There is no question that African-American children are represented disproportionately in the foster care system as compared to other segments of the population. Black children, who account for just 15 percent of all children in the U.S., represent more than a third of children placed in foster care. The question is: Why? That controversial issue and others surrounding society’s efforts to protect children were the focus of the conference “Race & Child Welfare: Disproportionality, Disparity, Discrimination: Re-Assessing the Facts, Re-Thinking the Policy Options,” held January 28-29 at Harvard Law School.

(Click here for video of all Conference events on the Child Advocacy Program’s website)

Conference participants included an array of influential experts in the field from the legal and judicial arenas, child services organizations, and academia. Organized by Professor Elizabeth Bartholet ’65, faculty director of HLS’s Child Advocacy Program, the conference followed from the publication of her article, “The Racial Disproportionality Movement: False Facts and Dangerous Directions,” which helped trigger debate on the issues. In that article, Bartholet disputed claims (made by a group of child welfare experts known as the Casey Alliance) that current child welfare system bias is responsible for foster care removal rates and that the solution is to stop removing black children in such numbers. She argued that in fact black children face higher levels of maltreatment, owing to risk factors that disproportionately affect the black community such as poverty, substance abuse, and single parenting. “If the child welfare system is wrongfully found discriminatory,” she writes, “and, as a result, stops removing black children at serious risk for ongoing maltreatment, the children will suffer immediate and dangerous consequences.”

VIDEO: Introduction and “Facts: Entry Issues: Removal Rates, Official vs Actual Maltreatment Incidence”
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HLS Professor Elizabeth Bartholet, CAP Faculty Director; HLS Lecturer on Law Jessica Budnitz, CAP Managing Director. Panelists: John D. Fluke, Director, American Humane Association; Brett Drake, Professor, the Brown School, Washington University School of Social Work; Emily Putnam-Hornstein, Associate Research Specialist, University of California at Berkeley; Richard Barth, Dean, School of Social Work, University of Maryland

In one conference presentation, Brett Drake, a professor at the Washington University School of Social Work, took on the claim made by the Casey Alliance that the National Incidence Studies (NIS) had demonstrated that black and white actual maltreatment rates were the same, a claim key to the view that the system is biased. He showed that not only did NIS-4, the most recent study, show black maltreatment rates are roughly twice that of whites, but that the earlier NIS reports had mischaracterized their data, leading to the conclusion that black and while maltreatment rates are the same. This confusion had led to policy recommendations designed to achieve “racial equity” by simply reducing the black removal rate to reflect population percentages, Drake noted: “My nightmare is the little black kid who doesn’t get reported who needs to be reported ”

Richard Barth, Dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, noted that black families are at least as likely to be underserved as overserved by child protection services. “Should we be so worried that the child welfare system is unfair or racist that we allow minority children to be underserved and unprotected?” he asked. “That is the fear that I have had for some time.” Barth noted that reducing disproportionality should not be the primary goal—it should be to improve the quality of services for all children.

The second half of the conference was devoted to policy options that would improve those services, so as to better protect all children against actual maltreatment, and provide more of them with permanent, nurturing homes. There were presentations on early family support and maltreatment prevention, early intervention to protect infants born affected by drugs and alcohol, family drug treatment courts, and programs designed to move children out of foster care more promptly. Deborah Daro, research fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, extolled early intervention efforts such as early home visitation for parents of newborns as well as early Head Start. “We now know if we want to maximize our impacts, we have to work on the 0-5 population,” she said.

Bartholet hopes the conference will prove an important turning point, changing the focus from what she says is a misconceived assumption of social worker bias to the very real problems in impoverished communities that too often produce maltreatment. “People at this conference were talking about the devastating conditions that characterize communities in which so many black families live. They were talking about what we might do about these conditions. They were talking about how better to protect children from maltreatment and provide them the services, and the nurturing homes, they need. Those are the issues we ought to be focusing on. I think that that conversation shift happened at this conference.”

For an account of the conference by writer Daniel Heimpel, visit