Race to the Top – Paying attention to race in child welfare is a first step to system change.

This issue of Rise is dedicated to looking at why families of color have higher rates of investigations, higher rates of foster care placement, and longer stays in care than White families, even when White parents and parents of color are facing similar allegations.

Inequality isn’t just in child welfare. It’s in the rundown playgrounds in our neighborhoods, the supermarkets without fresh food, the liquor stores on every corner, and the schools and hospitals that are quick to call in cases. All this takes a toll on parents, but rarely do we see a billboard or even a flyer in our neighborhoods telling us where we can get help. When child protective workers walk into our homes, it feels like they see stereotypes, not human beings.

Whole communities shouldn’t live in fear, even if some children do need to be removed from their families. Facing disproportionality is about building a system that spends less time catching parents at their lowest, and more time listening to what we know we need and partnering with us to strengthen our lives and families.

Here, Kristen Weber, senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), explains efforts to reduce the number of kids of color in foster care.

Q: Why do more children of color—especially African-American and Native American children—enter foster care and stay in care longer?

Weber: About 10 years ago, the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare, which CSSP leads, started looking at this issue. We saw how layer upon layer of social inequities had an impact on whether children of color entered foster care and how long they stayed there. We found that in one city, lawyers had caseloads of up to 250 cases, and often it was African-American families that were most affected. In another city, visitation centers were extremely hard for African-American families to get to, and they were open during work and school hours when parents and children couldn’t make it. We also saw that communities of color didn’t have access to decent mental health or substance abuse services, while public hospitals, where women of color most often give birth, were more likely to drug test and report to child protective services than private hospitals.

Not everyone agrees that race is the primary issue. Some say, “This isn’t about race, it’s about poverty.” Certainly, poverty plays a big role in who comes into foster care, and African-American and Native-American families are more likely to be poor. But the reality is that when we look at who the system works least well for, it’s often families of color.

Q: What steps have child welfare systems taken to address race?

Weber: The most important change child welfare systems have made is to partner with parents and communities. Some have brought in community members to advise them on their policies, and some use “family team conferencing,” where a family’s fate is determined by a team that includes the family.

Some systems also have stopped asking who can provide the most services for the least amount of money and started making sure that parents are able to see professionals who can best work with them and are knowledgeable and experienced.

Systems also do better when they track data by race and pay attention to it.

Still, there are no silver bullets. The number of children in foster care has come down. But in many places, disproportionality and disparity haven’t changed.

Going forward, parents and systems need to come together to “safely narrow child welfare’s front door”—to make sure families get support before a crisis, and only the children who really need foster care are removed from their homes.