NEWS

The Foster Care System Disproportionately Affects Black Children

Black boy washes dishes

Getty Images / NickyLloyd

Key Takeaways

  • Black children make up almost 14% of the population of children in the United States, but 23% of those in foster care.
  • Black children are twice as likely to enter the foster care system as White children and remain in the system about nine months longer.
  • More families of color are needed to foster and adopt Black children, to provide a “racial mirror” for the children.

As of September 2020, more than 400,000 children were in the foster care system in the United States. While there are children of all races in the system, a disproportionate number of these children are Black. In 2020, Black children accounted for almost 14% of the children in the nation, yet they made up 23% of the kids in the child welfare system.

To put those numbers in context, White children made up almost 50% of the population of kids during the same time period, but only 43% of the children in foster care. Hispanic children accounted for 22% of the kids in foster care but comprised 26% of the children in the nation. Comparatively, Black children are overrepresented in the foster care system.

That problem is compounded by the fact that agencies may have difficulty placing Black children with foster families who look like them. When a long-term solution like adoption comes into play, the problem still exists.

“[In] the child welfare system they often don’t have enough families who are willing to adopt, [and] they don’t have enough families who are willing to adopt the children who are actually available for adoption,” says Susan Dusza Guerra Leksander, LMFT, the agency and clinical director at PACT, An Adoption Alliance.

While families of other races do successfully adopt Black children, they face challenges relating to and helping their child navigate the experience of being Black in the United States.

“[W]hite (or other race) adoptive/foster parents can't teach their adoptive/foster children the Black experience the same way as or as well as a Black parent could," notes Aaron Johnson, founder and president of WAT! Black Family Adoption Assistance, Inc.  "Sure, they can read books or blogs and get by well enough, but they won't ever be able to teach (or relate to) the Black experience as well as someone who has lived it,”

Experts say giving Black children the opportunity to be a part of a family that looks like them is an important part of their experience. Without those options available, they remain in the child welfare system in large numbers.

Causes of Disproportion

There is no one factor that leads to greater numbers of Black children being a part of the foster care system. Experts say both environmental and societal issues impact the numbers.

Kimberly Offutt, EdD

Black children have been historically overrepresented in the foster care system. Statistically, about 70% of the children who enter foster care, enter care because of neglect, which is poverty related.

— Kimberly Offutt, EdD

“Black children have been historically overrepresented in the foster care system," says Kimberly Offutt, EdD, national director of family support and engagement at Bethany Christian Services. "Statistically, about 70% of the children who enter foster care, enter care because of neglect, which is poverty related (homelessness, failure to thrive, substance abuse, etc). Poverty statistically impacts minority families at a higher rate than non-minority families,”

Subconscious beliefs related to race also influence the outcome. Research shows Black families are more likely to be investigated by child protective services. Black children are also more likely to be removed from their homes and placed in foster care.

“More prevalent issues [causing disproportion] are institutionalized racism, discrimination, and implicit bias towards minority families. Implicit bias training of child welfare staff has not been enough to tackle these issues,” Dr. Offutt adds.

She notes that blind removals are helping to address the problem. That's when the facts of a family’s case are reported by child welfare personnel without mentioning race. Still, work needs to be done.

Experts note that Black children are twice as likely to enter the foster care system as White children and stay in the foster care system an average of nine months longer.

Why Families Who Look Like the Kids Are Important

When a child has nowhere to go and no one to take care of them, any place that can provide love and care is an improvement. But experts say a Black family can provide a different dimension of experiences and understanding to a Black child. While there are many families with one or two parents of color looking to adopt babies and young children, finding families to foster or adopt many older kids in the system remains a challenge.

KVC Kansas, an organization that services both foster care and adoption cases in the state, notes that in 2021, only 4% of their foster homes included Black adults. In 2020 in Alabama, there were 490 Black foster families while there were over 1,100 White families fostering children. California had over 2,500 Black foster families last year, but over 6,000 White families.

Those involved in the system see many Black families hesitating to get involved because of the system itself.

“Because child protective services is viewed in the Black community as a system to be feared—there is more policing of families than there is providing support and prevention services for these families—it is hard to convince [people of color] to willingly enter into a system that has historically policed and separated our families,” Dr. Offutt explains.

Aaron Johnson

Representation matters in children's lives. 

— Aaron Johnson

Johnson notes it’s important for kids to see someone who looks like them in their home, especially when looking at the solution-oriented adoption capacity.

“Representation matters in children's lives. It is hard enough that our children don't often see themselves in our community/ country leaders, professionals, educators, entertainers, etc; imagine what it would be like if you didn't even see your race represented in your parents?” Johnson explains.

Officials say, however, that rules exist regarding the use of race as a factor in foster care placement.

“Although race is important to a child’s overall well-being, based on MEPA (Multi-Ethnic Placement Act) laws, child welfare workers can not consider race when placing a child in foster care or adoptive home," Dr. Offutt explains. "Race cannot be a deciding factor or the cause of a child remaining in care. MEPA also limits our ability to appropriately assess, prepare, or train a White family to raise a Black child,”

Solutions to Helping Children in Foster Care

The foster care system is designed to provide a safe, caring environment for a child who is unable to remain in their own home. The goal is to ultimately reunite children with their biological families. When that goal is not feasible, finding a stable, permanent solution is key.

Adoption

Helping children find their forever home diminishes the number of children in the foster care system. More than 66,000 children were adopted from the child welfare system in 2019. The National Council for Adoption notes that Black children make up 35% of those who are adopted. A child receives a sense of being wanted, cared for, and loved when they are placed with a family for the rest of their childhood.  

Finding More Families of Color

Both foster care and adoption agency personnel say they recognize the importance of having more Black families with homes for children who need them. They make efforts to understand the needs and concerns of families of color.

“Youth of color need to have racial mirrors in their homes, in their families, [and] in their communities,” Leksander says.

Agencies are making efforts to reach Black families and highlight the benefits of fostering and adopting children. From outreach in churches and communities of color to advertisements that feature Black families and Black children, the goal is to spread the message of the incredible experience of giving a home to a child.

There is still work to be done to counter inequities in the foster care system. Awareness of the problem, and a conscious effort to find solutions, is a promising start.

What This Means For You

The inequity in the number of Black children in foster care shines a light on the disparity with children of color needing homes and stability. Families of color can provide a dimension of historical and cultural richness than can transform these children’s lives. It’s a sacrifice to foster a child or adopt, but one that can change the trajectory of that child’s life.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. US Department of Health and Human Services. The AFCARS report.

  2. United States Government Accountability Office. African American children in foster care.

  3. Kaiser Family Foundation. Population distribution of children by race/ethnicity (CPS).

  4. Children's Bureau. Child welfare practice to address racial disproportionality and disparity.

  5. KVC Kansas. Black children are overrepresented in foster care. Here's how we address this disparity.

  6. The Imprint. Who cares: A national count of foster homes and families.

  7. Statista. Number of children adopted with public welfare agency involvement in the United States from 2007 to 2019.

  8. National Council for Adoption. The color of adoption: Who's reaching out to the black community?.