Child welfare still “in denial” about racism

Back in the mid-90s, filmmaker Michael Moore had a television series called TV Nation. In one memorable segment, two men tried to hail a taxi on a New York City street. One, the person any driver would see first, was Yaphet Kotto, the distinguished Black actor. The other, farther down the block was Louis Bruno, a white convicted felon, recently out on parole.

This story, and the fact that I don’t need to tell anyone reading this who kept getting the cabs, came to mind when I read a brief story in Youth Today last month.  The story dealt with a classic example of what can best be called “the literature of denial” in child welfare: a study called Racial Bias in Child Protection?, purporting to show that racial bias was not a major factor in the disproportionate number of Black children alleged to be abused or neglected.

The study argued that poverty is causing Black people to actually mistreat their children at a higher rate than white people. The evidence: The rate of disproportionality in alleged abuse and neglect was about the same as the rate for problems that can be measured objectively and are known to be influenced by poverty, such as infant mortality and low birth weight.

The fatal flaw in this study is its failure to take into account the fact that child welfare decisions are affected by both class and racial bias, and they reinforce each other.  Indeed, the biggest failing in American child welfare is the confusion of poverty itself with “neglect.”

Three-quarters of all “substantiated” cases of child maltreatment involve neglect. Typical state statutes define neglect as lack of adequate food, clothing, shelter or supervision – a perfect definition of poverty. Some are even broader.

What is neglect?  In Ohio, it’s when a child’s “condition or environment is such as to warrant the state, in the interests of the child, in assuming his guardianship.”  In Illinois, it’s failure to provide “the proper or necessary support … for a child’s well-being.”  In Mississippi, it’s when a child is “without proper care, custody, supervision, or support.”  In South Dakota, it’s when a child’s “environment is injurious to his welfare.”

So it is inevitable that large numbers of impoverished families who have never actually maltreated their children are “defined in” by neglect laws.

Therefore it makes perfect sense that poverty, in addition to causing higher rates of infant mortality, low birth weight, etc. would both contribute to more actual maltreatment, if only due to the additional stress that comes with being poor, but also, more important, to the appearance of more maltreatment when the poverty itself is confused with neglect.

Since Blacks are disproportionately poor, they are disproportionately at risk for being mislabeled as guilty of neglect.  So the fact that the “disproportionality ratios” are similar means nothing.

To know where the class bias leaves off and the racial bias begins, it’s necessary to use methods that control for poverty.  For example:

–One major study – cited by NCCPR board member Dorothy Roberts in her landmark book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare – found that when caseworkers were given otherwise-identical hypothetical cases, they were more likely to describe a child as “at risk” when the family was described as Black.

– A study by researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that when doctors examined children, “toddlers with accidental injuries were over five times more likely to be evaluated for child abuse, and over three times more likely to be reported to child protective services if they were African American or Latino.”  

– A study of decision-making at 39 pediatric hospitals found that “Black children are more likely to be evaluated for abuse than white children with comparable injuries …”

–A study of decisions to “substantiate” allegations of maltreatment after they are reported found that caseworkers were more likely to substantiate allegations of neglect against Black and Latino families – and the only variable that could explain the discrepancy is race.

For other examples, and citations, see our Issue Paper on Child Welfare and Race, (and our Issue Paper on child welfare and poverty) available on our website here.

The researchers for Racial Bias in Child Protection? also discuss the so-called “Hispanic paradox,” the fact that Hispanic families don’t show the same increased risk for the various factors mentioned in the study, in spite of their poverty. Without saying it in so many words, I read the study as coming frighteningly close to suggesting that Hispanics are just better people who care more about their kids than African American parents do.

The researchers don’t even consider another possible explanation: that Hispanics may face less discrimination, a possibility reflected in a saying common in the African-American community: “If you’re white, you’re all right, if you’re brown, stick around, but if you’re black, stay back.”

In its concluding section, just before suggesting that efforts to address actual racial bias in child welfare could be dramatically curbed if not abandoned, the study offers up a patronizing “to be sure” paragraph declaring that the authors are firmly opposed to racism:  “No reasonable person would argue that a single black person refused service at a restaurant would comprise a trivial or unimportant event that should be overlooked,” referring, of course, to the kind of blatant, overt discrimination that was outlawed nearly half a century ago.        

But of course, 21st Century racism is more subtle.  It shows up not in who is denied service at a lunch counter but who is followed around by security when they walk into a department store, and who can catch a taxi on a busy street.

Why, then, do these distinguished researchers believe that the bias that still is part of every facet of American life somehow disappears at the child welfare agency door, or the office of a doctor or some other “mandated reporter” of child abuse?

Still, in some ways, studies like this one represent progress. For starters, they mean the whole debate over racism in child welfare has become so threatening to the child welfare establishment that it’s reached what might be called the backlash stage. 

But it’s also progress in another way. I’m old enough to remember when the entire field was “in denial” about poverty having anything to do with who got caught in the CPS net – and professionals would insist that they never, ever take away children just because of poverty. 

The fact that so many now are willing to, in effect, cop to class bias rather than be accused of racial bias is at least a small step in the right direction. When will we really know when there is little or no racial bias in child welfare?

How about when Yaphet Kotto can hail a taxi?

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform,


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