While today's child welfare administrators address the challenges of improving child safety, well-being, and permanency, they also must meet the needs of an increasingly culturally and ethnically diverse child welfare population. The disproportionate numbers of children of color who are part of the child welfare population represent only the tip of the iceberg in dealing with cultural issues. Children of color are overrepresented in almost every part of the child welfare system. Families of racial and ethnic minority groups are investigated more frequently; their children are more often found to be "victims" of abuse, neglect, or maltreatment; and, compared to White families, they experience a higher percentage of child removals from family homes (Casey-CSSP Alliance for Racial Equity, n.d.). Empirical evidence shows that the race of children and their families has a measurable impact on the factors that inform the determinations involved in removing children from parental custody, the length of time they are in the system, services families receive, adoption rates, and overall outcomes (Cohen, 2003).
However, child welfare systems are not alone in facing culturally significant issues such as disproportionality. Across multiple social service systems, including health, education, law enforcement, and juvenile justice, such disparities are evident (Casey-CSSP Alliance for Racial Equity, 2006).
Two facts reveal a contradiction at the heart of the child welfare system:
- There is no difference between races in the likelihood that a parent will abuse or neglect a child.
- There is a great difference between races in the likelihood that a child will be removed from home and placed in foster care (Casey Family Programs, 2007, p.3).
Poverty, exposure to violence, drugs, teenage pregnancy, and other contextual factors place families, especially families of color, at risk for child welfare involvement. Simultaneously, culturally incompetent practices place families at increased risk for these and other negative outcomes, thereby increasing the burden on vulnerable families (Hornberger, Gardner, Young, Gannon, & Osher, 2005). U.S. Census Bureau projections suggest the United States will become even more culturally diverse, raising the likelihood that disproportionality will increase without focused and effective system change initiatives that prioritize cultural and linguistic competence (Casey-CSSP Alliance for Racial Equity, n.d.).
"Disproportionality, the condition of overrepresentation and disparity in the treatment of children of color in the child welfare system, is embedded in the structure of our system, in administrative and legislative policy, in practice, and in individual relationships between workers and their clients. It has its root in historical conditions, and it arises from factors such as poverty, education levels, income, household composition, and lack of resources." (Casey Family Programs, 2007, p. 4).