NCCPR Issue Paper #7: Family Policing and Race

African American children are 14% of the U.S. child population.  Non-Hispanic White children are 50%.[1]  But 20% of all foster children are Black, while only 46 percent are white.[2] The disparity grows when figures for children of “two or more races” are included.  African Americans and Americans of two or more races make up 19% of the population but 28% of all foster children.

By the time they are 18, more than half of all Black children will be forced to endure the trauma of a child abuse investigation.Almost always, the report will be false or a case of poverty confused with neglect.4

When it comes to consigning children to the chaos of foster care, in many big cities you can walk into a family court and find plenty of white faces among the judges and the lawyers – but almost none among the families whose fate depends on those judges and lawyers.

The events of 2020 should have made clear once and for all that racism permeates every aspect of American life, from whether a Black man will be able to hail a taxi to whether he will survive an encounter with police.  They may not do much about it, but in almost every other profession, there is at least an acknowledgment that racism exists and affects how the job is done.

But in child welfare, there is a de facto “caucus of denial” that insists child welfare practitioners are better than everyone else and there is no racial bias in their field. Yes, really.

They claim the overrepresentation of Black children in the foster care system is solely a function of the fact that Blacks are overrepresented among America’s poor. That would itself be a remarkable admission, since the same child welfare establishment says it never confuses poverty with neglect. But common sense, and plenty of data, say there is racial bias over and above the class bias.

● A study of decision-making at 39 pediatric hospitals found that “Black children are more likely to be evaluated for abuse than white children with comparable injuries …”5

● A study of decisions to “substantiate” allegations of maltreatment after they are reported found that caseworkers were more likely to substantiate allegations of neglect against Black and Latino families – and the only variable that could explain the discrepancy is race.6

● A study of women whose newborns tested positive for cocaine found that the child was more than 72% more likely to be taken away, if the mother was Black.7

● A comprehensive federal study of child maltreatment found that “even when families have the same characteristics and lack of problems, African-American children and Latino children, to a lesser extent, are more likely than white children to be placed in foster care.”8

● A Texas study found that workers had to find a greater degree of risk to the child before removing a white child, compared with the threshold for removing a Black child. Black children were 77% more likely to be removed from their homes.9

But perhaps most telling is what happens when caseworkers are given hypothetical situations and asked to evaluate the risk to the child.  The scenarios are identical – except for the race of the family.  Consistently, if the family is Black, the workers say the child is at greater risk.10

In her landmark book Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, NCCPR Board Member Prof. Dorothy Roberts writes:

[T]he child protection process is designed in a way that practically invites racial bias.  Vague definitions of neglect, unbridled discretion, and lack of training form a dangerous combination in the hands of caseworkers charged with deciding the fate of families.11

But the harm done by racism in child welfare goes beyond the harm done to individual children wrongly taken from loving homes.

The removal of children from impoverished Black homes happens so often that it inflicts “collateral damage” on entire communities.  The loss of so many children demoralizes their families.  Roberts writes that the removal of these children “disrupt[s] the family and community networks that prepare  children to participate in future political life.” 

And this needless removal of children reinforces the very stereotypes about Black families that are used to excuse such removals in the first place.

African-Americans are not the only ones to suffer from the racism of the child welfare system. 

Latino children may be taken from Spanish-speaking parents and thrown into foster homes where only English is spoken.  And their families may be, literally, unable to communicate with caseworkers.12 In a series of notorious cases in Tennessee, a judge held the children of impoverished Spanish-speaking mothers in foster care and threatened to take them forever if the mothers did not learn English.13

And while Americans are becoming familiar with the attempt to “kill the Indian to save the man” by forcing Native American children into hideous “boarding schools,”14 they may know less about more recent history.

Starting in 1958, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, in collaboration with a trade association for America’s child welfare agencies, the Child Welfare League of America, launched a mass campaign to transplant Native American children into white adoptive homes.  By 1971, nearly one in four Indian infants in Minnesota was placed for adoption.15

When Congress sought to prevent this destruction of Indian communities, through passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, CWLA opposed the law.  It was not until 2001 that CWLA’s Executive Director apologized to the Native American community.16

But despite the passage of the ICWA, there is widespread evidence that the abuses continue.

In Alaska, which has one of the highest rates of child removal in the country, Alaska Native children are more than five times as likely as white children to be taken from their parents.  A worker who helps Native families entangled with the state’s child welfare agency says a caseworker declared one Native family’s home messy because of drying fish, laundry hanging in the living room and puppies on the porch.

And though alcohol abuse sometimes is a real problem, those who help Native families a say caseworkers are quick to assume such a problem even when it doesn’t exist.17

In Minnesota, another state that tears apart all families at one of the highest rates in the country, the ugly history of destroying Native families continues. Native American children are in foster care at a rate 21 times their rate in the general population.18

In South Dakota, the rampant misuse and overuse of foster care for Native American children was documented in a series of NPR stories.19

In an Iowa county where one in ten Indian children was in foster care, the chief juvenile prosecutor said: “I don’t think there’s anything in any of these cases that points to something positive about Indian culture, except the culture of drugs and the culture of poverty and the culture of abuse.”20

And now, ICWA itself is under sustained attack.21

The people in America’s child welfare establishment needs to do more than say “I’m sorry” – though some still refuse to do even that.

For starters, from frontline workers to agency directors, they need to be trained to constantly “audit their feelings” to be sure that their decisions are based on facts, not personal prejudice.  They need to be tested for such bias repeatedly – self-audits are not enough.  Systems also should pilot strategies in which decisionmakers don’t know the race or income of families.

But this may not enough. In her new book, Torn Apart, and elsewhere Prof. Roberts argues that while she first thought the system could be replaced with another system, after 20 years of seeing how far that has gotten she now says system is so permeated with bias that it is unfixable.22  Instead, she argues, we need a network of community-based help for families, created and run by communities themselves. 

Something like that actually happened in New York City during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic – and it worked.23

                        Updated, November 21, 2021

[1] Annie E. Casey Foundation KidsCount database, Child Population by Race in the United States, 2020.. //2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The AFCARS Report, October, 21, 2020.  //3.Hyunil Kim, et. al., Lifetime Prevalence of Investigating Child Maltreatment Among US Children (American Journal of Public Health, February, 2017). //4. See NCCPR Issue Paper #5 and NCCPR Supplemental Issue Paper #2   //5. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Press Release, Pediatricians May Apply Bias in Abuse Assessment, Study Finds PR Newswire, August 17, 2010, //6. J. Eckenrode, et. al., “Substantiation of Child Abuse and Neglect Reports,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 38 (1988) 9, cited in cited in Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Civitas Books, 2002). //7. Daniel R. Neuspiel and Terry Martin Zingman, “Custody of Cocaine-Exposed Newborns: Determinants of Discharge Decisions,” American Journal of Public Health 83 (1993), p.1726, cited in Roberts, Note 6, supra.  //8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, National Study of Protective Preventive and Reunification Services Delivered to Children and Their Families (Washington, DC: 1997), cited in Roberts, Note 6, supra. 9// S.L. Rivaux, et. al., The intersection of race, poverty and risk (Child Welfare, 87, 151-168, 2008). //10. Norma Harris, “Dealing with Diverse Cultures in Child Welfare” Protecting Children, (Fall, 1990), 6,7 cited in Roberts, Note 6, supra, p.52. //11. Roberts, Note 6, supra, p.55. //12. Melissa Sanchez and Duaa Eldeib, “Illinois’ Child Welfare Agency Continues to Fail Spanish-Speaking Families” ProPublica, Aug. 31, 2021.  //13. Ellen Barry, “Learn English, judge tells moms,” Los Angeles Times, February 14, 2005. //14. Rebecca Nagle “This Land: How a string of custody battles over Native children became a federal lawsuit that threatens everything from tribal sovereignty to civil rights,” September 2021. //15. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 33 (1989), cited in Roberts, Note 6, Supra, p.249.  //16. Shay Bilchik, Working Together to Strengthen Supports for Indian Children and Families: A National Perspective Keynote Speech at the National Indian Child Welfare Association Conference, Anchorage, Alaska, April 24, 2001. //17. Lisa Demer, “Focus falls on Native kids,” Anchorage Daily News, Sept. 1, 2002, p.B1.  //18. State-level Data for Understanding Child Welfare in the United States, (Child Trends, October, 2020). //19.Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters, Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families, NPR, Oct. 25, 2011.  //20. Lee Rood, “Unfit or Unfair,” Des Moines Register, February 10, 2003, p.A1.  //21. Nagle, Note 14, supra.  //22.Video: Dorothy Roberts, “Black Families Matter: How the U.S. Family Regulation System Punishes Poor People of Color.”  Penn Program on Regulation, Nov. 16, 2021.  //23.Anna Arons, “An Unintended Abolition: Family Regulation During the COVID-19 Crisis,” Columbia Journal of Race and Law, Sept. 11, 2021.