Washington, Jackson, racial profiling

The Child Welfare to Prison Pipeline: Profiling Black Families, Black Parents and Black Children

National Bar Association Presidential Showcase Panel

July 29, 2014

Associate Professor Tanya Washington
Georgia State University College of Law

State laws authorize termination of parental rights and removal of children based upon evidence of abuse and neglect and determinations of parental fitness. Cases of abuse and neglect are subject to adjudication by juvenile courts when a report is filed with child protective services by individuals (e.g., a neighbor) or mandatory reporters (e.g., hospital personnel or teachers). Racialized reporter bias has been identified as one reason for increased reporting rates of accusations of abuse and neglect against families of color and for the removal of greater numbers of black children. There are several reasons that families of color may be more vulnerable to these court proceedings including: reporter bias, greater frequency of interaction with mandatory reporters, and hospital staff and teachers being more likely to report parents of color or abuse.

In addition, state laws that provide vague definitions of what constitutes neglect leave room for racialized and culturally biased determinations. The court considers the evidence supporting the allegation of abuse or neglect and then determines whether termination of the parent-child relationship is in the “best interests of the child.” The best interests of the child standard, which is controlling in the termination context, examines whether the parent-child relationship serves or impairs a child’s mental, emotional, physical and social needs. The vacuous nature of the standard accommodates racialized determinations by judges making these decisions.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) is federal legislation that imposes deadlines and quotas on states to expedite termination of parental rights and locate adoptive homes when the family cannot be reunified quickly. It replaces federal legislation that prioritized reunification by providing support for parents and families and increased the chances that a child would be returned to their home with their parents. Though AFSA encourages swift placement of children available for adoption, the supply- demand realities that characterize child welfare systems across the U.S. (i.e., a surplus of waiting children and a dearth of available homes) ensure that many black orphans will remain in foster and institutional care for extended periods of time, and many of them will never be placed in permanent adoptive homes.

Child welfare data reflects that black orphans experience longer waiting periods for permanent placement and they are less likely to be adopted. Studies document negative outcomes for black orphans who remain in foster and institutional care until they “age out” of the system. These outcomes include: higher drop-out rates, higher rates of teen pregnancy, futures marked by homelessness and unemployment and higher entry rates into the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems and futures marked by homelessness and unemployment.

In addition to focusing on the racial profiling of black children in schools pursuant to zero tolerance and racially disparate expulsion and suspension policies, reform efforts should address the racial profiling of black families and black children that results in greater numbers of black youth being removed from their homes, placed in foster and institutional care, and rendered vulnerable to incarceration in juvenile and adult penal institutions.

Child Welfare to Prison Pipeline PowerPoint