Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Bartholet, faculty director of HLS’s Child Advocacy Program, has released two new reports challenging the long-held assumption that racial bias is responsible for the disproportionately high numbers of black children in foster care. The reports cast doubt on policies that would reduce the numbers of black children in foster care to mirror the percentage of black children in the general population.

The two papers stem from a recent conference—attended by leading social scientists and child welfare experts—that was sponsored by the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School.

Bartholet said: “The focus on alleged child welfare system bias not only diverts attention from the most significant problems facing black families, but poses dangers to black children. Reducing the number of children in care without reducing the prevalence of child maltreatment itself will endanger children. The work needed to facilitate real reform is much more challenging.”

Based on evidence presented at the conference, the reports find that black maltreatment rates are significantly higher than white, owing to the fact that black families are disproportionately subject to extreme poverty and related conditions that predict for maltreatment.

The authors of the reports call for the child welfare field to move beyond the focus on bias to a new focus on addressing the actual maltreatment suffered disproportionately by black children growing up in severe poverty in American society, through the development of new prevention and protection programs.

One paper, entitled “Race and Child Welfare,” has been published online as an Issues Brief by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, a co-sponsor of the conference. Authors include Bartholet, Chapin Hall research fellow Fred Wulczyn, University of Maryland School of Social Work Dean Richard P. Barth and Juvenile Court Judge Cindy Lederman.

The second paper, by Bartholet, is entitled “Race and Child Welfare: Disproportionality, Disparity, Discrimination: Re-Assessing the Facts, Re-Thinking the Policy Options.”