What's Really Behind Black Child-Abuse Stats

A new study debunks the long-held belief that racial bias by those who report abuse is behind the disproportionately high numbers for black children.

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Rates of reported child abuse are disproportionately high for black children, a fact that has long been linked to suspected racial bias by a largely white child-protection workforce. But a recently released study by Washington University researchers debunks that allegation, citing poverty as the main reason black children are twice as likely as white children to suffer abuse.

Published in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics, the study, "Racial Bias in Child Protection? A Comparison of Competing Explanations Using National Data," does note the importance of policing potential racial bias among teachers, doctors, nurses, law-enforcement officials, child-protective-services workers and other primary reporters of abuse. But the researchers argue that the broader focus should be on mitigating poverty, given that a third of black children are living below the federal government's poverty line. Economic uplift is likely to curb abuse, concluded the team of six researchers from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., the University of Maryland School of Social Work and the American Humane Association.

"We knew [abuse of] black kids was reported about twice as often as it was for white kids, and we were concerned that that might be due to racism. We also knew black kids, in terms of economics, were facing a lot of problems that most white kids were not facing," said Washington University social work professor Brett Drake, Ph.D., lead author of the study. Instead of looking at a fractional sample of reported cases of abuse, which was the methodology of prior studies, Drake and his colleagues analyzed the total counts in different categories of abuse.

"We didn't create any of this data; we just went to national reports, Census Bureau reports and areas such as that," Drake told The Root. "We tried super, super hard to avoid data that absolutely wasn't rock solid."

Of the 702,000 cases of substantiated child abuse in 2009, the latest year for which federal data are available, 44 percent involved white children and 22.3 percent involved black children. Blacks make up 12.4 percent of the country's population; whites, 74.8 percent. Latinos -- who, researchers noted, are disproportionately poor -- are 15.8 percent of the nation's population, but they made up 20.7 percent of the total population of abused children. The rate of abuse among Latinos children was proportionately higher than that of whites but lower than that of blacks. Researchers attribute that difference to the "Hispanic paradox," or what are believed to be that community's comparatively stricter cultural mores against child abuse.

The overwhelming majority of abuse cases, 78.3 percent, were categorized as neglect; 17.8 percent were labeled as physical assault; 9.5 percent, sexual abuse; 7.6 percent, psychological abuse; and 2.4 percent, medical neglect. Another 9.6 percent were listed in an "other" category that includes abandonment, being born drug-addicted or being threatened with harm. (The percentages add up to more than 100 percent because some children were counted in more than one category of abuse.)

 

Though unfamiliar with the study, Zena Oglesby, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Institute for Black Parenting, told The Root that a major, lingering concern is the question of how race factors into court settlements of abuse cases. Black children, he said, are still more likely to be separated from their parents, even in cases where flagrant abuse is not an issue. "Black children still tend to be taken into custody at a much higher rate, and kept in the [foster care] system much longer. This disproportionality cannot be explained away easily; there's definitely a racial thread," said Oglesby, a former child-protective-services supervisor who has also trained federal child-welfare workers.

"I've watched hundreds of white families show up with their relatives, and those relatives are given custody of abused children without their home ever being screened for safety or suitability," he continued. "Too often, that [granting of temporary custody to relatives] never happens with black families who end up in court."

He was speaking on a day when two of his caseworkers had driven more than 200 miles round-trip to ensure that a black biological mother's court-ordered visit with her 3-month-old and 2-year-old children took place. That the children had not been placed in a foster home nearer to the mom is partly the result of what he contends is a hyper-screening (excessive probes of household finances, housekeeping habits and so forth) that disqualifies many potential black foster-care parents.

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