Courtesy Jonathan T. Reynolds

Southeastern Regional Seminar in African Studies (SERSAS)

Spring 2005 SERSAS Conference
15 - 16 April 2005

Norfolk State University
NSU Main campus
JMH Lecture (Madison Hall) Room 156 (auditorium)
Norfolk, Virginia, USA

United States Child Welfare Policies
and Enforcement Across Cultural Groups

Natasha Fedyszyn-Carr
Norfolk State University
Norfolk, Virginia, USA

Not for attribution without permission of the author

Copyright 2004 by SERSAS and Natasha Fedyszyn-Carr
All Rights Reserved


The United States is undeniably a world superpower. It is quick to enter the conflicts of other nations, providing manpower, money, food, or ammunition. The U.S. stands firmly upon principles of democracy and capitalism, inserting them into cultures around the world in the name of peace and goodwill.

Unfortunately, the U.S. often insists on offering these principles regardless of whether they are desired. Other Western, capitalistic societies do the same, and have done for hundreds of years. The resultant colonializations, arbitrary national boundaries, and overall subjugation of various indigenous cultures have changed the U.S. image from superpower to bully. More and more, the cry is being heard that the United States should clean its own house before condemning the idealogical dwellings of others.

It is true that the federal government, while easily justifying its involvement in the social reforms of other nations, shows considerable difficulty in adequately and ethically taking care of its own. In particular, almost all manner of maintaining child welfare has been handed off to the individual states to manage. Funding, so easily obtained for war, is almost nonexistent, as is regulatory supervision of how the problem is handled.

In a nation with a large minority population, too many of whom live in poverty, such minimal standards can be devastating. Dependence on a system that has little money and lacks oversight can be a terrifying experience in bias and forced assimilation. Minority parents unfortunate enough to find themselves the subject of child maltreatment investigations often learn this through the heartbreaking loss of their right to culture or worse, their children.

Literature Review

Child maltreatment has existed throughout time. In the U.S., its existence is substantiated by documents dating back to the sixteen hundreds (Hawes, 1991). It was not, however, acknowledged as worthy of legislative government intervention until the 1960s, when a White, upper-class physician named Dr. Henry Kempe strongly stated that child abuse was perpetrated by all types of people, not just minorities and the poor (Kempe, et al, 1962). Within twelve years, the federal government had passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act into law.

The CAPTA stated child welfare as a "national priority" and required the establishment of state bureaus of child welfare, outlined mandated abuse reporting requirements, provided broad definitions of abuse and neglect, and stated that all maltreatment reports were to be kept confidential to protect the families involved. This information can be found in the first ten pages of the CAPTA.

The other sixty pages of the Act, however, give lie to the idea of child welfare as a national priority. These pages consist, almost in toto, of requirements to obtain government funded grants for approved ways to improve or diversify child welfare services. Each grant discussed also stipulates that monies received must be supplemental to state or private funds. In other words, baseline supplemental funding to aid in maintenance of current services is provided so long as states comply with the bare minimums of having bureaus of child welfare, reporting annual statistics, and following confidentiality restrictions. Any improvements or expansions, however, require lengthy grant applications, are subject to further restrictions, are limited to approved interest areas, and are limited to certain numbers of years of funding (CAPTA, 2003).

Needless to say, this lack of oversight combined with tight federal purse strings has led to major variability in quality of child protection from state to state. Some states define maltreatment very broadly, others narrowly. Some states report all investigated cases to law enforcement, some only a few (United States Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families [HHS, OASPE, ACYF], 2003). One theme, however, crosses all state lines; children of color and their families are grossly overrepresented at every stage of the child protection process.

Child protection begins with a report. Any interested party can call an anonymous national hotline to report suspected abuse or neglect. This in turn triggers a response by the state where the child in question resides (HHS, OASPE, ACYF, 2003). Upon initial contact, social workers from the child protection division must decide whether the report should be screened in for investigation. Most states have certain obvious criteria for not screening in calls, such as the suspected abuse being attributed to another minor child (except in some sexual abuse cases), or to a person who is not the child's caregiver. Such cases are generally referred to law enforcement or simply not investigated (HHS, OASPE, ACYF, 2003).

Criteria for screening in reports, however, vary considerably more from state to state. Once it is ascertained that the suspected maltreatment was committed by a caregiver, the screening process relies upon individual state definitions of maltreatment. Again, these vary widely, and events considered abusive or neglectful in one state may not be in another.

One example of this is the "failure to protect" category, which considers failure to shield a child from domestic abuse, either as a witness or a victim, as a subcategory of neglect (Beeman, Hagemeister, et al, 2001). Because this category and others are very vague, often giving no guidelines as to extent, severity, or pervasiveness of occurrences required before a level constituting maltreatment is attained, the decision at this point is often left to the individual social worker handling the call. Another issue is that of religious exemptions from neglect findings. Such exemptions often come into play when a caller states that parents are withholding needed medical care from a child due to their religious beliefs (CAPTA, 2003).

The main commonality between "failure to protect" and religious exemptions is that neither of them exists in the majority of states (HHS, OASPE, ACYF, 2003). As a result, it is highly possible for a family to move to a new state and suddenly find themselves embroiled in an abuse or neglect investigation for behavior that was not sanctioned in their old state. With minority groups living in poverty at a rate three times that of Whites (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003), frequent moves among members of the minority community are common, migrant farm workers being a classic example.

In addition, even in states where these categories do exist, their boundaries vary. Religions recognized as legitimate by one state often are not by another. The Hmong, for example, are a large immigrant group from Laos. Their religious beliefs include strong respect for ancestors and their spiritual powers and a belief that Western medicine should be a last resort for sickness. As a result, they often treat their children with alternate methods which are permitted religious exemption in some states granting them but not others (Renteln, 2004).

The only group appearing to be universally accepted is the Christian Scientists (Virginia Department of Social Services, 2002, Renteln, 2004). Though a small denomination, they boast several influential members, including senators and key players from the Nixon administration. Though Christian Scientists have staunchly refused to reveal details of their membership demographics for the last forty years, their tax records indicate that the ten states with the largest number of Christian Science congregations have a much higher than average "White only" population (, 2005).

It should be made clear that no states permit "cultural exemptions" to abuse or neglect charges. Cases from across the country have repeatedly resulted in findings against parents using alternative medical treatments such as cupping or coining, as well as against parents who have used discipline that is considered "excessive," a term whose definition varies from state to state (Renteln, 2004).

Significance of the Study

There is no clear or consistent teaching in any high school curriculum, government sponsored immigration information packets, or college curriculums (save specific social work-oriented programs) that even attempts to educate citizens on the boundaries of abuse (Renteln, 2004, United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, 2005). Citizens are expected to simply "know" acceptable child-rearing practices and abide by them. Frequently, cases reaching the criminal justice system are subjected to the "objective, reasonable person" standard, which dictates that such a person would know the acts in question were wrong (Renteln, 2004). In light of the fact that no specific education on the topic is provided, as well as that members of minority groups often have less access to education and legal knowledge than most of the population, such a standard could be considered not only ludicrous but actively harmful.

Countless studies have shown a link between unstable home lives, parental criminal justice involvement, foster care placement, family poverty, and future juvenile delinquency. Likewise, juvenile delinquency has been repeatedly correlated with adult criminal justice involvement (Ellis and Sowers, 2001). Minorities are overrepresented in all of these areas (Shelden and Brown 2003). Thus, the significance of this study is to show that such extensive overrepresentation and subsequent group marginalization can often begin with the child welfare process and its inequitable application of policy.


This study was both quantitative and qualitative in nature. The quantitative data set utilized was the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Summary Data Component for 1990-1999 on Child Abuse and Neglect.[1] Bivariate analysis was performed and correlations were calculated across several areas, namely between minority status and case reporting rate, case substantiation rate, and child removal rate. Because aggregated state level data was used, correlations yielded an overall national correlation coefficient. Due to the large number (eleven) of racial codes used in the study, it was necessary to recode all race codes into only two, White and Non-White, to complete the analysis. In addition, though Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and other territories were included in the original data set, the data for these sites were not used.

Quantitative data also used were U.S. Census Bureau reports on Poverty, the Foreign-Born population, and Racial Distribution of the population overall. An additional correlation was calculated to determine the relationship between poverty and case substantiation, as more minorities than Whites live at the poverty level. The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Dr. James A. Nolan with the recoding, cleaning, and analysis process.

Qualitative information reviewed and utilized was extensive. It included federal legislation, federal studies and reports, court cases, state regulations, codes, and manuals, privately funded child advocacy organizational reports and articles, journal articles, and newspaper and magazine articles. Also utilized was personal experience of the author who has worked in human services for the last seventeen years, in both the private and public sectors.

Findings and Discussion

Quantitative findings indicated a positive correlation of .444 nationwide for the screening in of reports alleging maltreatment by minorities. In addition, virtually all states reporting the data (thirty-four total) indicated minority population allegations far above the national average ethnic population, as well as far higher than the minority population within each state. Virginia, for example, indicated that fifty percent of the reports received alleged abuse or neglect by persons of minority status, but Virginia's total population is over seventy percent White. Virginia screened in sixty-four percent of reports for investigation in 1999, also above the national average (United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families [HHS, ACYF], 2001).

Once reports are screened in for investigation, the outcome too often appears biased. Findings substantiating neglect in particular are often suspect. In addition to the categories of medical neglect and failure to protect, cases are often substantiated on the basis of what appears to be poverty alone. The federal government, in fact, found in their own studies that neglect charges are forty-four times more likely to be substantiated in families living at the poverty level (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 1996). Obviously, low socio- economic status makes it difficult for parents to obtain adequate food, shelter, clothing, or childcare, all bases for neglect charges. Again, minorities in the U.S. live in poverty at a rate two to three times that of Whites.

Though some states indicate in their policies that charges of neglect will not be leveled against families whose only issue is poverty (HHS, OASPE, ACYF, 2003), all of those states do not live up to this credo, nor do they consistently offer the concrete items or funds to ameliorate the situation, leaving the family open to further allegations at a later date. Like most other provisions protecting children, assistance offered varies widely from state to state.

In addition, several scholarly articles decry the ineffectiveness of services that are offered under the dubious heading of "family preservation (Melton, 2005, Chaffin, 2004, Cicchetti, 2004, Duggan et al, 2004, Chill, 2003, Beeman, Hagemeister, et al, 2001, Vachss, 1989)." Such services include counseling, parenting classes, and budgeting classes. These services are often court-ordered. Even if they are not, inability or refusal to participate is generally documented in a family's file as "refusal of services," another black mark against families fighting to keep their children (Virginia Department of Social Services, 2002). No consideration is offered to the difficulty parents may have in getting to such "services," nor how attending these classes can exacerbate their already precarious financial status by forcing them to miss work.

Services not routinely offered include housing, job placement, food, clothing, or child care. Though some such services are available via state or federal funding, the waiting lists are long and often require families to be referred to other agencies or divisions to apply for them, another hardship to families with limited mobility. In Virginia, for example, the wait for subsidized housing can exceed five years, and the wait for subsidized child care can exceed eighteen months (personal experience of the author). Yet research has repeatedly shown that the single most effective measure to prevent or ameliorate child maltreatment is the provision of these concrete services (Cicchetti, 2004)!

Though the data analysis performed did not break down types of cases substantiated, it did find a positive correlation, though not at the level of significance, between minority status and substantiation of cases. The unexpected weakness of this correlation (.166 at a significance level of .225) can be partially explained by missing data. Twenty-nine of the fifty states did not submit either their minority case report or substantiation percentages, or both. Six of the missing states include high ethnic populations, four include high foreign-born populations, and ten include high poverty rates (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003, 2000).

Correlation of poverty level socioeconomic status and case substantiation was also performed. In this instance, a negative correlation was actually determined, though again not at a level approaching significance (-.045 at a significance level of .796), leading one to believe, at least initially, that poverty does not negatively influence case disposition. Again, however, the data available were some what problematic. Notably, twelve states were missing substantiated report proportions in the data set, four of which had poverty rates above the national average. Four of the missing states also had above average ethnic populations. A straight comparison of available substantiation percentages with U.S. Census poverty levels, however, provided some contrasting information, with seven states reporting unusually high poverty rates also reporting unusually high case substantiation rates. Two of those states, California and New York, also have high populations of foreign-born citizens and ethnic minorities.

In addition, mere state policies insisting cases will not be substantiated solely on the basis of poverty are often proven inadequate if the staff making that decision are not adequately supervised or screened for bias. New Jersey, for example, lists their definition of neglect as "failure to provide when able." Poverty obviously impacts one's ability to provide. Yet, in an article published by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (2005), a case is highlighted where children were removed from a family home solely on the basis of inadequate housing. When the children were returned, one showed obvious signs of physical abuse apparently received in the foster care placement. The family sued New Jersey, as did their first assigned case worker.

Findings showed that the original case worker had located better housing for the family, arranged a move, and recommended closing their case. He was told by a supervisor not to proceed, but to recommend removal of the children as a "rich family" had been found that was willing to take the children. When he refused to do so, he was fired. The supervisor was quoted as saying "children should be taken away from poor parents if they can be better off elsewhere." Articles of a similar nature were located for the states of Ohio, California, Maryland, and Florida.

Removal of children, of course, is another step in the child protection process. Though it can occur at any time during an investigation, this study reviewed only child removals following cases listed as "Substantiated." Here again, the data indicated a positive correlation between minority family reports substantiated and the removal of their children. Again, the correlation was not found to be at a level of significance (.135 at a significance level of .339).

In this instance, however, the findings are even more highly suspect, as twenty-nine of the fifty states were missing one or both pieces of relevant data from the summary report. Comparisons of what data were available revealed that, of the twenty-one states reporting in full, twelve had child removal rates above the national average. Six of those had minority populations above average and three included the largest foreign-born populations in the country (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003, 2000). Full data availability for all fifty states could well have yielded a significant finding, as eleven states with above-average ethnic populations were not represented.

Here again, one of the primary issues leading to removal was inadequate housing or other concrete items. Though not one of the locales reviewed in this research, Washington D.C. released study results of significance, indicating that up to half of the children in foster care there could be safely returned to their families tomorrow if the families only had decent housing (Wexler, 2002). Washington D.C., of course, has some of the highest rates in the nation for both poverty and ethnic minority residents (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003, 2000).

Other studies in Florida, Illinois, and Michigan have shown that when family preservation services actually of value to families at risk of losing their children were offered, out of home placements decreased by up to fifty percent (Wexler, 2002). Valued services, in addition to concrete goods and housing, included assisting victims of domestic violence to leave those situations, supportive access to mental health and counseling services, and useful, in-demand work skills training (Pulido and Gupta, 2002). None of these services are required by the CAPTA, and some of them are not even mentioned as being eligible for grant funding (CAPTA,2003).


In conclusion, certainly child maltreatment does happen, and certainly there are legitimate cases of persons of minority status maltreating their children, such as the infamous Imani Rogers case in Portsmouth, Virginia. But the number of such cases investigated, substantiated, and resulting in parents losing their children is disproportionately high among minority groups. Diligent investigation, even of the government's own records, indicates disparate impact on the poor and minorities in these areas. Nebulous and variable federal and state regulations as well as system worker bias only exacerbate this inequity.

In light of these findings, further research is certainly justified, not only into more recent and hopefully complete government records, but into the lawmaking and service provision process to determine just how deeply minority populations are impacted. Further research is also warranted in the area of program and service provision efficacy to increase knowledge of which goods will do the most to decrease such reports and findings. Certainly it is hoped that such research could affect change on a national level to assure equal and effective interventions.

In the meantime, however, it is important that minorities become educated regarding the potential pitfalls of their child-rearing practices and learn how to obtain assistance prior to stigmatizing maltreatment reports. Though requesting knowledge or assistance should not be necessary and is sometimes daunting or demeaning, it is currently the only way for minority groups to protect their own in America's current social structure.


[1] The data utilized in this paper were made available by the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY; and have been used by permission. Data from the study "1990-1999 Summary Data Component on Child Abuse and Neglect" were originally collected by the Unites States Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. Neither the collector of the original data, the funder of the Archive, Cornell University, or its agents or employees bear any responsibility for the analyses or interpretations presented here.

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First Online Edition: 14 April 2005
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