Taking On Racial Disproportionality in the Child Welfare System
Director, Children and Family Research Center
The Children and Family Research Center is working to understand the complex issues surrounding the overrepresentation of Black children in the state’s child welfare system—and provide the data and analyses that can help the state improve the outcomes for Black children.
Black children account for about 17% of the Illinois child population—yet about 34% of children entering substitute care in the state are Black.
“It’s very eye-opening when you see the numbers in some of our reports about the overrepresentation of Black children who are being investigated and who are in substitute care,” says Tamara Fuller, research associate professor for the School of Social Work and director of the Children and Family Research Center (CFRC). “It’s not a new trend, and it’s not just in Illinois; it’s across the country. But the short answer is we don’t know what causes this.”
Fuller and her team of research associates—they number about 20 in all—are investigating the causes to the disproportionality, as well as solutions that can address it.
“It’s a complex phenomenon,” she says. “There are multiple factors involved. We’re still learning about it, measuring it, trying to find out more about it. That will set the frame for taking the next steps.”
Key Factors: Systemic Racism and Poverty
Two factors are easier to identify than others.
“We can’t not mention the elephant in the room, which is systemic racism in the US,” Fuller says. “In every single system there’s inherent anti-Black racism. I’m not saying that child welfare workers are racist; I’m saying that the policies and the history of the US as a country that has discriminated against Black people is baked into a lot of what we do.”
Poverty, with its strong ties to racism, is the second factor.
“A lot of child maltreatment is neglect, so there’s child abuse and child neglect, and a lot of neglect is related to poverty,” Fuller says. “If you don’t have enough food, if you don’t have stable housing, a lot of that is related to child neglect, and Black people don’t make as much money as white people. There’s a higher percentage of Black people who live in poverty, so it’s going to make sense that there’s going to be a higher percentage of Black people who are involved in the child welfare system.”
Analyzing Data, Creating Reports
The CFRC produces an annual report on the racial disproportionality in the Illinois child welfare system. The report analyzes and reports on disproportionality at six critical decision points in the system. In 2021, the Illinois legislature passed a bill mandating that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services prepare an annual report on racial disproportionality for the General Assembly in several key areas.
“Because of our previous work in this area, DCFS asked us to run the analyses and produce the report,” Fuller says. “It focuses on these key areas: children in investigations, protective custodies, entries into substitute care, the types of placements children live in while in substitute care, how long they stay in substitute care, and whether or not they are reunified with their parents, adopted, or taken into legal guardianship.”
This new annual report came about as a result of Fuller being appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to the Advisory Commission on Reducing the Disproportionate Representation of African American Children in Foster Care.
“You can try to reduce the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care in one of two ways,” Fuller says. “You can try to prevent them from coming into foster care, or, if they get in foster care, you can try to move them out faster by reunifying them with their parents once it’s safe to do so, or by having them adopted by a new family or taken into guardianship. We’re working on trying to come up with recommendations on both sides, preventing them from coming in and moving them out faster.”
Bias-Free Pilot Program
Fuller was also appointed to the Steering Committee on the Bias-Free Child Removal Pilot Program. The program is bias-free because the child welfare review team is given all the information they need to make an informed decision about removing a child from a home—without identifying the names, races, ethnicities, or neighborhoods of anyone involved.
“The thinking is by removing that information, the implicit bias that we have that we’re not aware of against Black people won’t be a factor,” she says. “The decisions will be made purely based on the factors that are happening in the home. So, the thinking is that this will reduce the number of Black children who are removed from the home.”
The three-year pilot program is planned to begin on January 1, 2024. “It will go into effect in three counties in the state: DuPage, Champaign, and Williamson. There have only been a couple of other counties in the US that have tried doing this,” Fuller says. “This is a new intervention.”
It’s so new, she adds, that almost no research exists that has examined if it has the intended effect of reducing the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care. “I’m really excited about it because we are currently designing a comprehensive evaluation of the pilot program that will look at both the processes within the meetings as well as the impact on outcomes,” Fuller says.
Increased Focus in Racial Disproportionality
While the CFRC’s work on the disproportionate numbers of Black children in the state’s child welfare system began many years ago, Fuller acknowledges that she has seen an uptick in the focus on racial equity in the system—an increase that accelerated after George Floyd was murdered in 2020.
“More people just had their eyes opened,” she says. “We, as a country, started having those conversations about race and racism and oppression in a different way.
“A lot of the work that we’re doing now is because of legislation that was introduced in Illinois. There are several new laws that have mandated different projects related to racial disproportionality in the child welfare system, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of them were introduced in 2021 after we had this shift in awareness. I get so many calls on this particular topic, probably more than anything I’ve worked on in my career.”