Race and Foster Care: Questions Without Answers

Susan Phillips
May 17, 2002

Some problems are so big, they become almost invisible. For those of us concerned with improving children's lives, the bland label of disproportionality covers one such problem: the stubborn reality that black children are over-represented on the downside of so many indicators of child well-being. Low birthweight. Health problems. School suspension. Academic failure. Learning disability. Incarceration. Entry into foster care.

Recently, I came across an analysis that provided an in-depth look at one facet of the issue: the likelihood of black children in foster care being reunified with their families, as compared to white children.

The numbers are stark: White children in foster care are four times more likely to be reunified with their families than black children. And this racial disparity persists, even when other variables that have been shown to play a role in reunification—such as parental substance abuse; education levels; abuse and neglect allegations; age of children at the time they are removed from their families and whether children are placed with kin or strangers—are taken into account.

These are the findings of The Role of Race in Parental Reunification. It is one of six recent papers based on data from the National Study of Protective, Preventive and Reunification Services Delivered to Children and Their Families, and published together in December 2001. For this one, researchers from Westat and the Chapin Hall Center for Children looked at the cases of 1,034 foster children included in the 1994 study.

Of these children, 52 percent where white, 38 percent were black, and 10 percent were Hispanic. Overall, only 21 percent were reunified during the study period, while seven percent left the system by other means (such as adoption or guardianship), and 72 percent remained in care.

A statistical profile of their parents reveals the depth and complexity of the problems that face families from which children are removed: fewer than half had completed high school or the equivalent; 64 percent were unemployed and half were on welfare. About one third lacked significant job skills; 41 percent had substance abuse problems; 30 percent faced allegations of abuse; and 26 percent faced allegations of neglect. (The data characterized these cases in an either/or way; so there is no overlap between the two categories, as there often is in actuality.)

A substantial proportion—44 percent—did not receive services that might enhance their ability to care for their children, such as parent training, day care, mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, emergency financial assistance, job training, etc.

Not surprisingly, parents and children were more likely to be reunified if the parents received services; had job skills; did not have substance abuse problems; had completed high school; and were working. Yet none of these positive factors was enough to overcome the role of race.

The researchers found that in addition to race, three variables—job skills, whether parents received services, and whether parents had a substance abuse problem—were consistently and strongly related to reunification rates. Using those three variables to create best-case, worst-case and intermediate scenarios, they found that in the best case (parent has job skills, receives services, and does not have a substance abuse problem) 23 percent of black children and 56 percent of white children were reunified during the study period.

In the worst case (parent has no job skills, gets no services, and has a substance abuse problem), 2 percent of black children and 7 percent of white children were reunified. Throughout the other scenarios, white children were three to four times more likely to be reunified than black children.

The researchers set out to discover whether race is a strong predictor of which children are more likely to be reunified with their family after entering foster care, and found that the answer is a loud yes. But, as they acknowledge in their conclusion, this analysis doesn't take us far in trying to figure out why, and what can be done about it.

The researchers make some important suggestions: that child welfare researchers make a concerted effort to include race and ethnicity as variables in their studies, so that we can learn more about this damaging dynamic; that further reunification studies be designed to include large enough sample sizes of black, Hispanic, Indian and Asian and Pacific Islander families to include all of these groups in the results; that reunification studies be designed which will track groups of children over time so that a more complete picture emerges of their interactions with child welfare agencies and foster and kinship families.

Finally, they recommend that research be done to determine which types of services and programs are most effective in enhancing reunification among parents and children of different racial and ethnic groups.

But for us non-researchers, the deeper question remains. Black children are already over-represented in the ranks of children entering foster care. Most child protective agencies consider reunification as the preferred outcome for children who come into foster care. What must these agencies do, to achieve that goal safely for many more of the children in their care, and especially to overcome their failures with regard to black children?

Under the accelerated timetables for resolving foster care cases under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, there's a real danger that ever-higher percentages of black children in care will be permanently removed from their birth families, just because we're in a hurry. We all have a stake in making sure that doesn't happen.

    Additional Resources:
  • The Color of Care African American children are 15 percent of the U.S. child population, yet they comprise 49 percent of children in foster care. Susan Kellam explores why.
  • For additional information, visit Connect for Kids' Foster Care and Diversity and Awareness Topic Pages.

Susan Phillips is the former editor of Connect for Kids.