United States. Children's Bureau.
Chibnall, Susan.;Dutch, Nicole M.;Jones-Harden, Brenda.;Brown, Annie.;Gourdine, Ruby.
One of the most challenging and controversial issues facing the child welfare system is the disproportionate representation of ethnic minority children and families, particularly African-American children. Specifically, the percentage of African-American children who enter the system and remain in out-of-home care is greater than their proportion of the country's population (Anderson, 1997). Although African-Americans account for 15% percent of all children in the United States, they account for 25% of substantiated maltreatment victims. Conversely, Caucasian children (79% of the child population versus 51% of all substantiated victims) and Asian and Pacific Islander children (4% of the population versus 1% of substantiated victims) are underrepresented among victims of child maltreatment. Hispanic children account for an equal share of the population and substantiated victims (NCANDS, 2002). Racial disparities are even more pronounced in out-of-home care. African-American children comprise 45% of the total number of children in foster care (U.S. DHHS, 1999).
Researchers, policy-makers, and practitioners have divergent views on the causes of minority over-representation. This phenomenon may be the result of a disproportionate need for services or of systematic racial influences on decision making at any number of points along the continuum of child welfare services, including reporting, investigation, substantiation, and placement. Researchers have attempted to explore levels of need and to examine how race affects children's experiences at each of these points, but findings have been inconsistent. Where racial differences have been found, the reasons for these differences remain unclear.
One critical shortcoming of the research conducted to date is the lack of studies designed to explore child welfare professionals' perceptions of the issue of minority over-representation in the child welfare system. Child welfare workers and managers, who are involved in day-to-day decision-making for children of all races at all points on the child welfare service continuum, are an important and untapped source of information about this phenomenon. Their position affords them a unique perspective on the issue that should be included in any discussion of the child welfare system's response to children of color.
The current study seeks to address this gap in the literature by exploring child welfare professionals' perceptions of the issue of over-representation. The study provides critical information on the extent to which the perceptions of child welfare professionals are consistent with the literature on this issue. The qualitative methods employed in this study have facilitated a collection of rich, detailed information not only about the overlap between the literature and practitioners' perspectives, but also about how and why the phenomenon occurs and what child welfare agencies are doing to address the issue.
Because of the exploratory nature of this study, which also involves a small sample, and is intended to refine research questions and generate hypotheses for future research studies on the topic of disproportionality, we begin with a literature review that draws on multiple published and unpublished studies. This review allows for an examination of current theory and research on the issue of disproportionate minority representation in the child welfare system, and provides a context for this study and a framework for interpreting its findings. The review provides a starting point from which to explore the perceptions of child welfare professionals and the extent to which their practical experience is consistent with current theory and research.
2.1 THEORIES OF DISPROPORTIONATE MINORITY REPRESENTATION
There are three dominant theories explaining the over-representation of minority children in the child welfare system: 1) the disproportionate need found among minority families; 2) racial bias in child welfare decision making; and 3) family risk and child welfare practice.
Those who argue that minority children and families have a disproportionate need for child welfare services point to the vulnerability of this population in terms of many social indicators, the most salient of which is poverty. There has been a persistently strong relationship between poverty and minority status in the United States. Specifically, African-American and Hispanic children are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as non-Hispanic white and Asian-Pacific Islander children (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). Almost one third of African-American (30%) and Hispanic (28%) children live in poverty, while the rates are much lower for white (10%) and Asian- Pacific Islander (12%) children.
The relationship between income and child maltreatment is supported by considerable research, including all three National Incidence Studies (NIS) conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-3) compared families with an annual income of under $15,000 to families with an annual income over $30,000 (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996). The study found that abuse is 14 times more common in poor families and neglect is 44 times more common in poor families. The NIS-3 further revealed that the incidence of child maltreatment in families with annual incomes under $15,000 is 47 per 1,000, while the incidence falls to 2 cases per 1,000 in families with annual incomes above $30,000. This suggests that the incidence rate is 26.5 times higher in lower income families. The greater incidence of maltreatment among low-income families combined with the over-representation of families of color living in poverty suggests a plausible explanation for the disproportional representation of minority children in the child welfare system.
Racial bias and child welfare decision making
Others argue that the disproportionate representation of minority children in the child welfare system is a result of differential treatment by race or racial bias (Morton, 1999). Proponents of this theory suggest that differential treatment by race may be internal or external to the child welfare agency. 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 CPS. Their study found that although white and black women were equally likely to test positive for drugs, African-American women were ten 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).
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. These findings are discussed below.
Interactions between family risk and child welfare practice
A third theory is based on investigations of minority children's trajectories through the child welfare system. Barth and colleagues (2000) refer to this explanation as the multiplicative model. Intended to explain why the over-representation of minority children is so pronounced at the end of the child welfare continuum, specifically in foster care, Barth et al. argue that there are substantially greater risks of child abuse and neglect for children of color and their families due to a variety of risk factors (e.g. poverty). As a result, for those children for whom a report is made, there are small differences in the way that children of color are treated in the decision making process, possibly making it more likely that these children will enter and remain in the system. Finally, among children who are placed in foster care, African-American children experience significantly longer stays than Caucasian or Hispanic children. Differences at each level of the model have a cumulative effect and result in the very large disparity between the number of Caucasian and African-American children in foster care.
2.2 RACE AND DECISION MAKING IN THE CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM
A child's trajectory through the child welfare system is determined by decisions at a series of points along the child welfare continuum. Key points include reporting, investigation, substantiation, and placement. Below we explore the literature on the effect of race at each decision point. We begin by discussing the literature on whether or not a higher incidence of abuse and neglect among children of color accounts for their initial entry into and disproportional representation in the child welfare system.
Incidence of CAN and reports of abuse
The opening gate to child welfare services is a report of child abuse or neglect. However, research has demonstrated that not all maltreated children are reported and not all reported children are maltreated. To examine this issue further, the Federal government funds the National Incidence Study (NIS), which is an attempt to provide a more accurate estimate of the incidence of child abuse and neglect by including in its sample, children who were investigated by child protective service (CPS) agencies, children screened out by CPS without investigation, and children seen by community professionals who were not reported to CPS. The third National Incidence Study (NIS-3), which examined the incidence of child maltreatment in a nationally representative sample of 42 counties, did not find racial differences overall. These findings suggest that the overrepresentation of African-American children in the child welfare system is not attributable to higher rates of maltreatment in this population, but to factors related to the child welfare system itself.
A number of researchers, however, have challenged the NIS findings. Ards, Chung and Myers (1998; 1999) criticized the conclusions drawn from the NIS study. They argue that the lack of differential incidence rates could be due to selection bias in the study, namely that the study did not include family and community members who may be more aware of cases of abuse and neglect than community professionals. Others have suggested that the NIS findings are limited by an under-sampling of large urban centers in which the incidence of abuse or neglect is likely to be higher due to the prevalence of numerous risk factors (Barth et al., 2001). Barth et al. (2001) also point out the relationship between poverty, race, and the incidence of various types of maltreatment. Specifically, the NIS-3 found that families earning less than $15,000 per year were 22 to 25 times more likely than families earning over $30,000 per year to experience some form of maltreatment. Given the relationship between race and poverty and the higher rate of neglect among impoverished families, one could contend that it is surprising that the NIS found no racial differences in type of maltreatment.
Regardless of whether or not racial disparities actually exist in the incidence of child abuse and neglect, there may be disparities in the reporting of maltreatment that affects the proportion of children of color in the child welfare system. Specifically, some researchers have suggested there may be over-reporting of minorities and under-reporting of Caucasians. Ards, Chung and Myers (1998) suggest that cultural differences in child-rearing practices and/or differences in socio-economic status between reporters and perpetrators may affect under- and over-reporting rates. The result might be over-representation of children of color entering the child welfare system.
Investigation and substantiation
Little is known about how race affects decision-making from the point a report of abuse or neglect is received to the point at which a finding is made regarding the allegation. Few studies have been done on the characteristics of children reported to CPS but screened out or for whom the case was unsubstantiated. In one such study, Gryzlak et al. examined the factors associated with screening CPS reports in 12 sites. They found that race alone was not a factor in the decision to screen calls in (Gryzlak, et al., 2001). However, white children were more likely to be investigated in cases of sexual abuse, and children of color were more likely to be investigated in cases of physical abuse and neglect. Examining NIS-3 data, Sedlak and Schultz (2001) found no overall influence of race on the likelihood of investigation. However, they did find that African-American families were more likely to be investigated if the allegations included emotional maltreatment, physical neglect, fatal or serious injury, or alcohol or drug involvement, or if a mental health or social service provider made the report.
Studies of racial differences in substantiation rates have yielded inconsistent findings. Eckenrode et al. found that, controlling for all other factors, African-American and Hispanic children were more likely than Caucasian children to be substantiated for physical abuse (Eckenrode et al., 1988). Conversely, Ards, Chung, and Myers (1999) compared cases in which the likelihood of abuse was rated very probable and cases in which information was insufficient to substantiate. They found no racial differences in the likelihood that cases rated very probable and those rated insufficient would be substantiated.
Research on the use of risk assessment tools may provide additional information on the role of race in child welfare decision-making. In a study of the California Family Risk Assessment, Johnson (1999) found no racial bias in the assessment of risk for child maltreatment. Weibush, Freitag, and Baird (2001) found no differences among ethnic groups in the ability of a risk assessment tool, such as the Structured Decision Making model, to predict future maltreatment.
Additional studies have explored how the race of the caseworker and the family affects decision-making. Rolock and Testa (2001) found Caucasian workers substantiated a higher proportion of their cases than their African-American counterparts and were much more likely to substantiate physical abuse. In general, Caucasian caseworkers did not substantiate abuse and/or neglect in a larger proportion of cases involving African-Americans than Caucasians. However, in cases of substance-exposed infants, Caucasian workers did substantiate a larger percent of cases involving African-Americans.
Family preservation and reunification
Although there have been few studies examining racial disparities in family preservation services, the available evidence suggests racial discrepancies in decisions to maintain children of color in their homes or to return them to their families of origin. For children reported to CPS, the majority of Caucasian children receive support to remain at home, whereas the majority of African-American children receive foster care placement (Harris, Tittle & Poertner 2001; USDHHS, 1999). Studies have recently begun to explore the receipt of in-home services as a component of decisions to maintain children in their families of origin. It has been found that African-American children are less likely to receive in-home services and mental health treatment (Garland & Besinger, 1997). When they do receive services, they tend to receive fewer and a more limited range and quality of services (Courtney et al., 1996; Maluccio & Fein, 1989). In addition, differences have been found in the type of agency to which they are referred and the efficiency with which cases are handled. Finally, research has found that families of children of color receive less support and less appropriate services to retain their children at home.
Hill (2001) identified that the services received by caregivers in families of color are a significant predictor of reunification. Once children are placed out of the home, studies suggest that children of color are less likely to return home and be reunified with their biological parents (Wulczyn, 2000; Wulczyn, 1999; Courtney & Wong, 1996; McMurtry & Lie, 1992). Research also suggests that reunification is slower for African-American children, particularly those in kinship care (Courtney, 1995). However, an increase in the number of African-American children who are reunified was observed in a study examining the effects of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (Goerge & Mackey-Bilaver, 2001). Family structure also appears to play a role in the reunification of minority children with their biological parents. Harris and Courtney (2002) found that African-American children of single parents were less likely to be reunified than their white and Hispanic counterparts. Alternatively, Hispanic children from two parent families were more likely to be reunified than white children from similar backgrounds.
Some researchers have used vignettes to explore how race affects caseworkers' decisions about case plans. Caseworkers are presented identical cases in which only the race of the family is different and asked what they would do in each case. Roberts (2002) argues that in a training of caseworkers race was the preeminent factor influencing workers' decisions about the case. Other studies, however, have not found that varying the race of a family in a hypothetical case affected the workers' assessment or proposed case plan. One study (Britner and Mossler, 2002) found differences in the decision to place a child in out of home care only in the weight various professionals (e.g., judges, social workers, CASAs) gave to different types of information (e.g., risk of re-abuse, stability of the family, severity of abuse). Race was not considered in the decision making process. A similar study using vignettes found that only caseworker gender and job tenure affected the decision to reunify (Gammon, 2001). Again, race was not a factor in decision making.
Disproportional minority representation in foster care has been documented in multiple studies, particularly for African-American children. The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS; U.S. DHHS, 2001) points to clear disparities in the proportion of Caucasian and African-American children who are in foster care. Although Caucasian children comprise 66% of the American child population, they represent only 36% of the children in foster care. African-American children represent 45% of children in foster care, but only 15% of the U.S. child population. It would be interesting to compare these data with the rates of entry into the system for African-American and Caucasian children to determine whether African-American children also enter the system at higher rates than do Caucasian children. Higher rates of entry might help explain the higher numbers of African-American children in foster care. Those data do not exist, however.
Although the existence of minority over-representation in foster care is indisputable, the reasons for this phenomenon remain unclear. Some have suggested that minority children are less likely to be offered in-home services as an alternative to foster care placement. An investigation of the California child welfare system showed that African-American children are more likely than white or Hispanic children to receive foster care placement instead of other services, even when factors such as age, maltreatment type, and neighborhood poverty were considered (Needell, et al., 2002). However, other studies have found no effect of race on the probability of foster home placement versus in-home support (Zuravin & DePanfilis, 1999; Harris et al., 2001).
Racial differences in the length of stay in foster care and types of placements may also account for over-representation of minority children in out-of-home care. African-American children tend to have longer lengths of stay in foster care than Caucasian and Hispanic children (Wulczyn et al., 2001; 1999; Schmidt-Tieszen & McDonald, 1998; Barth, 1994, McMurtry & Lie, 1992). In addition, African-American children are more likely than Caucasian children to be placed with kin (Needell et al., 2000). Because reunification is less likely for children in kinship care, African-American children may remain in the child welfare system longer than children of other races (Ards, Chung, & Myers, 1999; Terling, 1999; Everett, 1999). In addition, minority children who are free for adoption may remain in foster care longer than Caucasian children because they are less likely to be adopted. Two studies reported that Caucasian children are 5 times more likely to be adopted than other groups (Barth, 1997; Barth et al., 2000). Both African-American and Hispanic children are less likely than white children to be adopted (Courtney & Wong, 1996; Wulczyn, 2000). Moreover, African-American children from urban areas have particularly low rates of adoption (Wulczyn, 2000).
A recent study by Testa (2001) suggested that foster care placement rates and lengths of stay could be modified by shifts in kinship placement policies. When the state of Illinois created subsidized guardianship and adoption options for relatives of children in the child welfare system, racial disparities in foster care placement rates and length of stay were substantially decreased. Similarly, the implementation of a child welfare system reform initiative reduced racial disparities in North Carolina. The Families for Kids program, designed to provide supports and placements to vulnerable families and children within their own communities, led to a decline in racial differences in foster care entry and length of stay (Wildfire & Usher, 2002).
Minority over-representation in the child welfare system is clearly a complex problem. Research to date has provided inconsistent findings on the causes of this phenomenon. A critical shortcoming of this research is the minimal attention paid to the perceptions of child welfare professionals. The current study attempts to fill this gap in the literature in three ways. First, the study will fill this gap by conducting an initial examination of the fields' perspective on over-representation. Second, the study is intended to gather information describing the strategies that are being implemented to address the problem of over-representation. Finally, the study is intended to identify the types of services the field believes are needed to reduce the number of children of color in the child welfare system.
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