Study Finds Pervasive Racial Bias in California’s Child Welfare System

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A new study in the American Journal of Public Health examines the scope of racial inequities within the child welfare system that researchers have pointed out for decades by tracking the rates of child protective service involvement in the lives of the half a million children born in 1999 in California, reports Mother Jones. Their results found that half of Black children, as well as half of Native American children, experienced a California Child Protective Services (CPS) investigation at some point during the first 18 years of their lives, compared to nearly a quarter of white children. One in eight Black children spent time in foster care—a rate three times as high as white children. The vast majority of cases are triggered by “neglect,” a catch-all category of offenses often caused by poverty or addiction. CPS investigators often need to make quick, high-stakes decisions about whether a home is safe and suitable for children, and the broad nature of neglect leaves such decisions rife with implicit bias.

The disparities shown in the AJPH study went beyond race: Children born to adolescent moms and children receiving public insurance were among those far more likely to have CPS contact or experience family separation. A growing movement of reformers argue that instead of separating families, child welfare resources should be channeled towards housing, daycare, food, healthcare, and other services that would help prevent CPS from being called in the first place. Some municipalities are debating reforming the laws requiring doctors, teachers, and other adults to report suspected abuse and neglect to CPS.

2 thoughts on “Study Finds Pervasive Racial Bias in California’s Child Welfare System

  1. “… leaves such decisions rife with implicit bias.” How about public service workers making tough calls in the context of serious family dysfunction? Affixing blame to an overworked, under-resourced institution without giving equal attention to “up-stream” conditions, such as family dysfunction and absent fathers seems a bit unfair, irresponsible, and, itself, evidence of implicit bias. It also ignores the question of AGENCY. It’s lazy scholarship that serves no one well.

  2. Oh, add: Let’s take the easy way out and end mandatory reporting, which has probably saved countless lives (I recognize the false positive problem, but let’s tackle that instead of throwing out the baby with the bath water.) “Let’s go look” remains a powerful antidote to child abuse and neglect, assuming that it’s done competently in a framework of checks and balances.

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