The Child Welfare System Is Racist, Even If Most Professionals Think They Are Not
“I can’t breathe.”
These words are now painfully familiar. They were the last words of George Floyd who died on May 25, when a police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as well as Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was killed in 2014 after being put in a chokehold by New York City police. They were also the final words of a boy who died 24 days before Floyd, not at the hands of law enforcement, but at the hands of a child welfare provider.
Cornelius Frederick was a 16-year old Black youth who was in state custody through the foster care system in Michigan. Rather than placing Cornelius in a family foster home, he was placed in a group care facility, a fate that disproportionately falls on Black children in this system.
The death of George Floyd rightly has our country questioning the impact of racism in our law enforcement systems and structures, even leading some to wonder if law enforcement should be radically restructured to address the underlying issues. The death of Cornelius Frederick has not received the same level of national attention, but it should. And it should prompt a similar national conversation about the structural and institutional racism in our child welfare systems.
People do not seek out a career in child welfare with the intent to cause harm. I wept with joy when I got my first job in the child welfare system at age 20.
Thirty years later, I still feel privileged to do this work. This passion is certainly not unique to those of us who work in the child welfare system. But because of the driving desire to protect children from abuse, it can be challenging and even painful to acknowledge that despite good intentions, our child welfare system often does more harm than good. Moreover, because investigating child abuse and neglect and protecting children should be a neutral goal, it is harder still to confront that our system is particularly destructive to Black children and families.
The statistics on disproportionality are staggering: 53% of Black children in the United States will endure the trauma and intrusiveness of a child protection investigation compared with 28% of white children. African Americans represent 14% of the U.S. population but 24% of the foster care population. Black children remain in care longer than their white counterparts, and they are more likely to be placed in congregate care, as Cornelius Frederick was.
Beyond the statistics, we often see evidence of systemic racism in our individual cases. It is evident every time we remove a Black child from a family when we know a similarly situated white family would not have their child removed. It is evident every time we place a Black child into congregate care rather than into a relative’s home for the sole reason that the system deems that home to be too small, as families of color and various cultures live in a wide variety of arrangements, as compared with the more typical white, suburban, American household.
Like so many other people right now, I have been doing a lot of reading about race and equity. The book “White Fragility” was helpful in understanding why it is so difficult for us to see racism in our child welfare system. As author Robin DiAngelo describes it, our country often defines racism as something that is only done by “bad” people who “intended to hurt others because of race.” Understanding this prevalent definition of racism certainly makes it much more clear why it is so challenging for us to truly confront the racism in our child welfare system.
Yet despite the challenge of it, those of us who were drawn to the child welfare system to protect children need to set aside our intentions and beliefs and look fully at the impact of racism on the children and families that we are serving. As Martin Guggenheim stated in a recent article, “This is not about the intentions of those who developed the system we have. It is about listening to the people it harms.”
If our intent is truly to serve and protect children, then we must unflinchingly examine the harm that the system causes and change it.
One of the ways to begin addressing systemic and institutional racism is to examine the data on disproportionality in our own jurisdictions and states at each point in the system and honestly confront what it means (here is one example). In addition, we need to educate ourselves on how child welfare policies, both official and unofficial, have harmed Black children and families (here is a good starting point) and we should take advantage of the many good trainings (like this one) and articles (like this or this) that are being produced right now.
But we need to do more. We need to do work both personally and within our organizations to become anti-racist (here is a helpful guide for organizations). We need to convene local discussions and trainings (here is a good example).
Lastly, we need to question our role within a system that has ample evidence of systemic racism and grapple every day with how we are working to challenge and dismantle it. We have to ensure that the removal of racism from child welfare isn’t dependent on people not being overtly racist or implicitly biased, but on systems not enabling racism and bias to continue unnoticed and unresolved. All of this is ongoing work, not something we do for a short time.
This is not easy work, but not one of us was drawn to work in child welfare because it was easy. We are here to serve children and families, and that means we must become anti-racist and work to end policies and practices that harm Black children and families.