Methods. The study examines the longitudinal trajectories of the Disparity Index (DI) scores (Shaw et al, 2008) of 58 counties in California between 2003 and 2007. DI scores for children 0-17 years old were retrieved from the University of California at Berkeley Center for Social Services Research website. Using latent growth curve (LGC) modeling; trajectories of DI scores at the various phases of the process in the child welfare system (allegations, substantiations, entries into Foster Care, counts of children in Foster Care) were examined concerning four racial/ethnic groups (Black, Hispanic, Native-American, White). Finally, the LGC models were estimated again adding contextual factors.
Results. The longitudinal trends of DI scores reveal that the disproportionate representation of Black and Hispanic children is increasing in the phases of allegation, substantiation, and entries to the foster care system compared to White children. However, the overrepresentation of Black children in Foster Care is decreasing. The overrepresentation of Native American children in the system has been increasing sharply. When these trends were examined using the LGC modeling approach, the disparity of the number of children currently in foster care was significantly increasing among Hispanic and Native American children compared to White children. Regarding contextual effects, results suggest that per capita income was positively related to the level of disparity among children of color. In addition, rural and urban settings produced differing rates of change; with urban settings resulting in higher increasing rates of disparity than rural areas.
Conclusions and Implications. The results suggest that racial/ethnic disparity in the child welfare system in California is generally increasing and this change is associated with contextual factors. The study demonstrates that anti-disparity policies and interventions need to focus, not only on Black children, but Native American and Hispanic children as well. The LGC modeling approach can be effectively applied to estimate trajectories of state-level disparity, adjusting for county-level variations, and to assess the impact of anti-disparity policies on DI trajectories while simultaneously accounting for contextual effects. Future research is needed on trends in the racial/ethnic disparity using a multi-state longitudinal data and how various contextual factors interact in explaining the trends.