Current data indicates high levels of racial disproportionality in Minnesota and Hennepin County’s child welfare systems. Compared to their representation in the general population, African-American, Native American, and multiracial children are overrepresented at various stages throughout the child welfare pathway including in initial reports of child maltreatment, out-of-home placements, and terminations of parental rights (MN Department of Human Services, 2014). African-American, Native American, and multiracial children accounted for 65% of Hennepin County’s alleged child maltreatment victims in 2017, but these racial groups represent less than 20% of the county’s residents (MN Department of Human Services, 2018; U.S. Census Bureau, 2018). Given the strong partnerships between CornerHouse and surrounding child protection and law enforcement agencies, CornerHouse’s client demographics also reflect similar trends in racial disproportionality.
The child welfare system’s racial disproportionality does not indicate that families of color are more likely to neglect or abuse their children, or to do so more severely than white families. The first three editions of the National Incidence Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect found no correlation between race and maltreatment, even after poverty status was considered (Children’s Bureau, 2016). Instead, the child welfare system’s racial disproportionality seems to stem from three factors: higher rates of poverty among families of color, racial bias, and system constraints. The chronic stress of caregivers living below the poverty line, and their consequent increases in mental health conditions, elevate the risk of child maltreatment (McLoyd, 1990; Slack, Holl, McDaniel, Yoo, & Bolger, 2004). Visibility bias likely increases mandated reports for children of color (Ards, Myers, Ray, Kim, Monroe, & Arteaga, 2012; Miller, Cahn, Anderson-Nathe, Cause & Bender, 2013). In white-majority communities, mandated reporters are more likely to notice potential red flags of maltreatment among children of color than white children simply because these children are more noticeable. Children of color may also have more contact with mandated reporters because their increased levels of poverty necessitate greater involvement with social welfare systems. In addition, high caseloads, short investigation timelines, ambiguous state statutes, and limited cultural awareness combine to create conditions under which racial bias can easily influence child welfare professionals’ decision-making.
Racial disproportionality should be of immediate concern to all child welfare professionals. It results in the misuse of limited child welfare funds that could otherwise go toward prevention or protecting high-risk children facing imminent safety threats. The trauma of prolonged involvement in the child welfare system also exacts a severe toll on children, families, and communities. This is especially true for African-Americans and Native Americans as the separation of children from their families only perpetuates historical trauma in these communities. Fortunately, Hennepin County seems committed to ensuring equitable outcomes for all children in the child welfare system and has adopted several interventions over the past few years to address racial disproportionality. These include family group decision-making, the KVC decision-making model, and the collaborative safety model (Hennepin County Human Services, 2018).
Ards, S.D., Myers, S.L., Ray, P., Kim, H.E., Monroe, K., & Arteaga, I. (2012). Racialized perceptions and child neglect. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 1480-1491. Children’s Bureau. (2016b). Racial disproportionality and disparity in child welfare. Washington, DC: Child Welfare Information Gateway.
Hennepin County Human Services. (2018). Child well-being advisory committee: Chair’s report to the Hennepin County board, September 2018. Minneapolis, MN: Author.
McLoyd, V.C. (1990). The impact of economic hardship on black families and children: Psychological distress, parenting, and socioemotional development. Child Development, 61, 311-346.
Miller, K.M., Cahn, K., Anderson-Nathe, B., Cause, A.G., & Bender, R. (2013). Individual and systemic/structural bias in child welfare decision making: Implications for children and families of color. Children and Youth Services Review, 35, 1634-1642.
Minnesota Department of Human Services. (2014). Minnesota’s child welfare report, 2013. Saint Paul, MN: Author.
Minnesota Department of Human Services. (2018). Minnesota’s child welfare report, 2017. Saint Paul, MN: Author.
Slack, K.S., Holl, J.L., McDaniel, M., Yoo, J., & Bolger, K. (2004). Understanding the risks of child neglect: An exploration of poverty and parenting characteristics. Child Maltreatment, 9(4), 395-408.
United States Census Bureau. (2018). QuickFacts: Hennepin County, Minnesota. Retrieved from census.gov.