How race/ethnicity impacts children in foster care

I’m still making my way through the e-training portion of the Casey Family Program’s Knowing Who You Are curriculum, which is devoted to training social workers and other adults and professionals in the child welfare system in how to nurture the healthy racial/ethnic identities of children in foster care. The section on institutional racism identifies key points in the child welfare process where the cases of children of color seem to be handled differently than those of their white peers. These include investigation, child placement, service provision, and permanency planning.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) conducted four studies on the national incidence of child abuse and neglect between 1980 and 2010. Remarkably, the first three studies found no differences in the incidence of child abuse and neglect based on race and ethnicity. The most recent report found that black children are 1.7 times more likely to experience maltreatment than white children, but are 2.6 times more likely to be involved in child protective services. In fact, studies show that “reports involving children of color were much more likely to be investigated than reports involving white children with the same allegations.”

Following investigation, black children are more likely to be placed in out-of-home care than white children with similar family traits and circumstances. White families, by comparison, more often receive in-home services to support the success of keeping the child at home.

In the research on the relation of race to reunification, one study found that black children with a parent or parents “who demonstrated job skills, received services, and had no substance abuse problems had a 23% probability of being reunified with their family.” Compare this to white families in the same circumstances, who enjoy a 56% probability of being reunified.

Finally, on average, black children stay in foster care 9 months longer than white children.

These numbers make us reconsider the reasons why children of color are overrepresented in the foster care system: It isn’t merely the individual decisions and actions of their parents. It isn’t even just (just!) large structural forces such as poverty bringing these cases to the door of children’s services. It’s also the decisions and actions of the people entrusted to handle their cases that determine if, to what extent, and for how long these children are involved in the system.

Barry Chaffkin, who is a phenomenal child welfare trainer, tells an anecdote about parents who were too busy to notice that their young son had made his way into the kitchen to prepare himself breakfast. The child subsequently severed part of his finger on a bagel slicer. If you were responding to the situation, he asks, would you have reported the case to Children’s Services? As always, context matters. The incident happened in a middle class home in Long Island. In fact, it occurred in Barry’s own home, with his own son. He reported that the accident was never brought to the attention of authorities (and also that his son’s finger was successfully reattached).

Barry pushes us to wonder, what would have happened, however, if this happened in South Bronx? And now Casey Family’s curriculum makes me wonder, how do we interpret “accidents” or even displays of anger in the context of families of color?

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