The system must confront racism, but the services aren’t the issue
Current calls to eliminate all elements of structural racism in the United States include proposals to abolish child welfare services. Alan Dettlaff and Kristen Weber, in an op-ed published by The Imprint this summer, based their abolition argument on the idea that “the child welfare system causes harm to Black children and we have known this for decades.”
Their article has the laudable intent of creating a society free of maltreatment, but is wrong on the facts, and short on anything specific about how to protect and support maltreated children. Nonetheless, we hope that their call to upend child welfare will stimulate an exhaustive review of what we are currently doing and how to improve on it.
The importance of continuous child welfare reform that leads to the least intrusive, most effective and equitable service response demands an approach that builds on the science we have available. This is the challenge we have undertaken in a recent paper in the Journal of Public Child Welfare entitled “Outcomes Following Child Welfare Services: What Are They and Do They Differ for Black Children.”
We set aside the large body of evidence suggesting that there is a disproportionate need for child welfare services by Black children. This is not to suggest that issue is of diminished importance. Indeed, we regard the need for an effective prevention approach to child maltreatment as one of the most important challenges in our field. Ample evidence indicates that maltreated children have many adverse outcomes.
For those children who have been maltreated, does a child welfare system response worsen their circumstances, or does it offer a protective effect? This is the focus of our effort. We conducted a broad review of more than 50 rigorous studies of outcomes following a child welfare intervention (see a table of the studies by clicking here).
We found that there is very little reason to believe that children’s outcomes are worsened by participation in child welfare services. We note that the vast majority of children receive short-term services, and a fraction become involved in the foster care system. Based on our analysis of this large body of research, child welfare may be protective for Black children against such future harms as early death, transitions to juvenile services (for girls), and early childbearing.
Contrary to the claims of Dettlaff and Weber, the data do not show that Black children are faring worse than other children following engagement with the system. Black parents and youth are also generally positive about their experience with child welfare, in line with the views of other families.
The substantial body of research studies looks at child welfare across seven domains for children overall, and by race, with varying degrees of system contact. In all, current research with adequate comparisons provides no robust evidence to support the idea that children have worse outcomes from their involvement.
Researchers can and should do better in testing for areas of child welfare service delivery that may be underperforming for Black children. Even so, we are buoyed by the evidence that child welfare, in general, is providing a measurable benefit on a range of outcome indicators, compared to the outcomes children would have experienced absent a child welfare intervention. There are also data showing that the majority of children removed from maltreating situations believe that their safety is enhanced. But certainly, the assistance provided by child welfare is not enough to ensure that youth will not have difficult lives after they receive child welfare services.
We recognize that there are limitations to what we learned. There are too few impressive studies. Analyses of interactions between race and service receipt are often missing. Rigorous outcome studies need to be replicated in almost every area. That said, we certainly have better data in this area now than ever before. It is important that we take stock before making decisions to abolish a child welfare system that serves our most vulnerable children. Carefully implemented and evaluated efforts to prevent maltreatment and support parents, both before and after contact with the system, are critical.
There is an emerging base of research to back up the idea that attention to material and income needs appears to reduce the risk of maltreatment and improve engagement and outcomes. More effective programs to address housing, financial and behavioral health challenges are urgently needed – and to the degree that they address poverty and access to quality services these will especially benefit Black children.
We also recognize the pressing need to improve outcomes for children engaged by the child welfare system. Claims that child welfare does not worsen or has neutral effects on children’s outcomes in some domains are hardly a ringing endorsement of a flawed system. Nonetheless, ours and others’ close analyses of the research suggests that there are important benefits that accrue to children – on average and regardless of race – in the areas of safety and education, and generally neutral effects in the areas of health, mental health and behavioral outcomes compared to maltreated children who are not served by child welfare. Black children may be especially protected in domains relating to safety, justice involvement and early parenting.
America’s historic and present-day structural racism is abhorrent and creates unacceptable pressures on Black families. We need massive reform of income assistance, education, public health and prevention programs to support parents. We also argue for studying outcomes for children and families who have become deeply involved with child welfare systems and who may need new options for more intensive and longer services to help find their way safely forward.
But we do not support a redesign that ignores the need for strong protective services. Not adequately responding to child maltreatment is a violation of children’s essential rights. Black children already carry the burden of historic and current racism. This burden will be heavier if policy decisions that influence their safety and well-being are not based on scientifically credible reasoning and evidence.
The current state of the evidence supports the need for transformation but does not support abolition. Reductions in access to effective child welfare services on the assumption that any involvement with child welfare is a path to greater harm would be misguided and inconsistent with the evidence.
There are many ways we can improve services for abused and neglected children — beginning with creating a true safety net for families. The result of misdirecting our efforts based on unfounded ideas about current child welfare outcomes is unacceptable. Abolishing child welfare is a strategy that creates too great a risk of increasing, not lessening, inequity in our society.