No Racial Bias in Child Welfare System, Report Finds

child welfare

Almost three times as many African Americans as whites live below the poverty line, and economic need plays a huge role in abuse. Credit: Corbis

It has long been argued that systemwide racial bias is behind the reporting of double the number of child abuse and neglect for African American children, but researchers find that the facts prove otherwise.

Bias among physicians, nurses, social workers and other professionals mandated to report suspected child victimization does not exist, researchers tell Reuters Health.

In fact, child abuse among African American children actually is double compared to their white peers because the children face greater exposure to the risk factors that drive abuse and neglect, Brett Drake, an author of the report, tells Reuters Health.

"The problem is not that (Child Protective Services) workers are racists," says Drake, who studies child welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. "The 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."

There is no question that a disproportionate number of African American kids end up in foster care. But what has been debated is whether or not there is a higher degree of abuse at home, or is it really a product of racial bias that makes social workers more likely to suspect maltreatment among African Americans, according to Reuters Health.

Through their research, Drake and his colleagues tapped into national estimates and found that 17 out of 1,000 African American kids were abused or neglected in 2009, according to the report, which is published in the journal Pediatrics. This compares to only one in nine white children.

The statistics speak volumes. Almost three times as many African Americans as whites live below the poverty line, and economic need plays a huge role in abuse, Drake tells Reuters Health.

To get an idea about whether racial bias in reporting added to that disparity, the researchers used child death rates, birth weight and preterm births as reference points. Those statistics are also influenced by poverty, but presumably are free of bias, according to Reuters Health.
They found no more disparity between African American kids and white children in child abuse and neglect than in any of the other measures.

"It looks like the child welfare system is a fairly accurate system with regards to abuse and maltreatment," Drake tells Reuters. "There has never been any good evidence of racial bias."
Roughly 772,000 children were found to be victims of maltreatment in 2008, according to U.S. government, and 267,000 were removed from their homes -- usually due to neglect.

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