Late last month, 150 people, including members of Black Lives Matter, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to stage a protest in front of the Administration for Children’s Services. The March for Forgotten Youth: A March for Black Foster Youth presented a list of demands to ACS commissioner David Hansell that included better recruitment of nonwhite foster fathers. The group presented a milder case for reform than some protests over the summer that suggested defunding ACS altogether. In June, for example, a group of protesters made a similar journey, chanting “No justice, no peace! ACS is the police!” Similar sentiments have been heard elsewhere. “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 last summer.
Reasonable voices in the child welfare community have been slow to react to these protests. Perhaps they believe that calmer heads will prevail. But just as demands to defund police may not achieve that explicit goal but will likely result in smaller budgets and the loss of qualified officers, so the growing insistence that foster care is racist will end in fewer resources and the reluctance of good people to become foster parents.
It was welcome news, then, when a group of scholars finally stepped up recently to offer a more substantive response to charges of systemic racism in the foster care system. Led by Richard Barth of the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland and including Jill Duerr Berrick of UC Berkeley, the group released a paper called “Outcomes Following Child Welfare Services: What Are They and Do They Differ for Black Children?” The authors conclude: “Current research with adequate comparisons provides no robust evidence to support the idea that children have worse outcomes from CWS involvement.”
Until now, foster-care agencies have sought to appease the radicals, even as they know that abolishing foster care would be an unqualified disaster for hundreds of thousands of children unsafe in their own homes. An ACS spokesperson, for instance, assured protesters last month that the agency was “very aware of and concerned about . . . racial disparities in child welfare” but promised no concrete steps to address it beyond noting that workers must complete implicit-bias training.
Of course, as a 2019 story in the Washington Monthly explained, “the existence of unconscious prejudice is well established, and indeed intuitive, [but] the dirty secret is that there’s no evidence that implicit bias trainings do anything to mitigate it.” But it is easier to mollify critics with empty gestures than to explain that black children are disproportionately present in the child-welfare system because of a higher level of abuse and neglect in some families (especially single-parent homes with cohabiting, nonrelative males) than in others.
The new study by Barth and his coauthors examines research conducted on various outcomes, including safety (measured by fatality rates and repeat occurrences of abuse or neglect), involvement with juvenile or criminal justice, children’s development and education, health and behavioral health, and the permanence and stability of placements.
Safety is the first objective of child-welfare agencies. Despite radicals’ contention that black children are put in danger through their placements, the authors note, “overall, the findings that follow do not indicate increased risk of later death or recurrence associated with CWS intervention, with most studies finding no overall differences by race.” Moreover, a review of 16 of 28 studies “reported no difference in risk or likelihood of CPS report recurrence by race . . . and [in] the remaining 12 studies, Black children were less [emphasis in the original] likely to have repeat reports compared to White or ‘Other’ children.”
In other words, the evidence suggests that black children suffering abuse or neglect may be safer after intervention by child protective services relative to other children. Across racial lines, there is good reason to believe that children placed in foster care have better outcomes than those who remain in their homes despite substantiated risk.
Critics concerned about racial disparities often complain about an alleged “foster care to prison pipeline.” But the authors note that “findings from these studies are mixed, although there is considerable evidence that involvement with CPS may help reduce transitions to juvenile or criminal justice involvement.” Critics also assume that because kids in foster care often show bad outcomes, including criminal behavior, that their experience results from their foster care experience. In fact, it is just as likely—if not more likely—that events such as parental abuse and neglect leading up to children’s removal to foster care shape these behavioral outcomes.
The authors explain: “Our two most generalizable national studies . . . show that low-income children and Black children are more likely to experience maltreatment and severe maltreatment than other children.” They concede that racism is a burden for black children but conclude: “This burden will be heavier if policy decisions that influence their safety and well-being are not based on scientifically credible reasoning and evidence. The current state of the evidence supports the need for transformation but does not support abolition of the only available safety net for Black children.”
The words don’t rhyme, and the sentiment may not fit on a poster, but the message, one hopes, will find its way to a broader audience.