Explaining her plan to improve foster care if elected mayor, Kathryn Garcia said she would begin with “rooting out systemic racism.” She’s hardly alone: It’s hard to throw a rock without hitting an official who thinks racism is one of the biggest problems plaguing the system. Yet the data suggest something else accounts for the disproportionate number of black kids in foster care.
Even pros get it wrong: Earlier this year, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services commissioner, David Hansell, explained: “We are now taking more aggressive and comprehensive action than ever before . . . to combat systemic racism in the child-welfare system” because, he says, “black and brown families [are] overrepresented.”
This is true for black families, but not brown ones: Hispanic families are represented in the child-welfare system at or even below their percentage in the population.
Hispanic children make up 25 percent of U.S. child population but only 21 percent of the children in foster care. Black children, by contrast, make up 14 percent of the child population and 23 percent of the foster-care population.
New York City? An article in The Imprint noted recently, “Fifty-three percent of the roughly 9,000 children in the city foster-care system identified as black in 2017. . . . Yet, only around a quarter of all New Yorkers younger than 18 are black. . . . By contrast, the city’s white, Latinx and Asian children were all underrepresented in foster care compared to their share of the total population.”
These facts are inconvenient for people who want to cry systemic racism. Testifying before Congress last month, the head of Casey Family Programs noted that “for Latinx families and children, the national data don’t reflect disparities in rates of removal, though we know at the community level disparities exist.” Of course, if Hispanic families are overrepresented in some communities, that would mean that they are deeply underrepresented in others.
Maybe all the reporters of child abuse and neglect (doctors, teachers, neighbors, etc.) are only racist toward black people and not Hispanics. Or maybe the caseworkers (who, in New York, at least, are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic) are only biased against black families. Or maybe family court judges only want to remove children from black homes, not Hispanic ones.
But there is a more obvious explanation. Though Hansell says, “The problem begins with dramatic racial disparities in the reports of possible child abuse and neglect that are made,” the problems begin long before that. We know not only that black children suffer maltreatment at almost twice the national average rate, but also that maltreatment deaths are more than twice as likely among black children.
Why? Child abuse is highly correlated with family structure, and children living with nonrelative men—who are at highest risk—are not evenly distributed across racial populations. According to analysis from the Institute for Family Studies, 74 percent of white children and 61 percent of Hispanic children live with married parents, compared with only 36 percent of black children. Moreover, even when the parents of Hispanic children aren’t married, they are more likely to be living with their cohabiting biological parents.
And (though you’re not supposed to say it these days) the presence of a father in the home is a big protective factor.
For those who think the child-welfare system is simply punishing impoverished parents, it is useful to note that Hispanic families are more likely than average to be poor, but that doesn’t seem to put a disparate number of Hispanic children into the child-welfare system.
The fact that Hispanic children are at significantly lower risk for abuse and neglect should signal that something other than racism accounts for racial disparities in child welfare. The foster-care system is there to fulfill a need—to help children who are in danger—and we shouldn’t ignore that danger just to make our spreadsheet columns come out even.