Racial Disproportionality in the US Child Welfare System

Disproportionality, as defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) et al., is the over or underrepresentation of a racial or ethnic group compared with its percentage in the complete population (2021, p. 2). Research demonstrates the overrepresentation of specific racial and ethnic groups in the child welfare system. HHS et al. report that in 2019, African American children represented 14 percent of the child population and 23 percent of the foster care population (2021, P. 3). Additionally, in 2019, white children made up 50 percent of the child population and 44 percent of the foster care system (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021, p. 3).

Racial disparities are defined as the “unequal outcomes of one racial or ethnic group compared with outcomes for another racial or ethnic group” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services et al., 2021, p. 2). Reports indicate that African American children spend more time in foster care compared to other children in the system, and they are less likely to reunify with their families or receive services compared to white children (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services et al., 2021, p.3). Here are a few factors (2021, p. 4-5) that may contribute to disproportionality and overrepresentation in the foster care system:

  • Disproportionate needs of children with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, specifically consequential to higher poverty rates
  • Racal discrimination and oppressive practices from individuals
  • Child welfare system issues (lack of resources, caseworkers, etc.)
  • Geographical context
  • Policy and legislation
  • Structural racism 

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The Need for Intercultural Competency in the Child Welfare System

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) refers to intercultural competence as “the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religious backgrounds, religions, spiritual traditions, immigration status, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each (2015, p. 13).

All employees interacting with children and families must apply competence in cross-cultural functioning, learning new patterns of behavior and applying them in the work setting to be inclusive of families of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. The CASA volunteer has to “understand culture and its functions in human behavior and society,” “recognize the strengths that exist in all cultures,” “have a knowledge base of their clients’ cultures” and “demonstrate competence in the provision of services that are sensitive to clients’ cultures,” and “seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression concerning” families of racial and ethnic backgrounds (National Association of Social Workers, 2015, p. 14-15).

Inter-Cultural competence in the workplace requires that CASA volunteers and staff have cultural humility, the ability for openness to learning about others and their specific cultures, and cultural responsiveness, the ability to adapt one’s behavior to the cultural needs of others (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021, p. 2). CASA volunteers and staff advocate for the best interest of children with a wide variety of diverse backgrounds, and CASA volunteers and staff must apply intercultural competency to their work for children every day. Intercultural competence is essential in the work of a CASA, and the Monroe County CASA staff implement several different training courses for volunteers and staff to educate themselves and work towards being more culturally competent.

This is all to become an anti-racist and anti-oppressive agency, defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as “the active process of identifying and challenging racism by changing attitudes, policies and practices, organizational structures, and systems, to redistribute power equitably” (2021, p. 2). Being an anti-racist and anti-oppressive agency is more of a journey, rather than a destination. Agencies and child welfare employees must continue to tackle this journey to dismantle the structural racism and oppression that perpetuates racial disproportionality in the US. As we continue this expedition towards anti-racism and anti-oppression, we as a community can better serve children of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and truly advocate for the best interest of the child.

Visit the calendar on our website – https://monroecountycasa.org/calendar/ – and our “About Us” tab – https://monroecountycasa.org/about-us/ – for more information on the work Monroe County CASA is doing to increase intercultural competency within our organization! 


National Association of Social Workers. (2015). Standards and indicators for cultural competence in social work practice. NASW. https://www.socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=PonPTDEBrn4%3D&portalid=0 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, & Administration for Children and Families. (2021). Child welfare practice to address racial disproportionality and disparity. Child Welfare Information Gateway. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/issue-briefs/racial-disproportionality/ 


Written by: Skyler Neuhaus