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Part 2 – Discriminating against parents of color in the child welfare system

This post was published on Harlow’s Monkey blog in April 2008.

ShatteredbondsIn trying to figure out how to begin this post on communities of color and child protection issues, I found it difficult to know where to begin and where to end. Trying to finger the exact places and times that the child welfare system discriminates
against communities of color is like trying to pick out which piece of hay in the haystack is to blame. The issues are so intertwined that it is impossible to sort through.

The discrimination occurs on micro, mezzo and macro levels; everything from the federal legislations that either purposely targeted communities of color or structurally supported hidden bias against these populations to the individual
social worker whose inexperience or bias resulted in discriminatory treatment. Most of the time, it’s a combination of many levels of discriminatory interventions by the child welfare system and society at large.

To begin, I feel it is important to clarify some definitions and themes that you will often see in discussions and research about communities of color and child welfare:

  • When we talk about research we need to keep in mind that correlation does not equal causation. One thing often miss-communicated in articles about child welfare is when a correlation becomes misrepresented as causation. For example, there is a correlation between being poor or in poverty and having
    child protection interventions. This does not mean that being poor or in poverty causes child protection interventions; it means that of those people involved in child protection there is a stronger likelihood of being poor or in poverty.
  • Over-representation refers to a group’s percentage or number is larger than other groups. An example of over representation would be the number of African American men in prison in the U.S. in 2003. Of the 1,316,415 men in prison that year, 586,300 were African American versus 454,300 white males. African American men are overrepresented.
  • Disproportionate refers to a higher percentage in a given circumstance than in the overall population. An example of disproportionate would be that African American children were 21.4% of the children in foster care for the state of Minnesota in 2003– despite the fact that African American children made up only 5% of the overall population.

There are two important books that are must-reads for anyone interested in examining the historical and current practices of child welfare discrimination towards the African American population. These are Dorothy Robert’s Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare and Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare by Andrew Billingsly and Jeanne M. Giovannoni. I believe every single social worker who works in the child welfare system should be required to read these books.

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