Part Two: Racial Disproportionality within the Child Welfare System

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The System and its Role in the Disproportionate Representation of Children and Families of Color within the Child Welfare System

The disproportionate representation of children of color relates to both race and class bias in key decision points in the child welfare system (Children of Color in the Child Welfare System: Perspectives from the Child Welfare Community). The differential treatment may be associated with bias on part of individual workers and/or the structural and systemic aspects of agencies and thesystem. Most research centers around the issues related to the initial report made to child protection. Studies indicate that less than 50% of reportable child maltreatment situations are actually reported,and that there may be racial and economic differences in who reports, who gets reported, and the types of maltreatment that are reported (Ards & Harrell, 1993; Ards, Chung & Myers, 1998). Using data from the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and neglect (NIS 1-2-3) containing reported cases of child maltreatment, as well as unreported cases obtained from a community sample:

“The NIS-3 findings corroborated results of the NIS-1 and NIS-2 (conducted in 1980 and 1986, respectively), in finding no race/ethnic differences in child maltreatment incidence (Sedlak &Broadhurst, 1996). These findings parallel Ards (1992) secondary analysis of NIS-1and NIS-2 data in which African American communities were found to have lower rates of maltreatment thanCaucasian communities once variables such as income level, unemployment rates and the extent to which an area is urban or rural were statistically controlled (Hines, 516).”

It is possible that child welfare agencies may substantiate reports at a higher rate depending on the reporter, the perpetrator, or family-related characteristics. While there is a lack of research on reporting characteristics and substantiation of child welfare cases, one study has suggested that substantiation rates for neglect are higher in impoverished communities (Drake & Pandey, 1996). Chasnoff and colleagues’ (1990) study of drug use during pregnancy provides an example of the way in which racial discrimination may increase the number of minority children reported to Child Protection Services (CPS). Their study found that although white and black women were equally likely to test positive for drugs, African-American women were 10 times as likely to be reported to CPS after delivery.One explanation of this finding is that health personnel tend to believe that drug use is more common in minority families and are more likely to suspect and report families of color. This results in a greater number of children of color coming into the child welfare system. This issue has tremendous bearing on minority over-representation in the child welfare system, given that drug abuse is currently seen as a major reason for child welfare involvement with families (U.S.G.A.O., 1994). From 1999-2014, “the incidence of parental alcohol or other drug use as a reason for removal more than doubled from 15.8-31.8 percent (Substance Abuse and Child Welfare Resources, 2019). Further, the 2017 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) Report indicates that 36 percent of children entering foster care in FY 2017 did so because of parental drug use (2018).

More research on cases that are reported and substantiated and characteristics that distinguish them is necessary in order to understand ways in which bias may play a role in the initial involvement of children of color within the system (Hines, 516). Proponents of this theory also suggest that racial bias is endemic to child welfare agencies, which in many locales are administered and staffed by majority group members. Critics posit that the child welfare system is not set up to support and serve minority families and children and that caseworkers’ decisions about cases are influenced by race. Some research has been done on the effect of caseworker characteristics, particularly race, on substantiation rates, but the findings have been inconsistent (Children of Color in the Child Welfare System: Perspectives from the Child Welfare Community. 2003).

Author, McKenzie McMillan
McKenzie is a student in the MSW program, Graduate Assistant at CASCW, and a Child Welfare Professional.


Ards, S. (1992). Understanding patterns of child maltreatment. Contemporary Policy Issues, 10, 39–50.

Ards, S., Chung, C., & Myers, S. L. (1998). The effects of sample selection bias on racial differences in child abuse reporting. Child Abuse and Neglect, 22, 103 –116.

Children of Color in the Child Welfare System: Perspectives from the Child Welfare Community. 2003. Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau Administration for Children and Families. Accessed from

Hines, A. M., Lemon, K., Wyatt, P., & Merdinger, J. (2004). Factors related to the disproportionate involvement of children of color in the child welfare system: A review and emerging themes. Children and youth services review, 26(6), 507-527.

National Conference of State Legislatures. Substance Abuse and Child Welfare Resources. 2019. Accessed from

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. The AFCARS Report. 2018. Accessed from

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