Protecting Children? Race and Child Welfare in the United States

A previous version of this piece appeared on  

The American Child Welfare system is characterized by significant and durable patterns of racial disparity. While the character of these disparities has changed over time, African-American and First Nations families in particular still experience dramatically higher rates of intervention than do white families. There isn’t enough research that has examined the impact that these disparities have on communities. However activists and scholars have long suggested that the child welfare system may be exacerbating already existing inequalities through inflicting group-based harm. These major disruptions to a child’s life may systematically disadvantage children of color in their chances to perform well academically or compete for good job, similar to the effects of the criminal justice system. These disparities, then, may not only reflect the racialized patterns of poverty and social inequality broadly, but may in fact be partially driving them.  

Both the quality and quantity of child welfare intervention were directly structured by racial concerns in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Social work developed as a coherent profession and social scientific discipline through attempts to aid and reform Eastern and Southern European immigrants in major urban areas of the American Northeast and Midwest. At the same time, private and public organizations engaged in a massive project of child removal and forced assimilation in First Nations communities. As these developments proceeded, African-American families were largely ignored by state officials—what few services and interventions occurred largely did so through segregated and generally inferior private organizations. This pattern of exclusion held fast until the 1920s, and continued to some degree through the middle of the century.

Modern child welfare practice emerged with other progressive era reforms such as the juvenile court in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It was characterized by a drive to bring parenting under the surveillance of the state, and its intents can be broadly characterized as efforts to reform families toward a set of normative white middle-class parenting standards. Anxieties about the state of the family brought about by dramatic shifts toward industrialization and urbanization were mitigated by the newly professionalized field of social work. While social workers often provided critical aid to families in need, these interventions also had the (sometimes explicit) aim of assimilating these anxiety-provoking others toward what was perceived to be a normative American style of home life.

While formal modern social work was largely a creature of industrial American cities, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officials and private organizations used boarding schools and mass removals of children to dramatically disrupt First Nations families. As of 1900, over 17,000 (eight percent of the total population of all First Nations children in the US) children and youth were housed in Indian boarding schools. After the decline of boarding schools, the BIA and Child Welfare League of America developed an aggressive policy of placing native children in white foster homes off of reservations. By 1978, estimates suggest that between 25 and 35 percent of First Nations children and youth were in some kind of out-of-home placement. The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 granting tribes primary jurisdiction over the welfare of children in their communities and mandating that all First Nations children must be placed with members of their tribe if at all possible. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Dusten Brown, the father of four year-old who came to be known as Baby Veronica, a ruling that severely undermined First Nation’s sovereignty and the power of the Indian Child Welfare act.  

Foster care placements increased dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century. Placements in out of home facilities totaled 55,000 in 1960. Despite policy statements and legislation prioritizing family unification and in-home services, by 1985 that figure was closer to 300,000, and the number of children in foster care would reach 568,000 in 1999. The figure in September of 2011 was 400,540 total children in out of home placement, reflecting a significant decline in the caseload from its peak, but numbers still dramatically higher than those before rates of removal began accelerating in the 1970s and 1980s.

In Cook County, African Americans were far more likely to be removed into foster care than were children from other groups. Using publicly available data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) and the American Community Survey (ACS), I calculated the dynamics of foster care interventions by racial group. In Table 1, I provide counts of the number of children that entered and remained in foster care in Cook County between 2005 and 2011. Table 2 shows rates of foster care entry and foster care caseload (children that remaining in foster care at year end) per thousand population in Cook County.  In 2011, African-American children were 5.75 times more likely to enter foster care than were white children, and over 10 times more likely to be in the foster care caseload than were white children. This shows that while African-American children in Cook County are far more likely to be taken from their families than are children from other groups, they are dramatically more likely to remain in foster care year-to-year than experience only a short placement.

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Table 1. Foster Care entries and caseloads by group, Cook County 205-2011

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Table 2. Foster Care entry rates and caseloads per 1,000 population by group, Cook County 2005-2011

The map below represents state-by-state variation in the Black/White disproportion of foster care entries between Black and white children using 2010 data from the US Census and the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. The ratio is calculated as the rate of Black foster care entry per thousand Black children in the population divided by the rate of white foster care entry per thousand white children in the population. At a national level, Black children enter foster care at a rate 2.4 times greater than do white children, but there is wide variation between states. It is notable that the Black rate of foster care entry is lower than the white rate of entry only in Mississippi and New Mexico. It also should be noted that this data doesn’t speak to caseloads, the number of children remaining in foster care year-to-year.


Beyond the obviously traumatic consequences of separation on parents and children, placement in child welfare may pose additional risks for children of color. Research suggests that there is a strong interaction between a child’s placement into out-of-home care and future involvement with the criminal justice system (although we do not know nearly enough about the scale or causes of this problem). These persistent racial disparities in the placement of children into foster care also suggest a theoretical similarity to the criminal justice system in that they both reflect and produce racial inequalities generally. Legal scholar Dorothy Roberts argues that these patterns in child welfare intervention reproduce racial inequality in general:

Both aspects of the child welfare system’s racial disparity—the state’s intrusion into families and its racial bias—are essential to explaining its injustice. First, the overrepresentation of Black children in the child welfare system, especially foster care, represents massive state supervision and dissolution of families. Second, this interference with families helps us to maintain the disadvantaged status of Black people in the United States. Not only does the child welfare system inflict general harms disproportionately on Black families, but it also inflicts a particular harm—a racial harm—on Black people as a group.”

She suggests that the scale of the disproportionality of intervention into Black families, and the intense damage caused by family separation and dissolution may constitute the child welfare system as a race-making institution, that is, the child welfare system is part of a process that both generates and qualitatively defines racial difference and inequality.