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Failure to Protect
homelogan marrcaseworker fileschild policydiscussion

Dorothy Roberts, a professor at Northwestern University's School of Law, is the author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2002). In this essay, she discusses how the punitive nature of the child welfare system disproportionately affects minority families. "The number of black and Latino children in state custody is a national disgrace that reflects systemic injustices and calls for radical reform," Roberts writes.

If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system, you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor families of color.

Delving into case files is an effective way to examine the issues that caseworkers confront every day. But focusing on individual cases also obscures systemic issues that profoundly affect child welfare decision-making. The Maine caseworkers in FRONTLINE's "The Caseworker Files" often felt that they had no choice but to remove children from less-than-ideal homes, but the workers -- and the film -- left unexamined the social and economic forces underlying these painful decisions. Why did caseworkers believe they had to separate children from caring parents instead of providing services that would address the family's problems? Why did they concentrate more on finding fault with parents than on meeting children's needs, relying on questionable therapies rather than concrete solutions? And why were all of the families working-class or poor? Social factors and political decisions often determine which families get caught in child protective services and what happens to them once they become involved.

Just as important as poverty in determining families' fate is race. Because the film deals with cases in Maine, it hides the true color of the U.S. child welfare system. Every family in "The Caseworker Files" is white. But white children are the least likely of any group to be supervised by child protective services. Black children make up more than two-fifths of the foster care population, though they represent less than one-fifth of the nation's children. Latino and Native American children are also in the system in disproportionate numbers. The system's racial imbalance is most apparent in big cities where there are sizeable minority and foster care populations. In Chicago, for example, 95 percent of children in foster care are black. Out of 42,000 children in New York City's foster care system at the end of 1997, only 1,300 were white. Black children in New York were 10 times as likely as white children to be in state protective custody. Spend a day in the agencies that handle child maltreatment cases in these cities and you will probably see only black or Latino parents and children. If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system, you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor families of color.

According to federal statistics, black children in the child welfare system are placed in foster care at twice the rate for white children. A national study of child protective services by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that "minority children, and in particular African American children, are more likely to be in foster care placement than receive in-home services, even when they have the same problems and characteristics as white children" [emphasis added]. Most white children who enter the system are permitted to stay with their families, avoiding the emotional damage and physical risks of foster care placement, while most black children are taken away from theirs. And once removed from their homes, black children remain in foster care longer, are moved more often, receive fewer services, and are less likely to be either returned home or adopted than any other children.

Why are black children placed in foster care at higher rates? Some say that poverty could be a factor. Indeed, despite recent declines in poverty overall, the U.S. child poverty rate is still exceptionally high by international standards, extreme poverty is actually growing, and black children still lag far behind white children. But even though black children are more likely to be poor than white children, racial differences in child poverty rates don't fully explain why black children are placed in foster care at higher rates. Race also influences child welfare decision-making through powerful, deeply embedded stereotypes about black family dysfunction. Black families diverge the most from the parenting ideal embodied in the white, middle-class model composed of married parents and their children. Black mothers are assumed to be irresponsible and difficult to rehabilitate. A number of studies demonstrate that caseworkers, judges, and doctors are more suspicious of non-white parents. A recent study of Philadelphia hospital records discovered that African American and Latino toddlers hospitalized for fractures were more than five times more likely to be evaluated for child abuse, and more than three times more likely to be reported to child protective services, than white children with comparable injuries. The racial disparity in the families involved in the system, in turn, reinforces a quintessential racist stereotype -- that black people are incapable of governing themselves and need state supervision.

The racial imbalance also stems from fundamental flaws in the very design of most child protective services, flaws evident in "The Caseworker Files." The child welfare system is designed not as a way to assist parents in taking care of their children but as a way to punish parents for their failures by threatening to take their children away. Agencies' punitive function hits African American parents the hardest because they are the most likely to suffer from poverty and institutionalized discrimination and to be blamed for the effects on their children. It should be noted that child welfare practice became increasingly punitive as black children made up a greater and greater share of the caseloads: As the child welfare system began to serve fewer white children and more children of color, state and federal governments spent more money on out-of-home care and less on in-home services.

This punitive approach to child welfare is defective in a couple of ways. First, it places all responsibility for taking care of children on their parents, without taking into account the economic, political, and social constraints that prevent many parents from doing so. Child protection proceedings are more akin to criminal trials than civil adjudication. The Maine caseworkers acted as the parents' adversaries, constantly on the lookout for some slip-up that could be used as a basis for removing the children. They allowed the parents' deficits to overshadow their positive qualities and the value of their relationship with their children. A second defect is that child protection is activated only when families are already in crisis. The role of government is limited to rescuing children who have been mistreated by deficient parents, rather than ensuring the health and welfare of all families. Social work professor Duncan Lindsey calls this the "residual approach" to child welfare because state intervention is treated as a last resort to be invoked only after the family has exhausted all resources at its disposal.

These systemic flaws hurt all families, including white families like those unnecessarily split up by caseworkers in Maine. But the price of child welfare practice that relies on child removal rather than family support falls most heavily on minority families. The number of black and Latino children in state custody is a national disgrace that reflects systemic injustices and calls for radical reform. The disproportionate harm to these children reinforces the need to replace our current child protection practices with policies that generously and non-coercively support and preserve families.

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