Race and Child Maltreatment
Annually about 3 million U.S. children are investigated for concerns of child maltreatment (e.g., neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse) by public child protective services (CPS) agencies. This is equivalent to about 4% of U.S. children per year. African American children are about twice as likely to be brought into this population than white children. This phenomenon is often referred as “racial disparity” or “black overrepresentation” in CPS. The child welfare area, including research, practice, and policy, started focusing on this issue in the early 2000s.
In the early years, claims that black overrepresentation in CPS were largely due to a systematic racial bias in CPS were popular. According to this “bias” perspective, many black children are unnecessarily brought to the attention of CPS due to institutional racism in CPS. The devastating nature of these assertions appeared to lead to hasty solutions. Before the validity of the bias perspective was fully evaluated empirically, various programs targeting plausible racial bias in CPS were prematurely suggested—for example, Undoing Racism Training, Anti-racism Training, Culturally Competent Practice, and National Breakthrough Collaboration.
A potential danger of this trend is that if black children are actually exposed to higher risk of maltreatment than whites, efforts to reduce black children in CPS without addressing differential risk would harm the safety of black children. Emerging empirical evidence supports that racial disparity in CPS is mainly due to differential exposure to risk factors (e.g. poverty) rather than a systematic racial bias in CPS. According to almost all current relevant studies, black overrepresentation in CPS is canceled out or even reversed after socio-economic conditions are controlled for. Recent studies identified that black children showed significantly lower risk of child protective services involvement than white children or found no significant difference when both black and white children were in similarly low socio-economic conditions. Studies based on the general population also showed that black overrepresentation in CPS mostly disappeared when socio-economic factors were taken into account. Empirical evidence, therefore, stands against the “bias” perspective. Instead, prior findings strongly confirm the “differential-risk” perspective.
It is strongly and urgently recommended to reframe the current understanding of racial disparity in child protective services. This issue does not stem from racial prejudice or lack of cultural competency among child welfare practitioners. Rather, the racial disparity issue may be rooted in more fundamental limitations within larger societal systems.
Primarily, it appears that our society has dysfunctional processes systematically discouraging racial minority families, especially black families, from adequate child-rearing practices. That is, in our society, racial minority families are remarkably more likely to be exposed to risk factors (e.g. poverty) linking to child maltreatment. To put it in a more disturbing way, institutional racism seems to be located in our society rather than in CPS. Secondarily, our child welfare system, which is mainly characterized by a residual approach to child protection, has failed to buffer such dysfunctional processes before noticeable failure in child-rearing. It is relatively unclear what we need to change in our society and what we need to buffer by the child welfare system in order to address racial disparity strategically. It is rather clear, however, where we need to search to find answers.