By Stacey Patton
Do African Americans really abuse their children more than whites and other groups? Or is there a thread of racial bias from the largely white social services workforce that reports abuse? Are white social workers more likely to suspect maltreatment among blacks? Or is there another driving force behind the disproportionately high numbers?
A recent study published in the March issue of Pediatrics that tries to solve these questions is still making waves throughout the social services community as headlines blaze over the controversial issue of paddling in schools.
Studies have long shown that a disproportionate number of black children enter foster care, and a higher number die each year as a result of abuse and neglect. This new study titled “Racial Bias in Child Protection? A Comparison of Competing Explanations Using National Data,” conducted by researchers at Washington University says that child abuse is more common in black than white homes.
The study also challenges long-held suspicions that the disproportionately high numbers of black abuse cases are driven by racial bias in the largely white social welfare workforce that reports abuse.
“We knew [abuse of] black kids was reported about twice as often as it was for white kids, and we were concerned that that might be due to racism,” said Brett Drake a social work professor at Washington University and the study’s lead author. “We also knew black kids, in terms of economics, were facing a lot of problems that most white kids were not facing.”
Using national reports and the most recent available data from the Census Bureau, the study found that of the 702,000 cases of substantiated child abuse in 2009, 44 percent involved white children who make up 75 percent of the population, and 22 percent involved black children, who comprise 12 percent of the population. In 2009 black children represented 21 percent of the total population of abused children.
“The problem is not that (child protective services) workers are racist,” Drake said. While the study does not preclude the possibility of a racial thread in reporting child abuse, Drake argued that the main problem is that huge numbers of black people are living under devastating circumstances. “Mitigating poverty, and the effects of poverty, would be the most powerful way to reduce child maltreatment,” Drake said.
Drake and his colleagues found that about 17 per 1,000 black children were abused or neglected in 2009, compared to only 9 in 1,000 white children. The study noted that almost three times as many blacks as whites live below the poverty line, and that economic need plays a huge role in child abuse.
Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School supports the study’s findings. “There is no good evidence black kids are removed for reasons related to bias,” she said at a recent conference on race and child welfare hosted by Harvard. “We need to focus on prevention of maltreatment and protection of black children as well as white,” she added.
The Washington University study is not without its critics.
Sondra Jackson, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Black Administrators in Child Welfare said that this study is yet another attempt to shift the discussion away from race and toward other causes like poverty. “People can use research to disprove stuff they don’t want to deal with,” she said.
Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR) offered critical comments about this and other studies, saying they are rife with fatal flaws in that they fail to take into account that both class and racial biases affect child welfare decisions, and they reinforce each other.
“Three-quarters of all “substantiated” cases of child maltreatment involve neglect,” said Wexler. He noted that state statutes typically define neglect as lack of adequate food, clothing, shelter or supervision – “the definition of poverty.” Wexler added, “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.”
Wexler and other critics have noted that since blacks are disproportionately poor, they are disproportionately at risk for being mislabeled as guilty of neglect. “To know where the class bias leaves off and the racial bias begins, it’s necessary to use methods that control for poverty,” said Wexler. He noted that studies conducted by the NCCPR has shown that caseworkers are more likely to describe a child as “at risk” when the family is black.
Wexler asked: “Why 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?” While acknowledging that he has seen improvement in attitudes about poverty and child protection, Wexler said the fact remains that so many are willing to “cop to class bias rather than be accused of racial bias is at least a small step in the right direction.”
The Washington University study also concluded that the rate of abuse among Hispanic children was proportionately higher than that of whites but lower than that of blacks. Researchers call it the “Hispanic Paradox.” So why is it that Hispanics, who suffer high poverty rates and poor access to health care, have fewer numbers of child abuse cases?
Researchers explain that the answer may lie in cultural factors. Drake and others have explained that Hispanic communities tend to be more child-centered and have stricter mores against the maltreatment of children than in black communities. Polls and studies of racial attitudes towards have shown that many African Americans support physical discipline of children, which can sometimes lead to more serious abuse. Wexler said that understanding culturally specific factors that place black children at risk is needed, as well as the role that poverty plays.
“Sometimes, very poor people have to make really awful decisions . . . We’re pretty darn sure that poverty is associated with abuse and neglect,” Drake said. “There is a lot of evidence that being poor is rough on people and rough on parents.” So long as our society permits such a large number of our children and young families to live in horrible economic circumstances, we can expect to see high rates of child maltreatment. Reducing current racial disproportionality in the child welfare system can be best achieved by reducing underlying risk factors that affect black families, specifically poverty.”
And still others call for more blacks to be placed in administrative positions within the child welfare system and for more sensitivity training among teachers, caseworkers and doctors.
I believe that a holistic approach to child protection is necessary, one that addresses the individual, social, emotional, and physical needs of children and families. The training of social workers needs to be balanced with considerations of the role of macro-level poverty and community perspective simultaneously.
The problem of racism is still deeply ingrained and systemic in all of our institutions. Thus, the child welfare system does not exist in a vacuum, unaffected by the past and present treatment of black people. Similar racial disparities can be found in health, employment, education and criminal justice. If there is a lack of equitable resources, if people can’t feed their children, pay their bills, or find ways out of the poverty of life, we shouldn’t be surprised to see such disturbing data on child maltreatment.
As long as we continually try to fix people rather than the institutional racism that burden us all, the problems will persist and children will continue to be become hapless victims of the poverty of life and tragically scores more will die before the next academic paper or set of statistics on abuse is published.