Black children remain overrepresented in the child welfare system nationally, though the extent of disparity varies substantially by county. Many child welfare systems operate at the county level and the degree of disparity in a county may reflect system, community, and decision-making contexts that can contribute to different patterns of within-system experiences for children in foster care. This exploratory study examines the placement trajectories of Black children, comparing their experiences in counties with higher disparities in Child Protective Services (CPS) reporting to counties with lower disparities in reporting. We focus specifically on the link between county-level racial disparities and three federal performance domains: length of stay, use of congregate care, and placement instability.
The sample was derived from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) and comprises all foster care entries of children 0-17 for federal fiscal years (FFY) 2011-2016, followed through the end of FFY 2019, with valid information for key variables and an identified county. AFCARS masks counties with <1000 children in foster care during the FFY and thus analysis is limited to larger counties; 44% of all children entering foster care had an identified county (n =204,664) and there were 137 unique counties. County-level disparity ratios for Black and white children in CPS reports (CPS-DR) were created in the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) and linked to the sample.
Multilevel logit models were employed to assess associations between CPS-DR and children’s foster care experiences, with a particular focus on experiences of Black children. Outcome measures were (1) long-term stay: remained in foster care for 3+ years; (2) congregate care: initially placed in a group home or institutional setting; and (3) placement instability: experienced an average of 2 or more placements per 6 months (180 days) in care.
For Black children entering foster care, a higher level of CPS-DR was associated with higher odds of long-term stay (OR = 1.04, p < .05) and congregate care (OR = 1.06, p < .001), but lower odds of placement instability (OR = 0.95, p < .001). Further analyses revealed that the positive association between CPS-DR and long-term stay was found for Black children only, whereas CPS-DR was associated with higher odds of congregate care and lower odds of placement instability across racial groups. Net of CPS-DR, Black children had higher odds of long-term stays, congregate care, and placement instability.
Conclusions and Implications
Inequities in key federal performance domains are persistent for Black children, and some appear to be exacerbated in counties that have larger disparities at the front end (CPS reporting stage) of their child welfare systems. To the extent that more disparate systems exist in a context where there are fewer formal and informal supportive structures, supporting child wellbeing both in and out of foster care may be even more challenging. Our findings suggest the need for future research that explores the role of place-based barriers and examines racial disparities with respect to characteristics of diverse county contexts.