A child accidentally falls off his top bunk. His mother worries. The child says his knee hurts, and it looks like a bruise is forming on his arm. His mother wants a doctor to see the child, but hesitates for a moment about taking her son to the hospital emergency room.
She is afraid that her child's treating physician will not believe her when she says that her child was hurt in an accident. She knows that a social worker will call child-welfare authorities. She knows that she will be subject to an investigation. She is fearful that those child-welfare authorities may remove her child from her care and charge her with neglect. She knows that it may take several months before her child is returned to her care, and she also knows that during that time she may only be able to see her child once or twice a week. Even then, those visits may be supervised by an agency caseworker.
Perhaps this mother is afraid because she has been the subject of a child-welfare investigation before. Maybe she knows someone in her community who has lost her children. Or maybe she was once the child that was taken away.
She may decide not to take the child to the hospital. But then the bruise on her son's arm may seem suspicious to the child's teacher. The teacher may have other concerns. The child wears the same two or three outfits to school every day; he tells the teacher that sometimes he doesn't eat enough at dinner. The teacher may suspect neglect and call child-welfare authorities.
Parenting while poor almost always leads to suspicion. At least 60 percent of child-welfare cases in the United States involve solely allegations of neglect, usually for inadequate food, clothing, shelter or inadequate supervision or guardianship. Not surprisingly, poor families are up to 22 times more likely to be involved in the child-welfare system than wealthier families.
The consequences of contact with the child-welfare system can be devastating for certain classes of people. In particular, African-American parents are more likely to lose their children to foster care than other any other ethnic group. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Blacks make up 34 percent of the foster-care population, but only 15 percent of U.S. children. Studies have also shown that Blacks, unlike other minority groups, are overrepresented within the foster care system in every state of the nation. Part of this disparity may be explained by poverty itself: Blacks are four times more likely than other groups to live in poverty.
But, poverty cannot explain everything. In 2004, Black children were more than twice as likely to enter foster care as White children. This disparity remains evident even when African-American families and White families share relevant characteristics: White children are less likely to be removed from their homes after a child-welfare case is opened than Black children. It is not clear why Black families are more likely to experience the trauma of child removal; certainly, however, racial bias plays a role.
The law surrounding child neglect is full of vague standards that invite the use of broad judicial discretion. Our legal system asks family court judges to make far-reaching decisions concerning the safety and welfare of children based on information presented in fifteen- to twenty-minute court appearances. Incompetent evidence is routinely admitted in child protective proceedings, and judges must often rely on the testimony of caseworkers who may be poorly trained or culturally uninformed, or who have had only limited contact with the families in question. It is not surprising, then, that judges' own biases may, intentionally or not, creep into their decision-making.
Studies also show that Black families, both parents and children, involved in the child-welfare system receive fewer services than White families. For example, the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare reported in 2007 that some Black children in foster care were less likely to receive mental health services than children of other races. The Alliance also found that Black caregivers were less likely to receive mental health services than those of other races. In addition, state child-welfare workers have identified difficulties with accessing substance-abuse programs and obtaining housing assistance as factors contributing to the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care. Lack of available family rehabilitation services that cater to African-Americans may help to explain why Black children remain in foster care an average of nine months longer than White children.
The effect of such large numbers of African-American children in foster care - 162,722 children according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data from 2006 - is not limited to individual families. The current child-welfare system, when considered against the backdrop of our anti-poverty policies and need for social service resources, threatens to destabilize Black communities more generally. What happens to communities in which parents are not allowed to raise their own children? What happens to those children adopted out of their communities? And what about the children who will age-out of foster care? Or the pregnant or parenting teenagers who are still in foster care themselves? This latter population remains extremely vulnerable. Even as these mothers are under the care of the state, they often acquire child-neglect cases of their own.
The language that we use to talk about child welfare focuses heavily upon personal responsibility and choice. This language, however, masks the larger problems within the child-welfare system, a system that, unfortunately, is largely classist and racist.