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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Racial Bias in Child Protection

The question of racial bias in child protection is a crucial one that is not often subject to systemic research. There is an apparent case that it does exist as non-Caucasian children are over represented in child welfare systems in both Canada, Australia and the United States, for example. A question that is in need of review is whether this is due to racial bias or other factors.

In Canada, there has been a series of public policies that have targeted Aboriginal populations. The Residential Schools that ran for over 50 years (with the last one being closed in 1996) meant that several generations of children were removed from parental care. They did not get healthy, culturally significant parenting modeled to them. To the contrary, they received harsh, emotionally and physically abusive (and at times sexually abusive) caregiving. They did not receive the nurturing parenting that created a basis upon which they would know how to care for their own children.

Canada also saw the implementation of policies designed to remove large numbers of children from Aboriginal parental care and placing children in non-Aboriginal homes. This came to be known as the “60s scoop”. Australia saw some similar policies.

Research in the United Sates has shown that black populations are over represented in the child protection system there. Research by Berger et a., (n.d.) raised the question of whether this racial bias might be systemic. They concluded that racial bias is more evident when subjective decisions must be made.

However, their research also indicates that many of the expected bias results were better accounted for socio-demographic issues. Clearly, poverty is one of the most powerful. It can be strenuously argued that, if we really seek to address a lot of child protection concerns, we need to address the question of poverty. A significant portion of child protection caseloads involve economically distressed families. This is particularly so for questions of maltreatment. Thus, we may be bringing into care children because we are not prepared, as a society, to address these fundamental economic questions.

Research that I have reviewed in earlier blogs shows that children growing up in the care of child protection authorities tend to have much poorer long term outcomes as opposed to growing up in their own families. This is true even if those families are just good enough. Thus, the long term societal problems grow because we do not address the question of poverty. This can be construed in the classic economic argument of the rich v. poor and the need for the redistribution of wealth. Given the increasing gaps between the rich and the rest of society, that is a tempting argument.

But it is not one that is likely to influence present political structures where taxpayers are pressing government to be more frugal. We see economic collapses in major economies in several countries. Curiously, of course, such forces will increase poverty and raise the number of maltreatment cases that child protection must address. That in turn, will increase the cost to society.

In the alternative, child protection budgets may not increase resulting in changes to the kinds of cases the get opened. When resources are tight, the threshold for opening a case rises.

Rather than looking at the redistribution of wealth, one might also recognize that costs in the long term for taxpayers go down as we solve these poverty issues. Children who grow up in care cost us dearly – not just in the day to day costs of the state being their caregivers. They tend to have much higher rates of mental illness, crime, substance abuse, incarceration and unemployment. Their children are more likely to also be brought into care. This is very expensive.

Of course, this is not a new argument but it is one that has, thus far, fallen on fallow ground. As citizens, we have trained our politicians to look at shorter term outcomes because we want immediate results. Societies today have little interest in long term thinking. We want solutions now! These are problems that cannot be solved in the now.


Berger,L., McDaniel, M., & Paxson, C. (n.d.). Assessing Parenting Behaviors across Racial Groups: Implications for the Child Welfare System. Unpublished manuscript. Downloaded 2012/05/26 at

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