Disproportionate representation occurs when a specific racial or ethnic group is represented within a particular population at a higher (overrepresentation) or lower (underrepresentation) rate than that group is represented within the general population. Minority children, particularly Black children, are overrepresented in the child welfare system, while white children are actually underrepresented.
For instance, in 2016, black children represented 14% of all children nationally while white children accounted for 5% of all children (US Census Bureau, 2017). If representation were equal, we would expect for black children to be represented at the same rate of 14% across child welfare categories such as:
- Children who are confirmed by child protective services as victims of maltreatment;
- Children in foster care;
- Children in foster care waiting for adoption (those children whose parents’ rights have been terminated);
- Children in foster care with more than 2 placements; and,
- Youth residing in juvenile detention, correctional and/or residential facilities.
In reality, black children are overrepresented in each of these categories. Black children represent 19% of children who were confirmed as victims of child abuse and neglect, 5 percentage points higher than their representation within the general public. Black children have nearly twice as much representation in foster care than they do in the general public, representing 24% of the foster care population. The same dynamic is apparent regarding children who are awaiting adoption. More than 20% of children awaiting a forever family are black (AFCARS, 2017).
The disproportionate representation of black children and youth continues to grow when considering their fate once in foster care. Black children have experienced multiple placements at a rate that is higher than their representation in the general public. Of the 149,459 children and youth who experienced multiple placements in 2015, 40% were black (AFCARS, 2017). More than 40% of the 48,043 youth who resided in a juvenile detention, correction and/or residential facility in 2015 were black.
The chart below compares the rates of representation among Blacks, Whites, and Hispanics. As you may notice, the rates of representation for whites and Hispanics are higher across categories. However, this is to be expected because their rates within the general population are so high, at 51% and 25% respectively (US Census Bureau, 2017).
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) Child File, FFY 2000-2014.
AFCARS – Some states have extended care through the ages of 19, 20, or 21.
The difference to take note of is the underrepresentation of these groups in the subsequent categories. Whites are not fully represented in any of the categories, while Hispanics only have full representation in juvenile detention, correctional and/or residential facilities.
Of course, with regard to these unfavorable circumstances, no one group should have full representation, and certainly no group should be overrepresented! So why are black children so overrepresented in these categories that ultimately result in such poor outcomes?
Research has suggested several explanations for this overrepresentation. Beginning with an examination of child maltreatment, is it fair to assume that black parents are inherently worse at parenting than are parents of other races? Are black parents more abusive and neglectful toward their children? No, those are unfair and biased claims.
A more factual claim was developed in 2010 by the National Incidence Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect. According to the study, the strongest predictor of child maltreatment is not race, but socioeconomic status (Sedlak, McPherson & Das, 2010). The lower a family’s socioeconomic status, the greater the risk that children in that family will experience abuse and/or neglect.
The unfortunate reality is that nearly 40% of black children nationally live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level — a percentage that is greater than that of any other racial or ethnic group (American Community Survey, 2015).
With such a large number of black children living in poverty, it is no wonder that black families experience greater social visibility, which results in exposure bias. When these families seek relief from poverty in the form of social services such as publicly sponsored food assistance, housing assistance, or medical care, they are increasingly exposed to professionals who are mandated to report suspected incidences of abuse and neglect (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016). These professionals do not have the same degree of contact with families who belong to higher socioeconomic levels — resulting in the tacit privilege of keeping one’s family business behind closed doors.
While we would like to believe that professionals, especially public servants, operate fairly and justly within the confines of their duties, it is a recognized fact that personal bias and discrimination are inherent within social services. Racial bias and discrimination can result in allegations of abuse or neglect that have no basis other than the race of the suspected family, or even worse, substantiations of abuse or neglect once those allegations are investigated resulting in the removal of a child. For instance, studies in Texas revealed the following dynamics: A low-income black family being investigated for child maltreatment was more likely to have their child removed than a middle-class white family — even if the investigation revealed that the black family had a lower level of risk for abuse and neglect (Dettlaff et al., 2011; Rivaux et al., 2008). That dynamic resulted in more black children being removed from families, more black families developing child abuse records, and more white families remaining intact — whether or not there was danger to the child. Personal bias and discrimination also operate once a child is placed in foster care, which is evidenced by the large number of black youth who are confined to juvenile detention, correctional and/or residential facilities.
If we want to disrupt this disproportionality, we have to decrease the representation of black children in this system by securing them in loving families and communities.
Once children achieve permanency, return home or are adopted into their forever families, they no longer have representation in these statistics. Just as we were predestined for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ in love (Ephesians 1:4-5), these children are in need of that same grace. It is because of nothing that we have done that we have been adopted by our Heavenly Father, but only because His unconditional love for us is so great. May we mirror that agape love and reflect it toward children selflessly.