Why do more L.A. County black children end up in foster care? Experts clash over the reason

Black children account for eight out of 100 Los Angeles County children, yet they make up 28 out of 100 foster children, according to Department of Children and Family Services data.

The reason for that difference is a subject of dispute among child welfare professionals.

There are basically two theories, and the approach an agency takes to addressing the problem depends, at least in part, on which theory it accepts. One holds that social worker bias against black parents is to blame. The other argues that black children truly are victimized at higher rates.

In Los Angeles County, child welfare officials traveled to a Harvard conference in 2011 for guidance as they pursued programs based on the premise that social worker bias played a big role in the high number of black children removed from their families.

They gained encouragement from University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts, who said: “If you came to any child dependency court in Chicago, in Los Angeles or in New York and had no preconceptions about what the purpose of the court was, you would probably leave thinking its purpose was to monitor and regulate and even tear apart black families.”  

Elizabeth Bartholet, the director of Harvard Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, was among the skeptics of the path Los Angeles had chosen.

As a young lawyer, Bartholet had worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and had, over her career, mentored a generation of civil rights attorneys.  Bartholet marshaled data to argue that when poverty and neighborhood characteristics are used to analyze foster care rates, race disappears as an explanatory factor. 

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Black children really are abused and neglected at higher rates than white children, she said. To lower foster care rates for black children, she argued, caseworkers would have to tolerate higher levels of victimization for black children than they do for white children.

Many left the conference believing that any caseworker bias against black families accounted for only a small portion of the disparity in foster care rates.

Yet Los Angeles County officials pressed forward with programs that assumed that racial bias was a significant cause for the high rate of detention of black children. 

At one recent gathering to discuss the matter, Cheryl Grills, a professor at Loyola Marymount who has been enlisted to train DCFS social workers on racial disparity issues, urged officials — including members of the team handling Monique Baker’s case — to institutionalize child protection based on African and African American folkways, not the latest studies and academic research.

Grills argues that experts like Bartholet are wrong because they don’t look beyond statistics. She says agencies should look at already-existing strengths in the black community — churches, grandmothers, after-school programs — to figure out what can be done to reduce the amount of abuse and neglect.

She says that these assets can’t be easily quantified in statistics or hard evidence, but that they are perhaps the most valuable tool at hand.

“I am here to tell you,” she said, in a rejection of the data Bartholet and others use to support their positions, “that evidence-based practice is on trial.”

Inside a mother's months-long fight to get back her children »

Therolf reported this story as a Los Angeles Times staff member and completed it after leaving the paper last year to become a reporter for the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and Common Sense News, a nonprofit focused on children’s issues. He can be reached at garrett.therolf@gmail.com.

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