Family, Social Policy, Top Stories

Is Foster Care Racist?

“We need to abolish the foster care system,” Charity Chandler-Cole, a member of the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families told her colleagues earlier this month. Chandler-Cole, a former foster youth herself, explained: “I don’t care how big your Office of Equity is, I don’t care how many black people and brown people you hire.” Meanwhile, in a recent op-ed entitled “Now Is the Time for Abolition,” Alan Dettlaff, dean of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, and Kristen Weber, director of equity, inclusion, and justice for the Center for the Study of Social Policy, announced that their “respective organizations have formed upEND, a collaborative movement… [that] works to create a society in which the forcible separation of children from their parents is no longer an acceptable intervention for families in need.”

The complaints of structural racism and a desire to abolish foster care will sound familiar to anyone who has been listening to the recent debate about policing. But the claim that the foster care system suffers from systemic bias and that we need to significantly reduce or end it entirely has been around for years. In 2018, Casey Family Programs, the nation’s largest operating foundation devoted to foster care, advocated the reduction of kids in foster care by 50 percent by 2020. As far back as 2006, a Casey-sponsored report noted that “Children of color enter foster care at rates that are disproportional to their presence in the general population, and they remain in care longer—often far longer.”

The claim has been picked up by the media as well. A 2017 article in the New York Times cited interviews with lawyers working on behalf of parents caught up with the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) in New York City, who claimed that ACS is engaged in the “criminalization of their parenting choices,” a practice the Times calls “Jane Crow.” A Bronx public defender told the New Yorker, “We are members of this system which we all strongly believe is racist and classist and doing harm to the families it claims to serve.”

There are about 440,000 kids in foster care nationwide, kids who have simply been abandoned or who have been removed from their homes because they were being abused or severely neglected. There are a variety of factors that drive these removals, but there is little evidence that race is among them. Indeed, if black lives really do matter to us, we would not support leaving black children in dangerous homes simply because their parents have already suffered poverty or racism or even abuse themselves, or because we want to balance the columns on our racial spreadsheet.

The first thing to note is that—contrary to the stereotype of nosey white women pulling black and brown children out of their homes because they harbor some personal bias—reports and investigations of child abuse (particularly in large cities) are made just as often by black and brown adults. In New York, for instance, 65 percent of ACS employees were black and 15 percent were Hispanic, a spokeswoman told me in 2017. But just as advocates of abolishing the police have argued that it doesn’t matter whether the police chiefs and officers (not to mention the mayors) of major cities are black because the system is structurally racist, so it seems not to concern critics of foster care that child welfare departments often look like the very people they are investigating.

We should be wary of the claim that any kind of racial bias is driving the disparate impact of foster care. Just as any discussion of policing disparities is incomplete without information on disparities in crime rates, so it is impossible to consider disproportionate foster care numbers without understanding that abuse and neglect occur at different rates in different communities. According to the most recent federal data, in 2018 there were approximately 678,000 victims of substantiated child abuse and neglect, which amounts to 9.2 victims per 1,000 children in the population. The rate for African American children is 14.0 per 1,000, (surpassed only by American Indian or Alaska Native, whose rate was 15.2 per 1,000 children.) In other words, black children are being abused or neglected at a rate more than 50 percent higher than the general population.

These disparities are even visible in child fatalities that are the result of maltreatment. According to the same report: “The rate of African American child fatalities (5.48 per 100,000 African-American children) is 2.8 times greater than the rate of white children (1.94 per 100,000 white children) and 3.4 times greater than the rate of Hispanic children (1.63 per 100,000 Hispanic children).”

Fatalities are a very small number though. Advocates regularly chalk up most maltreatment disparities to findings of “neglect,” which they say are relatively harmless compared to abuse and can be solved by providing families with “services” to help them become better parents or financial resources like food assistance or housing vouchers. As David Kelly, special assistant to the associate commissioner at the US Children’s Bureau, recently explained: “We know that the majority of findings of child maltreatment are for neglect, not physical abuse or exploitation, and we know that there are strong associations between neglect and challenges associated with poverty.”

But the evidence suggests that neglect is neither harmless when compared to physical abuse nor simply a side effect of poverty. In 2017, more than three-quarters of the child maltreatment fatalities in this country occurred as a result of neglect, or neglect in combination with other factors. Only 42 percent occurred as a result of abuse or abuse in combination with other factors.

And there is a clear difference between kids who simply grow up in poverty and kids who have been reported to child protective services as well as those who have been the victims of maltreatment. In a paper entitled “It’s Not ‘Just Poverty’: Educational, social, and economic functioning among young adults exposed to childhood neglect, abuse, and poverty,” Sarah Font of Pennsylvania State University and Kathryn Maguire-Jack of the University of Michigan compare 29,154 people born between 1993 and 1996 in Milwaukee County who were either receiving food assistance or reported to child protective services before the age of 16.

Of kids in the former category, 78 percent graduated high school by the age of 20, compared to 64 percent whose parents were alleged to have neglected them or 59 percent of those who have been alleged to have abused and neglected them. Only two percent of children who were on food stamps did time in state prison before the age of 20, compared with three percent of those whose parents were investigated for abuse, four percent of those whose parents were investigated for neglect, and five percent of those who were investigated for abuse and neglect.

Finally, 13 percent of those who grew up in poverty experienced teen pregnancy. That number jumped to 18 percent for those who experienced alleged neglect, 23 percent for those who experienced alleged neglect and abuse, and 16 percent for those who experienced alleged abuse alone. In some cases it seems that neglect may actually have worse effects than abuse. And both seem to make children’s outcomes significantly worse than just growing up in poverty.

It is certainly true that poverty can contribute to a more violent or neglectful environment for kids. Adults who are stressed about where their next meal is coming from may take things out on their kids. And black families are disproportionately more likely to live in poverty. Substance abuse is also a major factor in the likelihood a child will be abused or neglected. In 2018, 31 percent of children were listed as having a drug-abusing caregiver as a risk factor and 12 percent were listed as having a caregiver who abused alcohol. This doesn’t even include mental illness or an “inability to cope” which is often listed by investigators instead of substance abuse.

Since the black poverty rate is almost twice the rate of the average poverty rate in the US and there is a higher rate of illicit drug use and a lower rate of successful drug treatment, it would not be surprising if there were higher rates of child maltreatment. But the biggest single factor that accounts for child maltreatment seems to be family structure. Kids who live in homes with a mother and her boyfriend are about nine times more likely to be the subject of maltreatment than kids who live with their married biological parents. And there is a higher rate of single motherhood among black families than white families. According to 2014 data from Child Trends, 70 percent of all births to black women occurred outside of marriage, compared to only 29 percent of all births to white women.

Child abuse is also not surprisingly correlated with abuse by domestic partners and no one denies that is higher among black women. In the wake of the arrest of Ray Rice in 2014, Time magazine ran a story by Feminista Jones explaining that “domestic and intimate partner violence (DV/IPV) is a ‘family secret’ in our black communities. While I’m not suggesting that all black people think and function in similar enough ways that we could all be labeled simply as one ‘community,’ I do know we have pervasive problems…” She noted that “black women are almost three times as likely to experience death as a result of DV/IPV than white women. And while black women only make up eight percent of the population, 22 percent of homicides that result from DV/IPV happen to black women and 29 percent of all victimized women, making it one of the leading causes of death for black women ages 15 to 35.”

If we are allowed to say that intimate partner violence is more of a problem in some communities than in others, why can’t we say the same about child abuse? And if it is, why should it surprise us that child welfare is disproportionately involved in the lives of black families? When black women report that their boyfriends are beating them, we don’t just offer them some money and tell them to go to counseling. And we certainly don’t recommend reducing domestic violence investigations or eliminating restraining orders or other legal protections that separate victims from perpetrators. Why should the black victims of child abuse be treated any differently?


Naomi Schaefer Riley is a journalist, former editor at the Wall Street Journal, and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, and the Washington Post. You can follow her on Twitter @NaomiSRiley.

Photo by Isaac Quesada on Unsplash.


  1. “We need to abolish the foster care system,” commissioner and former foster youth Charity Chandler-Cole said during the two-hour virtual meeting.

    Read down further in the linked article and you will find this:

    In 2017, Chandler-Cole, who also chairs the board of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said she sought the top job at DCFS, before [another person] was hired.

    This woman doesn’t want to abolish the foster care system, as she claims. She wants to take it over.

  2. The most galling thing about the activist approach, is that it almost always positions itself to make the job of removing the systemic issues which account for a large portion of structural and systemic disparities of outcome, all the harder. We saw the same thing in the Obama Administration, where differing rates of discipline for kids from background which were statistically more likely to live in poor, high crime, single parent environments, with aggressive and unreliable males cycling through the home, was taken as evidence of systemic racism against Black boys.

    The net effect of this policy decision, was to increase the disadvantage experienced by black children in the public school system, through systemically more disrupted classrooms. By K-12 disrupted classrooms can easily account for two years of lost education. How does that help Black kids? In addition, we know from the testimony of numerous teachers that where strict lower-level discipline is absent, problems can quickly escalate, leaving the school with no choice but to suspend or expel, only reinforcing the school-to-prison program.

    This recent debate by ReasonTV is similarly relevant:

    I managed to locate the article Rafael Mangual wrote, regarding how the removal of negative parental and sibling influences through incarceration, can be beneficial for children suffering in such environments, particularly where Anti-Social Personality Disorder and Substance Use Disorders are prevalent. It is replete with great links to source materials.

    I have recently begun to wonder whether one way to restore sanity to the American Criminal Justice System might be by returning to a system where judges, rather than prosecutors, hold the discretion- whilst also equipping them with the very best that science and empirical evidence has to offer, in terms of making informed decisions. Many of the worst decisions legislators made during the 1990’s, were informed by a media only covering the judicial activists at the far extremes of judicial norms, or in cases where the subtleties of evidence and situation didn’t translate well into a mainstream media narrative, often deliberately so.

    Forearmed is forewarned, as the saying goes and, whilst it might be a tad ambitious to use lie detector tests to check for coercion in plea deals on the part of prosecutors, it might be an idea to at least check whether a person pleading guilty to a crime actually committed it. Modern lie detector technology is not infallible, especially in relation to the training of the person administering the test, but where an experienced interviewer is involved, it is simply impossible to manipulate a ‘true’ finding to ‘false’, or vice versa.

    The best liar can only shift the dial to inconclusive. And as the benefits would only acccrue to the unjustly accused, constitutionality is not an issue. Apart from anything else, although cases of prosecutorial and official misconduct are relatively rare, on a percentage basis, the fear of a plea deal triggering a further investigation into process, would all but eliminate them.

    Similarly, equipping judges with the best diagnostic tools that modern science and empirical evidence can provide, could not only allow Judges to make more informed decisions, but also allow them to be more lenient and reform-focused in instances where no underlying pathology is found. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that younger offenders imprisoned for lesser offences often escalate their offending behaviour as a result of prison.

    A better, more informed system could separate those bound upon an inexorable course, from those who have simply fallen under the influence of bad company. Separating children from perennially bad parents or siblings might actually be a solution to these malign social feeder systems, and not an inevitable result or a contributing factor.

  3. Just for the heck of it, I decided to look up ‘racist’ in my online dictionary. Needless to say I was expecting to find a rich panoply of meanings and nuances plus endless possible applications. So you can imagine my utter disappointment when I found it was defined by one meager word: ‘human’
    I didn’t even bother to look up ‘sexist.’

  4. You needed have bothered with either- the answer to both is straight white male who doesn’t vote Democrat

  5. I don’t discount the author’s points, however… all efforts should be made to keep kids with their parents. Even temporary separation can cause lifelong effects, especially with young children. And when siblings are removed, they must be kept together.

    The system has an automatic way of working that favors separation. I knew a family (white) who had a rebellious teen. She was mad at her parents for cracking down on her so told some teacher they had hit her. Lo and behold child protective services showed up at the house and took her away. The girl was devastated – I think she wanted them yelled at or something. Of course it all worked out and she was able to return home but only after an embarassing investigation, and that incident put them on a permanent list of baaaad parents.

    Foster care is important, but it needs improvement.

  6. The foster care system does need improvement.

    1. Kids put into foster care lose connection to the bio family. They age out of foster care at 18. At that point, they go into free-fall. No family, no help.
    2. The reasons to put kids into foster care need to be re-evaluated. It should be only the most dire of situations.
    3. The statistics about single moms are completely appalling. We need to re-shame this situation. No one should be deciding to have a child without a dad. That include gay “families”.
  7. In most states, removal does occur only in the most dire situations. As a foster parent, I saw how the system impacts children. My children were malnourished, experienced the kind of torture we would call a human rights abuse, lived in conditions most of us would consider unfit for a dog or cat.

    Yet because family courts are closed courts, the public doesn’t hear those stories. The public doesn’t see judges reading the newspaper during hearings, lawyers for the state and parents gathering to decide what “should” happen without even looking at evidence. Worse, only the low hanging fruit of evidence even being presented. Once neglect is proven, or abuse of one child in a sibling set, they often stop bothering with additional investigation. Extension after extension. Then at reunification, children are still returned to homes with no food and no walls (as with my child). Despite food, house and childcare assistance.

    Speaking of assistance, parents do not have to accept help. Yet even if that means a home with no food and a home literally in process of being condemned for human habitation, the child must go back once the order is given.

    In order to show reunification works (and I have seen it work when the parents are really invested), agencies use a short measurement period. My own son’s reunification was classed as a “success”, but only because the court ordered (5th) removal was issued the day after the measurement period ended.

  8. That was horribly infuriating to read, but thank you very much for posting it. I find it baffling that this issue gets so little attention.

    I’m literally struggling to find words that can convey how much respect I have for what you’re doing. All the best to you and your kids!

  9. @LadyJeelys - Welcome!

    I’m hoping that from reading the above, after that 5th removal, you got him back and still have him?

    I echo Joana’s sentiments, too.

  10. I’ve been traveling and trying to catch up here, but when I got to this article I was a bit surprised to see so little interest in commenting. Maybe the problem is that the topic just isn’t eye catching enough right now to muddle through it, given other things going on.

    That some believe and argue foster care systems are racist because a higher relative percentage of black kids are involved was something I wasn’t aware of until this author’s piece, but I guess it goes hand/glove with most everything else where over-representation of an undesired outcome universally is determined to be racism. So I’m glad the author draws attention to it here, and hope doing so doesn’t cause her to get recanceled.

    The author notes that the per-capita rate of abuse-related fatalities is roughly 3X higher for black children than whites or Hispanics, and further notes, “Fatalities are a very small number though”. I don’t think these deaths should be minimized. And to be fair, I don’t think the author intends to; rather, in the overall scope of things (neglect and/or abuse v. fatalities), she’s just pointing out that fatalities are a small subset.

    However, looking at these fatalities in light of “other things going on” right now - the news cycle being captivated with the protests over racist police killing innocent blacks - it might be interesting if the media would notice and report, in the context of those seeking to abolish these racist foster care programs, that this “very small number” of annual abuse-related fatalities, for black children, appears to be some 25 times the number of unarmed[1] blacks shot by the racist cops per year.

    Although, granted, the cops are governmental authority figures and our government should never be shooting innocent black people.

    On the other hand, it’d be nice if their own families likewise were not killing innocent children. Black, white, Hispanic, or other.

    But “other things going on right now” is in reference to protests over the racist cops shooting innocent black people, and the argument is that CPS programs are generally racist against blacks, too, so I found that 25X number to be interesting enough to waste your time with this comment. Assuming anyone reads it, that is.

    [1] Using WaPo’s data and using unarmed as a proxy for innocent.

  11. I volunteer at a home for teens- basically a foster home, because there is simply not enough homes for teenagers. When you look into those kids eyes who are so desperate for attention it heartbreaking. I think if my own children. How can people be so selfish. They feel unwanted. You just can’t believe the conditions that many people live in, the abuse and neglect. They reunite the kids quickly because there is a never ending flow of new ones coming in. The on-site staff are usually in their 20’s. The kids can never be left alone in the house. Never.

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