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Ruth McRoy

Excerpted from:  Ruth McRoy, Expedited Permanency: Implications for African-American Children and Families, 12 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 475 -489. 477-481 (2005) (81 Footnotes)


Despite the fact that there is no difference in the actual incidence of child abuse or neglect among different ethnic groups, a combination of socioeconomic factors and various state and federal policies as well as disparate reporting and service delivery increase the likelihood that poor and minority children will enter the foster care system. This [excerpt] examines the following four factors which lead to the disproportionate vulnerability of African-American children: poverty and welfare legislation, parental substance abuse and drug trafficking, length of incarceration, and disparate service delivery.

A. Poverty, Welfare Legislation, and Foster Care

Welfare policy in this country has had a largely unexamined impact on foster care, even though about half of the children in care come from families who are eligible for or are recipients of public assistance. Policy measures addressing poverty did not assert this influence until 1961; before this time there had been no federally funded foster care program. As part of Title IVA of the Social Security Act passed in this year, Congress provided federal financial assistance for the placement of children who had been receiving Aid to Dependent Children (ADC--later AFDC) in the month preceding the placement. Under the new legislation, there was no ceiling on foster care funding in cases of abuse and neglect and since the program's administration was through public assistance rather than child welfare, there were few ties between child welfare and foster care. The foster care program has thus been referred to as a "de facto poverty program," with critics alleging that the government has taken over child rearing responsibilities from poor families.

Recent welfare reforms have exacerbated foster care's role as a "de facto poverty program." In 1996, Congress replaced the former welfare system with a scheme of mandatory work requirements and time limits on assistance known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families grants (TANF). By requiring individuals on welfare to work without providing them with more child care, these statutory schemes may have placed impoverished families in the position of deciding whether to work, receive federal benefits, but leave their children unsupervised or continue to care for their children as before and lose their benefits. Some have thus criticized the TANF legislation, asserting that "Congress eliminated the safety net for poor children."

African-American families have been disproportionately impacted by both the 1961 and 1996 welfare legislation because they comprise a disproportionate amount of the impoverished families in the United States. Five years after the implementation of TANF, African-Americans had the largest proportion of families and children on TANF rolls. Although African-American families represent only about 12.9% of the population, 23.6% of African-Americans--8.4 million people--were poor in 1999; studies demonstrate that such income differentials between the African-Americans and other races still exist. African-Americans are more likely to be poor than whites. Impoverished African-Americans' lack of resources to provide child care combined with their TANF work requirements could contribute to the disproportionate number of African-American children in foster care.

B. Parental Substance Abuse and Drug Trafficking

Numerous studies have linked parental substance abuse to child maltreatment and neglect--two factors compelling states to place children in foster care. In 1995, of the one million substantiated victims of child abuse and neglect, at least half of the caregivers were chemically involved. In addition, these children were from families "trapped in poverty, substance abuse and violence." Studies show that a growing numbers of infants are entering the foster care system due to maternal alcohol and drug use. Moreover, conscious or unconscious stereotypes of African-Americans may lead many professionals to be more likely to report African-American women for substance abuse. For example, in one study of drug use during pregnancy, although white and black women were almost equally likely to test positive for drugs, physicians were ten times more likely to report African-American women to health authorities after delivery than other women.

The length of substance abuse treatment programs for such parents and the lack of corresponding support services have contributed to the disproportionate number of African-American children in foster care. Although some traditional substance abuse interventions are designed to be short, recovering from substance abuse can be a life long process. It can take at least twenty-four months to adequately help a client go through the various recovery stages including the possibility of occasional relapses. In addition, after completing treatment, families need safe, affordable, and sober housing and time to enhance parenting capabilities, job skills, and employment stability. There is a significant need for specialized services as well as partnerships between child welfare and substance abuse professionals to address this growing problem.

In addition to general substance abuse problems, a disproportionate number of African-American families have at least one parent in prison for drug offenses. Despite roughly equal rates of consumption between whites and African-Americans, African-Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses at fourteen times the rate of whites. This disparate rate of imprisonment also contributes to the disproportionate number of African-American youth in foster care. When parents are incarcerated and cannot serve as caretakers, their children may enter the foster care system.

C. Length of Incarceration

Similarly, racial differences in sentencing patterns can impact the length of time parents are separated from their children, affecting the likelihood of family reunification. Since African-Americans are likely to serve more prison time than whites for the same offense, African-American children in foster care may be separated from their families longer than white children from incarcerated parents.

Policymakers exacerbate this problem by only providing limited visitation services for the children of incarcerated parents. Despite the fact that parental visitation is an important factor in the likelihood of family reunification after foster care, only about half the states provide transportation for foster children to visit imprisoned parents. This lack of visitation aid is especially problematic because sixty-two percent of parents in state prison and eighty-four percent of parents in federal prison are over one-hundred miles away from their homes.

D. Disparate Service Delivery

Racially discriminatory distributions of social services may also contribute to the disproportionate number of African-American children in foster care. There is evidence that family preservation services are not targeted as often to African-American families as to white clients.

This lack of appropriate service delivery, combined with poverty, drug and alcohol use, and differential sentencing can result in differential outcomes for African-American children.