Part One: Racial Disproportionality within the Child Welfare System

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Blog Series – Part One:

The Reality and the History of Racial Disproportionality within the Child Welfare System

Children of color make up 13.8% of the total child population, while they make up 24.3% of children in the foster care system (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016). There are too many children of color that are placed outside of the home and in foster care within Child Protective Services. Overall, children of color are disproportionately represented within the foster care and child protection system.

Specifically Black children of color represent “a larger percentage of the foster care population than they do of the general population (Bartholet, 2009).” This in fact asserts that Black children are reported for maltreatment, removed from their parents and placed in foster care at higher rates. Much higher rates than their white counterparts and as compared to their respective percentages in the general population. Further, Black children also spend longer periods of time in foster care than white children. They are also reunited with their parents at lower rates, and move on to adoption at slower rates (Child Welfare Information Gateway). While research shows that Black children exit foster care by adoption at relatively high rates, the adoption exit takes longer than the reunification exit (Bartholet, 2009). Numerous studies have shown that these stark racial disparities occur at various key decision points in the child welfare continuum (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016).

Historical references suggest that a century ago foster care in America was a white-only institution. The institution was created to “save the children” and these services were aimed towards white children. Progressive reformers, like Jane Adams, developed a system that took European immigrant children from their impoverished homes and sent them to rural areas to be cared for by “strangers” (Cooper, 234). Essentially the same idea as today’s foster care system, where children are removed from their families and placed with strangers that the system deems to be “safe”.

During this time, however, African American children were ignored due to segregation. These children were left to “fend for themselves or left for their communities to handle” (Cooper, 234). In the 1950s, the system developed to include African American children. Since then the number of children of color, specifically Black children, within the system has soared. Foster care policies then became more “punitive.” As the number of white children in the system fell, the number of Black children has since steadily increased.

Native American children are disproportionately represented at similar rates as African Americans around the country. The U.S. has long “persecuted Native Americans” (Cooper, 235). This began with the Boarding School era, which lasted over 100 years. Through this era, Native American children were involuntarily rounded up, removed from their families and sent away to boarding schools. This was a part of the country’s assimilation policy. Within these schools, children were not allowed to speak their own language, wear traditional clothing or to practice their religion. During this era, thousands of Native American children were also adopted through the Native American Adoption Project. This project was funded by the Children’s Bureau, which placed these children in non-Native American families (Cooper, 236).

The overrepresentation of children of color within the child welfare and foster care system has persisted for far too long. Hundreds of years with continued efforts institutionally that perpetuates the problem rather than alleviating the stark statistics and disparity. This system that was designed with the intention of protecting children remains one of the most segregated institutions in the country (Copper, 223).

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

Bartholet, E. (2009). The racial disproportionality movement in child welfare: False facts and dangerous directions. Ariz. L. Rev., 51, 871.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. 2016. Racial Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare: Issue Brief. Retrieved from

Cooper, T. A. (2013). Racial bias in American foster care: The national debate. Marq. L. Rev., 97, 215.

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