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Children's Voice Article, November/December 2002

Minorities as Majority: Disproportionality in Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice

First of two articles

By Michelle Y. Green

In 1992, Congress amended the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to make it a "core requirement" for states to demonstrate efforts they're taking to reduce disproportionate minority confinement. A decade of data gathering, many lament, has produced considerable head scratching, shoulder shrugging, and finger-pointing, but little in the way of reversing this phenomenon. Statistics confirmed what child welfare professionals suspected all along: Far too many children of color pass from protection to punishment. With no such mandate to collect data in child welfare, disproportionality-its causes and cures-is just now coming to light.

In this two-part series, Children's Voice examines this seemingly intractable problem. The first article tries to define the scope and nature of the problem, looks at emerging research, and explores a variety of perspectives from all sides of the table. The second article, which will appear in the next issue, will focus on several local jurisdictions that are meeting these challenges head-on with promising programs and practices.

It reads like a bad math problem: If white youth and youth of color commit the same offenses and have the same history of delinquency, they should have the same likelihood of being detained. If research concludes there are no differences in the incidence of child abuse and neglect according to racial group, minorities should not show up on child welfare rolls in greater numbers than in the general population.

Like students fathoming the travel distance of two trains going from point A to point B, so child welfare and juvenile justice professionals are wearing out their erasers trying to get a handle on the problem of disproportionality of minority youth within their respective systems.

That the problem exists is not disputed. But what needs figuring out is the who, what, when, where, and why. Who are the children most affected? What are the social, cultural, political, policy, and programmatic reasons this imbalance exists, and what can be done to intervene? When and where in the mix of services intended to support and protect children and society does disproportionality begin? Why are so many people so reluctant to deal with this complex issue?

Coming to Terms

A reasonable place to start is to define the term. That's exactly what the Casey Family Programs attempted to do, with input from the Children and Family Research Center (CFRC) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in its overview to Addressing Disproportionality in the Child Welfare System: Defining the Issue, released March 2002:
Overrepresentation--particularly in reference to African American children--has traditionally been used to define the high numbers of children of color in the child welfare system that are larger than their proportion in the general population. However, with more frequency the term disproportionality is being used to identify a broader concept of this problem. . .By contrast, disproportionality refers to a situation in which a particular racial/ethnic group of children are represented. . .at a higher percentage than other racial/ethnic groups. For many people, both terms hold the same meaning and are used interchangeably, but in fact they are not equivalent...
Former CFRC Director John Poertner, who has convened two Race Matters research forums admits, "People who discuss this issue from a research point of view have an incredibly difficult time understanding it. The African American experience in this country and other risk factors for abuse and neglect are so intertwined, it's almost impossible to disentangle it."

Jorge Velázquez, Director of CWLA's Cultural Competence Division, defines the problem in terms of who is and who is not being served. "We need to pay attention to rural, migrant, and Native American families and kids in the Midwest who disproportionately are not getting what they need. You can't express that in terms of overrepresentation, because these populations are a small part of the overall demographic picture. Or what do you do with places like Washington, DC, where most of the population is African American and so are the kids in care? That's a whole other question."

Nonetheless, there is consensus that multiple, complicated factors contribute to disproportionality in both systems. (See "Disproportion by the Numbers," at right.) Welfare policies, poverty status, income level, lack of resources, community of residence, and single parenthood all have an impact on a family's involvement with the child welfare system. And many of these factors that put children at risk for maltreatment and subsequent involvement in delinquency are present, to a greater degree, in communities of color.

National longitudinal research, such as Building Blocks for Youth or the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives initiative launched in 1992, show that the racial disparities found in juvenile training schools and state prisons are the end products of actions that occur much earlier in the juvenile justice system, and that the effects of race accumulate as youth continue through the system.

"Data clearly reflect that the same factors that contribute to advancing children deeper in the child welfare system exist in the juvenile justice system," explains John Tuell, Director of CWLA's Juvenile Justice Division. Although most examinations of the problem from the juvenile justice perspective look at arrest and beyond, Tuell says we need to look at causal factors, from arrest backwards. "At the heart, many would agree the problem of disproportionality is attributable to social and economic issues."

Poverty establishes risk factors for increased involvement in delinquencies, Tuell says, whether it exists in urban, rural, or suburban settings. Children in poverty are more likely to come from single-parent working families, where there is a decreased likelihood of supervision at critical times during the child's day. During these times, they are more likely to experience negative peer culture, which in turn makes it easier to become engaged in more negative activities. Combine these factors with increased crime rates in a particular neighborhood, police strategies that result in greater concentration of enforcement, and fewer alternatives to arrest and processing, and the picture becomes even clearer.

James Bell, director of the Youth Law Center's W. Haywood Burns Institute in San Francisco, has analyzed existing policies and procedures to address the causes of disparate treatment of minority youth. He offers a scenario of how cultural and racial bias in the decisionmaking process at every point in the system disadvantage minority youth:
Let's say you go joyriding and are busted for attempted car theft. If you're arrested and taken to detention, that's a decision. If you're white and live in the suburbs, you may be taken home; if you're not white and live in the city, you're probably going to be taken to a detention center. That's a decision.

If you score 120 points or above on a risk assessment, you stay detained. If you're a first-time offender, you should be released, but when you call home, no one answers. Perhaps your mom, a single parent, has to work two jobs, and grandma doesn't have a car. The system doesn't feel comfortable releasing you because there isn't supervision. It's so much easier to send you to detention, but that leads to further incarceration and more decisions that you're too dangerous to release. Are you in school? That may work against you if you live in a neighborhood where you don't feel safe dealing with schools and gangs. Do you have a job? There may not be a lot of jobs where you live.

Suppose you're cited for hanging around a high-crime area that just happens to be your neighborhood. So your court date comes around, and you don't show up. Is it genetically imbedded that you don't show up, or is it because public transportation on your side of town doesn't get there in time for morning court? We have to look behind the numbers, which appear to be race neutral, or you'll continue to get the same results.
Bias is compounded as minority youth move through the system. Risk-assessment instruments used at intake that use broad criteria like "good family structure" might be unintentionally biased toward intact, nuclear families, which might work against minorities. Minority youth are largely represented by overburdened public defenders and, as a result, generally experience more restrictive outcomes than youth represented by retained counsel. An absence of minority-run, community-based organizations for services for delinquent youth leaves detention as the option of choice. Public fears over gangs, immigration, and high-profile youth crimes affect commitment decisions.

The question of bias in the decisionmaking process is mirrored in the child welfare system in several studies that identify race as a predictor in the decision to place children in foster care. (See "Child Welfare: What We Know," page 12.) Lacking federal incentives that exist on the juvenile justice side, child welfare is behind the curve when it comes to substantial research and sustained conversation on the matter. But consensus does exist on one point--as a prerequisite of change, the two systems have to collaborate and integrate services and resources to meet the needs of children, regardless of how, why, or when they enter the system.

The Faces Behind the Numbers

Who are the children behind the numbers? Poll states for specific demographics broken down by race or ethnicity, Velázquez says, and you'll find we don't know. "Some states do better than others in collecting information about people they serve. One state with a large population of Spanish-speaking individuals, for example, still classifies Hispanics as 'other.'"

The perception is that disproportionality is primarily a problem for African Americans, he says. "In some parts of the country, that's true; in others, it's not. We need consistent definitions to describe the faces we're talking about."

Flawed, inconsistent reporting, underreporting, and the failure to collect data that reflect changing demographics contribute greatly to the disparate treatment of Latino youth in the U.S. justice system, according to Building Blocks for Youth's report, ¿Dónde Está la Justicia? A Call to Action on Behalf of Latino and Latina Youth in the Juvenile Justice System. Reporting large numbers of Latino youth in the "white" category, the report points out, "inflates white incarceration rates and masks the already substantial rates of disproportionality between white youth and youth of color." And the more reporting systems combine flawed data, the greater the chance that evidence of racial disparity is lost and hidden.

By contrast, the juvenile justice side has collected so much data, Bell contends, it's bogged down in the "paralysis of analysis." Statistics from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) reveal one aspect of the problem, Tuell says, yet "many states don't even have enough categories to record sufficient data."

Although there are no national studies on the subject, several smaller studies have found that minority children are at a disadvantage in the range and quality of services provided, the type of agency to which they are referred, the efficiency with which their cases are handled, the support their families receive, and their eventual outcomes. Clearly more needs to be done on the child welfare side to put this problem into clearer view.

"When you back down the system, you'll find the same kids that are moving through the juvenile justice system were all right there in child welfare," says CWLA Associate Vice President of Program Operations Linda Spears.

Turning the Tide

What are some of the barriers the child welfare and juvenile justice systems face as they take a hard look at what can be done to turn the tide of disproportionality and foster a climate of collaboration?

Reluctance to talk. "People are reluctant to talk about this issue because they don't know what to do about it," says CFRC's Poertner. "The feeling is, 'It's too complicated. I don't know if it's our fault, and I don't know what to do about it.'"

"Unless you solve institutional and individual poverty and racism," Bell says, "some believe you can't do anything about it. That's simply not true."

Lack of federal leadership. "A stronger federal mandate and direction on this issue is necessary," Tuell says. "OJJDP reporting focuses on confinement, but there's nothing to measure the impact of those strategies and interventions--no number or percentage of reduction, no specific outcome measurement that allows us to say we're making progress."

Inconsistent or insufficient data collection. Many systems lack sufficient focus, determination, and resources to even begin to identify, let alone eliminate, the multiple factors that end in racially unequal treatment. Consistent categories across systems, and detailed data to help analyze how decisions are made, are critical.

Lack of cultural competency. The lack of adequate bilingual services through both systems is an obvious barrier, but so are risk assessment instruments that are racially or culturally biased and a general failure of staff to understand cultural differences. Misunderstandings can lead to inappropriate and harsher treatment. For example, avoiding direct eye contact is considered respectful in many Latin nations, but in European culture, it may be seen as a sign of disrespect or deceptiveness by authority figures. "It's not always about racist workers," Spears says. "It's about racism by neglect-a lack of cultural competence in systems."

Insufficient diversion alternatives. Where parental supervision is not possible, youth detention alternatives, such as shelter care, foster homes, home detention, and day reporting centers, would reduce more punitive confinement.

Overwhelmed, underfunded systems, ranging from a lack of authoritative leadership charged with setting policy and controlling budgets, to inadequate resources for research, training, or developing new community-based programs.

Looking Forward

Last May, more than 100 prominent juvenile justice and child welfare leaders met in a CWLA-sponsored National Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Summit. Among the topics discussed was coordination and integration to address disproportionality at all points in the two systems. As they continue to communicate on nonthreatening sessions like this, and share research in forums such as Race Matters, the conversations will move from abstract principles to concrete strategies.

The second article in this series will explore several of these promising strategies in communities such as Santa Cruz, California; Multnomah County, Oregon; and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Michelle Y. Green is a freelance writer and author of a new biography, A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie "Peanut" Johnson (Dial Books for Young Readers).

Disproportion by the Numbers

More than a decade of research and data collection has documented the scale at which youth of color are unequally treated at all points in the justice system. Compelling statistics about population, poverty, race and ethnicity, and other factors, as reported by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and other sources, bring this picture into focus:
  • In 1999, the US. juvenile population was 79% white, 15% black, 16% Hispanic, 4% Asian, and 1% Native American. This represents 70.2 million Americans--more than 1 in 4--under the age of 18.

  • The population of juvenile minorities is expected to show significant growth between 1995 and 2015. Compared with 3% increases among white juveniles, the number of black juveniles is expected to rise 19%, Hispanic juveniles by 59%, Native American juveniles by 17%, and Asian/Pacific Islander juveniles by 74%.

  • In 1997, African American youth comprised 26% of youth arrested, 31% of referrals to juvenile court, 44% of youth detained, 46% of those waived to criminal court, 40% sent to residential placement, and 58% admitted to state prison. White youth were reported as committing higher levels of weapons possession crimes, yet African American youth were arrested at 2.5 times the rate of whites for weapons offenses (And Justice for Some, Building Blocks for Youth, 2000).

  • On a given census day, October 29, 1997, nearly half of juvenile residential facilities had 50% or more minorities in their offender population. Minority youth accounted for between 75% and 100% of the offender population in 28% of public facilities and 21% of private facilities.

  • Between 1983 and 1991, the percentage of Latino youth in public detention centers increased 84%, compared with an 8% increase for white youth. Latino youth are incarcerated at rates 2 to 3 times higher than the rates of white youth in nine states, 3 to 6 times the rates of white youth in eight states, and 7 to 17 times the rates of white youth in four states (Human Rights Watch, 2002).

  • In 1997, three out of four youth admitted to state prisons were minorities; more than a third were nonviolent offenders. For youth charged with violent offenses, the average length of incarceration was 193 days for whites, 254 days for African Americans, and 305 for Latinos.

  • The average length of incarceration in state public facilities was longer for Latino youth than for any other racial/ethnic group in every offense category. Those charged with violent crimes spent an average of 143 days longer incarcerated than did white youth charged with the same offense, more than 45 days for property offenses, more than twice the time for drug offenses, and 147 to 220 days more than white youth for public order defenses (¿Dónde Está la Justicia? A Call to Action on Behalf of Latino and Latino Youth in the Juvenile Justice System, Building Blocks for Youth, 2002).

  • In 2000, 11.6 million juveniles (16% of all youth under 18) were living below the poverty level. The proportion of white juveniles in poverty has remained relatively stable since 1982 (13%--17%), whereas poverty rates among black (33.1%) and Hispanic juveniles (30.3%) in 2000 were more than twice that of white and Asian juveniles.

  • More than half of black children lived in single-parent households in 2000. Most white (83%) and Hispanic children (75%) lived in two-parent homes.

  • High school completion rates were consistently lower among young Hispanic adults than among both whites and blacks between 1972 and 2000, fluctuating between a low of 56% and a high of 67%.
* Source (unless otherwise noted): OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book. (2002). Available online at Washington, DC: OJJDP.

Child Welfare: What We Know

Research on disproportionate representation in the child welfare system is not as exhaustive as that for juvenile justice, but what evidence exists points to striking similarities of disproportionality along a continuum of services.
  • Three National Incidence Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect, conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from 1980 to 1996, found no differences in the incidence of child abuse and neglect according to racial group, yet African American children are clearly overrepresented in the child welfare system. Though the data are controversial, many people use them as a baseline to measure the problem from a child welfare perspective.

  • Families of African American children are more likely to be investigated for emotional maltreatment and neglect, fatal or serious injury, and perpetrator involvement with alcohol or drugs, and when maltreatment is recognized by mental health or social services professionals. Yet, when disadvantaging characteristics (low income, large family size, single-parent homes) are factored in, African American children are maltreated at lower rates than white children.

  • African American children, who comprised 15% of the U.S. child population in 1999, constituted 45% of the children in substitute care. Conversely, white children, who comprised 60% of the child population, accounted for 36% of children in out-of-home care (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).

  • Of those requiring substitute care, most African American children (56%) are placed in foster care, while most white children (72%) receive in-home services (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1999; HHS, 1999). African American children remain in foster care for longer periods of time (U.S. Children's Bureau, 1997).

  • Five major studies in four states between 1990 and 1999 revealed that white children are four times more likely than African American children to be reunified with their families, and they are reunited more quickly. Reunification rates in San Diego were lower among Hispanic children than for white children.

  • Disproportionate numbers of children who are reunified return to foster care, with "race of the child" identified as one of five strong variables in decisionmaking.
*Source (unless otherwise noted): Race Matters: The Overrepresentation of African Americans in the Child Welfare System, a compilation of draft papers presented at the Race Matters Forum, January 2001, cosponsored by the Children and Family Research Center and Westat. For more information on this forthcoming publication, contact: Children & Family Research Center, School of Social Work, UIUC, 1203 W. Oregon, Urbana IL 61801, 217/333-5837, Fax 217/333-7629, 800/638-3877, E-mail,

Elephant in the Living Room

William Russell is a former officer of Washington, DC, Metropolitan Police Department. An African American and father of four sons, he has seen the system from both sides of the squad car.

"The process seems geared to putting African American males into the system one way or the other, whether it's an arrest, which throws you headfirst into the criminal justice system, or something as trivial as an incident stop, which gives police the opportunity to collect personal data on you for no more than walking the streets in your own community.

"I tell my sons, as African American males they have to be prepared for confrontations with the police. I tell them they have to dress not to fit a profile; to stay out of large groups; if they're driving in a car, not to have a crowded, packed vehicle; that if stopped by the police, to pull over immediately, to respond 'Yes sir' and 'No sir,' to follow instructions implicitly, and as much as possible, to quietly, mentally document names, badge numbers, car numbers, times, dates, and places.

"Living in suburban Maryland, my oldest son grew up in a racially mixed environment, and his best friend was white. A youthful indiscretion, and the two of them ventured into the District to purchase a nickel bag of marijuana. The car they were driving in was observed by nonuniformed police officers, and they were stopped after they made their purchase. Both were pulled out of the car. Neither had marijuana on them, but some was found in the car, which belonged to the other boy's parents. The two were separated. [The white youth] was scolded for being in the neighborhood and placing his parents' vehicle in jeopardy of seizure. He was sent home. My son was arrested because the marijuana was found 'in proximity' of where he sat in the automobile.

"According to the law, you have to be in possession to be arrested, and it's presumed to be the possession of the person driving the vehicle. I'm not complaining about my son being arrested--both admitted to the purchase--but [the other youth] was given 'a walk' because of the color of his skin, and my son was given a record. It happens all the time.

"Racial profiling is a necessary evil of police work, and racism is a part of the system. Nobody likes to deal with the elephant in the living room, but if you don't, everything else is tainted."

Information Online

Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives

Building Blocks for Youth

W. Haywood Burns Institute

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