since 2006, Tarrant County Child Protective Services has held 16-week parenting courses for African American parents referred by CPS. Announced in April, more than $2.5 million in federal and state funds will help Travis County run a drug treatment court that helps parents to keep their children while learning to live substance free.

Ongoing efforts to keep more children out of foster care and keep children safe when they cannot live with birth parents will only succeed if states, provinces, and tribes have additional resources and greater financial flexibility. Too often, services are inadequate or non-existent.

As Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, recently observed, “The need for effective behavioral health services for American Indians and Alaska Natives is particularly severe.” Needs among the Canadian Aboriginal population are also dire. To help tribes, clans, and bands provide for children as their traditional family-centered philosophy dictates, funding for education, health care, and social services is vital. Native children should not have to enter care to get services.

Funding is also needed for alternative or differential response programs. Piloted in California, differential response allows workers to, depending on the risk of harm, refer families to community services, suggest child welfare and family support resources, or work to keep families in contact when children must leave home. In early findings, only 1 percent of children whose families were referred to differential response later entered care.

Children whose parents cannot raise them fare best in stable placements with people they know, and relative care is the most stable of any out-of-home placement setting. To keep this option viable for more children without the trauma of terminating parental rights, federal financing rules must be adjusted to allow for supported kinship care, subsidized guardianships, and customary adoptions:

  • Many birth relatives are eager to care for young relatives in need, but they often struggle to find supports for their abused or neglected charges. Kin need help navigating services and funding to offset the unexpected financial strain of caring for new children.
  • The GAO report asks Congress to “consider amending current law to allow subsidies for legal guardianship.” Evidence strongly suggests that subsidized guardianship would increase permanency for African American and otherchildren in care.
  • Practiced in native communities, customary adoption ceremonies transfer custody of a child from a birth family to a new permanent family without terminating parental rights.

The disproportionately high number of minority children in the U.S. and Canadian child welfare systems has long since reached crisis proportions. Our governments must strive to ensure that residents have equal access to education, health care, and opportunity, regardless of geography, income, and ethnicity. And, within child welfare, states, provinces, territories, and tribes must have more resources and freedom to serve each child’s best interests. Ultimately, as Terry Cross concludes, “Kids need us to do what they can’t.”


North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
970 Raymond Avenue, Suite 106
St. Paul, MN 55114
phone: 651-644-3036
fax: 651-644-9848