The Racial Disproportionality Movement in Child Welfare: False Facts and Dangerous Directions

62 Pages Posted: 7 Apr 2009 Last revised: 14 Dec 2009

Date Written: December 7, 2009


A powerful coalition of forces has made what they term “Racial Disproportionality” the central issue in child welfare today. They use this phrase to describe the fact that black children represent a larger percentage of the foster care population than they do of the general population. This coalition is led by the Casey-CSSP Alliance, which includes the foundations that provide virtually all the private funding available for research and advocacy in child welfare. The coalition includes organizations and individuals who with these foundations have played a major role in shaping policy over the past decades.

This Movement uses the term Racial Disproportionality to indicate that there is something wrong with the system that removes black children to foster care, and it identifies the problem as primarily one of racial discrimination by child welfare decision makers. It calls for addressing the problem by reducing the number of black children removed to foster care to achieve what it characterizes as “racial equity” – the removal of black children at the same rate as white children.

The Racial Disproportionality Movement has already had significant impact. Child welfare leaders proclaim that Racial Disproportionality is the major issue of the day. Many states have accepted the Casey-CSSP Alliance’s lead, and are instituting measures designed to reduce the number of black children removed to foster care. Important federal officials and agencies have endorsed the Alliance’s approach, as have leading private child welfare organizations.

This article analyzes the Racial Disproportionality Movement, and the underlying issues. Child Protective Service agencies remove children to foster care, with court approval, based on reports of child maltreatment, and investigations that substantiate that maltreatment has occurred, and that it poses such serious threats to child safety as to justify removal. The goal is to protect children from repeated maltreatment, to provide services to the parents that enable the children to be safely returned home, and to move children on to adoption if the parents prove incapable of rehabilitation. Black children are identified by child protective services as victimized by serious maltreatment, and in need of the protection that removal, foster care and adoption represent, at higher rates than white children. A central question is whether black children are in fact disproportionately victimized by maltreatment, and in need of child protective services, as compared to their general population percentages. If they are, then they should be removed at rates proportionate to their maltreatment rates, which will necessarily be disproportionate to their population percentages. Racial equity for black children would mean providing them with protection against maltreatment equivalent to what white children get. If black children are in fact disproportionately victimized by maltreatment, the Movement’s proposed reform solutions would put black children at risk for being victimized by maltreatment at higher rates than white children.

The evidence indicates that black children are indeed disproportionately victimized by maltreatment. This is to be expected given that black families are disproportionately characterized by the risk factors associated with maltreatment, including severe poverty, serious substance abuse, and single parenting. This is reason for concern and for reform action. And it does represent an important racial problem, even if not the problem identified by the Movement. Children may need the protection provided by removal to foster care, but children who suffer maltreatment and endure lengthy stays in foster care will be hurt by these experiences, and will as a group not do well later in life. Society should act to prevent the maltreatment, and should feel additional pressure to act because this maltreatment disproportionately affects black children. But the form of action should be quite different from that proposed by the Movement. We should expand programs designed to prevent maltreatment from occurring in the first place. We should provide greater support to families at risk of falling into the kind of dysfunction that results in maltreatment. This should in turn result in a reduction in the percentage of black children in foster care, without putting those children at undue risk.

To date there has been no adequate debate on the issues at the heart of the Racial Disproportionality Movement, because the Casey-CSSP Alliance and its allies have overwhelmingly dominated the discourse. This Article is designed to illuminate the issues surrounding the current racial picture of child maltreatment and foster care, so that policy makers can take action that will protect rather than endanger black children.

Keywords: racial disproportionality, child welfare, race, discrimination, foster care

Suggested Citation

Bartholet, Elizabeth, The Racial Disproportionality Movement in Child Welfare: False Facts and Dangerous Directions (December 7, 2009). Arizona Law Review, Vol. 51, p. 871, 2009, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 09-21, Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth Bartholet (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

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