The racial disparity of Black youth in the child welfare system

“Rather than invest in children and families’ safety and wellbeing, we have erected a child welfare system that uses family policing as the primary means to address the needs of marginalized children.” Dorothy Roberts, child welfare researcher and author 

Our system is failing Black families. 1 out of 10 Black children in America are separated from their parents by the child welfare system. Structural racism is steeped into every system in this country – including the child welfare system. The recent resurgence of discriminatory rhetoric and racial violence has unearthed a discourse that is long overdue. 

This Black History Month we’re tackling this topical issue by building awareness and educating ourselves and our community about the role we, as advocates, to be catalysts for change. Black youth are overrepresented in the child welfare system. From the foster care system to the juvenile justice system, Black youth make up the largest number affected. Not only are they more likely to enter the foster care system, Black youth remain in the foster care system longer than other children. 

The CASA/LA family is unceasingly making efforts to address this diversity and cultural competency through our comprehensive training, education, and advocacy programs. As innovative leaders and advocates in the child welfare movement, understanding how racial disparities and biases impact Black youth is essential to improving the foster care and juvenile justice systems – and beyond! 

Awareness of the problems and an active effort to find solutions is a promising start to better supporting underserved Black youth. So let’s dig it with these five facts about the overrepresentation of Black youth in the child welfare system: 

  • The overrepresentation of Black youth is directly linked to the housing crisis. 

Housing is a leading barrier for children in the foster care system to return to their families. Studies show that a third of children in foster care could be released to their parents if they had adequate housing. The child welfare system has a history of punishing poverty in Black communities and families,  instead of addressing the need for resources and support – a reactive approach born out of a centuries-old legacy of racism. By penalizing Black communities for their hardships caused by systemic inequities, the attention is successfully diverted away from the structural factors for those unmet needs. 

  •  The most common reason for a child being removed from their parent’s custody is allegations of neglect, not abuse. 

While we see many instances of vulnerable children exposed to domestic abuse in their home environments, a majority of children are placed in foster care due to negligence. Under this circumstance, the parent did not adequately provide the resources essential to children the child’s health and safety, such as stable housing, clothing, medical care, and education. As local and state agencies incentives foster care placement and juvenile containment as a “quick fix”, Black families are penalized instead of supported and Black youth are disproportionately forced into the child welfare system. Critical to addressing this issue is ensuring better access to assistance and preventative services from our institutions including income support, affordable health care and housing, and equitable quality education. 

  • The representation of Black culture in the media.

The dominant images of Black characters as dangerous and violent have generalized an inaccurate portal of Black culture. The lasting effects of these images depicted in the media shape our belief systems and biases toward Black communities. Today, ongoing depictions of the Black “welfare queen,” the typecasted “absent Black father,” and other derogatory characterizations continue to support dominant stereotypes that are harmful to Black culture. While the truth within the media may be fabricated, these cultural narratives continue to bind Black families to a confined and oppressed spaces not only in popular culture but our institutional practices, influencing the loaded decision-making in child protection and placement.

  • The perpetuating cycle of system oppression

Black youth in the child welfare system face unique challenges from separating from their families. This trauma can put them at high risk of adverse consequences that have lifelong impacts – from mental health disorders and homelessness, unemployment and exploitation, to substance abuse and criminalization. As Black youth that are placed in the child welfare system and their families face significant barriers to accessible resources and opportunities, they become deprived of achieving a quality life. This stark disparity, among many other racially driven factors, precludes Black youth from escaping generational trauma and poverty and the cycle of systemic oppression continues.

  • Separation of the Black family unit dates back to enslavement. 

Dating back to the slave era in the United States, slaveholders had the authority to separate and sell members of Black families – displacing and forcibly removing Black children from their families. This operation continues to be put in practice, as the ideology of separating Black youth from their families instead of preserving the family unit seeps into our child welfare system. 

Beyond race, the child welfare system is being used as a means of disruption and oppression, instead of what it is intended to do – protect the lives of vulnerable children. This is a critical time for us to interrogate our implicit biases, question the way in which our systems can harm marginalized communities, and consider solutions to ensure our child welfare system is equitable and supportive to all youth. 

For further reading on this topic –  Torn Apart by Dorothy Roberts