To End Disproportionality in Child Protection, Here’s Where to Look

To End Disproportionality in Child Protection, Here’s Where to Look

February 8, 2023 | Evident Change

Three young children lying on the floor looking at a book.

Despite a wide spectrum of opinions about the way child protection services (CPS) systems should operate, communities, researchers, and practitioners almost always agree on one point. CPS systems impact Black families, Indigenous families, and families of color far more often than they do White families.  

Disproportionality, while present at all points in the system, exists as soon as—or to be more precise, before—families enter the system. This is unsurprising given that CPS systems, like all of our social institutions, were created within and continue to operate in the context of systemic racial bias.

In the United States, over a third of all children are estimated to be investigated before the age of 18, but for Black children, that proportion rises to more than half (53%).1 Disproportionality is an international concern as well. For example, in Australia, Indigenous children were 7.7 times more likely than other children to be the subject of a substantiation in 2009–2010.2

If we hope to improve CPS systems in the United States and around the world, we must first address the reporting decision. Mandated reporters and concerned community members are the first people who see families struggling, the first people to see children with needs. When robust support and prevention services exist, when there is training to help these reporters and community members to manage their own bias, and when there are tools to help make accurate, consistent, and fair reporting decisions, we may make an impact on disproportionality. This is why Evident Change is partnering with jurisdictions nationally and internationally to think critically about when reporting is necessary and to offer reporters customized, local support so they can make the best decision.

Does Risk Assessment Help or Harm?

Past the point of the reporting decision, after a family has already entered the CPS system, a worker has to make a variety of decisions, including an estimation of whether the family is likely to return to the system again in the future if no intervention happens. This decision point, which allows a worker to consider whether opening a case for ongoing services would be beneficial, often involves conducting a risk assessment.

To bring consistency, equity, and accuracy to this decision, many agencies use an actuarial risk assessment. This is because families who come back to the CPS system generally share some characteristics, as shown by research.

Actuarial tools lead to better decisions. Using an actuarial risk assessment means that a worker has more than their own clinical experience, pre-existing biases, and personal views to rely on. They have the benefit of a research base that can support them in making an accurate assessment and getting resources and interventions to the families who need them most.

Some critics claim that risk assessment only contributes to racial and ethnic disproportionality in the system. The data, they argue, simply mirror patterns of racism, discrimination, and prejudice that exist in the wider world. Thus, they conclude, using a risk assessment only perpetuates racism in child welfare, and their next move is to stop using it.

Pulling a risk assessment from use not only does not solve racism in society or our systems, it creates a new problem: a vacuum where the framework of consistency, validity, and reliability used to be. Without a valid, reliable assessment tool, a child protection agency can unwittingly open the door to greater inequity and inconsistency. Absent that framework, what happens to any given family might depend solely on which worker happens to knock on their door that day, what mood they are in, what biases they carry, and what information they decide to consider.

Racial disproportionality does not suddenly appear at the risk decision point. Racial disproportionality is present at every decision point that occurs before the risk assessment. If we don’t address disproportionality at those earlier decision points—especially the reporting decision—we can never improve equity in the way we must.

Prioritizing Racial Equity in Risk Assessment

Risk assessments and the policies they support should be evaluated and balanced for racial equity. These efforts go beyond data analysis and can’t occur in isolation. Inclusive stakeholder groups aid in the design and the implementation of equitable risk assessments. The work calls for transparency, humility, and shared decision making.

In our work to improve CPS systems, Evident Change has always prioritized racial equity. We have long evaluated our risk assessment instruments—and recommended to our partners that they revalidate them regularly—to ensure that they are equitable. We use a participatory model to develop and evaluate risk assessments and risk assessment policy. We continue to seek and find new ways to center equity and ways to involve community organizations and individuals with lived experience in that effort. Our child welfare work is just one part of our overall commitment to equity both within and outside of our organization.

Getting to the Root

The toxic effects of racism and oppression in our society are the drivers of racial and ethnic disproportionality in CPS systems. Culturally sanctioned oppression and mistreatment, multigenerational trauma, lack of equitable access to socioeconomic mobility: these and other complex factors meet and magnify each other when families become caught in the child protection system.

To successfully eradicate racial disproportionality in our systems, we all need to think bigger, more broadly, and before families enter the CPS system. We need community-based family supports and prevention services so that families have what they need, and children are safe. We need processes that bring people together to focus on healing, restoration, and reparation. We need to create equitable access to opportunities. And we need guidance around reporting that helps community members support each other in the best way possible.

Those who would point the finger at a risk assessment, or at any one factor in a system, are missing the point—and potentially worsening a situation they hope to improve.

1 Kim, H., Wildeman, C., Jonson-Reid, M., & Drake, B. (2017). Lifetime prevalence of investigating child maltreatment among US children. American Journal of Public Health107(2), 274–280.

2 Harris, M. S. (2014). An international exploration of disproportionality. In Racial Disproportionality in Child Welfare (pp. 24–35). Columbia University Press.