Abstract: Historical and Policy Contexts for Black Children Receiving Child Welfare Services (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Historical and Policy Contexts for Black Children Receiving Child Welfare Services

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Abigail Williams-Butler, PhD, Assistant Professor, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ
Kate Golden, MA, Doctoral Student, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Alicia Mendez, BA, Doctoral Research Associate, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Introduction: This article explores the impact of both informal and formal child welfare policy on Black children and adolescents from the colonial period to the present day in the United States. We examine child welfare policies broadly as each area of child welfare (such as child protection, foster care, guardianship, and independent living) impact the developmental trajectories of Black children in unique ways. The historical context during the passage of each policy will also be taken into consideration. Examination of other relevant social welfare policies such as AFDC, PROWRA, and TANF will also be discussed to further contextualize the impact of child welfare policies on Black children and adolescents. We seek to answer the question of how historical documents improve our understanding of the experience of Black children’s engagement with the child welfare system and its effects on the Black community.

Methods: Drawing from a rhetorical criticism framework (Foss, 2009), 17 child welfare policies are examined using related primary and secondary documents to consider how language conveys shifting social, political, and racial ideologies. Documents include original statute, Congressional testimony, expert statements on policy efficacy presented to the US Commission on Civil Rights, Government Accountability Office documents outlining citizen commentary on proposed policy changes, etc. Examination of policy effects on Black children and communities drawn from historical, legal, and empirical social science are integrated to produce an interdisciplinary exploratory policy analysis.

Results: During the colonial period of American history slavery and to a lesser extent indentured servitude were the primary informal policy response regarding child welfare services for Black children. After the adoption of the formal child welfare system in the 20th century, Black children were excluded from receiving services which lead to the reliance on kinship networks, the Black Church, and other Black social clubs to provide care for indigent children. Once Black children were formally accepted into the system, discussions related to welfare eligibility and the redefinition of poverty as neglect played a major role in the overrepresentation of Black children in the child welfare system. Many of these policies were passed in a historical context which sought to codify Blacks as socially undesirable and were based on both racist and sexist ideology. As a result, the number of Black children under the purview of the child welfare system increased dramatically. While post-war iterations of child welfare policy demonstrate awareness of discrimination and attempted to correct for the overrepresentation of Black children, Black children are still overrepresented in the system today.

Conclusion and Implications: Taking into account the racialized and gendered legacy of child welfare policy is a first step in reducing racial and ethnic inequality regarding child welfare policy and services for Black children. Decisions regarding child welfare policy must use an intersectional analysis regarding race, gender, and class in order to truly reduce racial and ethnic inequality in the child welfare system.