Inequities have shaped our country since its founding. Centuries of discrimination have inflicted deep wounds, with disparate rates of COVID-19 infection and brutal policing being current symptoms of that troubled history. Outrage over these symptoms has sparked an examination of bias in our criminal justice, health care, education and financial systems. To that list I would add one other: the child welfare system.
Every year, America spends more than $30 billion on our child welfare system. These dollars are predominantly focused on investigating reports of child maltreatment and on maintaining out-of-home placements. But child welfare is as burdened with inequities as our other public and private systems.
More than half – 53% – of all Black children and their parents will experience a child abuse or neglect investigation before their 18th birthday, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health. Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native children are disproportionately represented at all stages of the child welfare system. Once in foster care, children of color experience higher rates of placement disruptions, longer times to permanency, and more frequent re-entry than their white counterparts.
The most common allegation among their cases is neglect, which is inextricably linked to poverty. While poverty does not cause neglect, it restricts access to housing, health care, food and child care, which challenges a family’s ability to care for children. And families of color are overrepresented among poor families due to systemic conditions that have persisted for generations.
Such conditions could be one factor in the high incidence of unsubstantiated reports to child welfare systems. Recently, alarms have been raised about decreased reports of child abuse and neglect while schools have been closed. Less well known is that reports submitted by educators are most often unsubstantiated – 85 to 89% unsubstantiated, according to federal Children’s Bureau reports.
This highlights a key choice for resourcing “child protective” services going forward. Much as we are rightly discussing reallocation of resources for police departments, we should look at redirecting resources to meet the needs of families through prevention, rather than intrusive and punitive intervention.
And just as we are overdue in revamping our criminal justice system, we are delinquent in addressing the institutionalized racism and bias that pervades our family and child well-being systems. The systematic separation of children of color from their parents – without regard for the lasting trauma it entails –is a thread that runs through our nation’s history from slavery to Native American boarding schools to present day child welfare practice.
This has been perpetuated by the misconception that we are nobly “rescuing” children from dangerous situations. On the contrary, research suggests that many children who spend time in foster care are more likely to experience negative outcomes than their counterparts who were not removed from their families.
More than 260,000 children are taken each year from their families; most will return home, but removed children are likely to spend over a year in foster care. Given the profound physical and psychological impact of separation, eventual return home is not a reasonable marker of success. The disproportionate involvement and disparate treatment of people of color by the child welfare system is compounded by generational trauma from structural racism. This all indicates that we must radically reconsider if and how we call the child welfare system into action.
When that system is called upon, it must act differently. Bold policy and legislation are needed to create and sustain a vastly different system that coordinates among multiple agencies to prevent trauma rather than create it, and to strengthen family and community capacity to ensure children are safe and thriving. This will require that we de-scale existing infrastructure and dismantle racist practices in favor of a new way to work.
Evidence-based practice is critical, but we must develop alternatives to traditional approaches to building evidence. Understanding the effectiveness of interventions will be fundamental to achieving positive outcomes for children and families, and will reduce the risk that we create a new system in the image of the old.
We have seen how a four-month pandemic can jeopardize a family’s well-being by threatening not only their health but also their employment, housing, wealth and food security. The same pandemic, however, has demonstrated how swiftly we can change when necessary. We must strive to achieve improvements that would have seemed unattainable just weeks ago.
Through this lens, our former goals – like reducing the disproportion of children of color in the child welfare system – now seem insufficient. The child welfare system shouldn’t be a harbinger of family separation. It should, rather, be the means by which the needs of families are met. That would be systemic change. And that would be a family and child well-being system worthy of its name.