Nearly 90 percent of all children in Los Angeles County’s foster-care system are minorities, drawing growing concern that hospitals and child welfare agencies are performing the vast majority of drug screening tests on low-income, minority pregnant women who seek public health care.
While only 10 percent of the county’s general population is African-American, African-American children make up nearly 36 percent of all children in the county’s foster-care system.
The county trend mirrors state and national figures that show children of ethnic minorities in foster care—especially African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians—outpace the number in the general population.
Statewide, 75 percent of foster children are minorities, including 27 percent who are black while African-Americans make up just 7 percent of the state’s population.
Nationwide, 58 percent of the 513,000 kids in foster care are children of color, although they represent only 42 percent of the child population in the United States.
“There is very strong evidence that hospital staff are more likely to suspect drug use on the part of black mothers and these mothers are more likely to have their children removed and put in foster care,” said Dorothy Roberts, the Kirkland & Ellis professor at the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago and author of “Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare.”
Local, state and national child welfare officials agree that a disproportionate percentage of minority children—especially blacks and American Indians—are in foster care. But they say maternal drug testing is just one of the factors.
“(Hospital drug testing is) one aspect we’ll be looking at to see why there are these disparities, but it seems the problem is multifold,” Department of Children and Family Services Director Trish Ploehn said.
While abuse and neglect rates are actually lower among African-American families than in white families, studies have found race to be an important factor in reports to child protective service hotlines, according to a recent Casey Family Programs report.
Additionally, many public and private hospitals have overreported abuse and neglect among blacks while they underreport maltreatment among Caucasians, according to the Casey report.
A study published in the Journal of Women’s Health found black women and their newborns were 1.5 times more likely to be tested for illicit drugs as others.
“There is a strong stereotype that black mothers are irresponsible,” Roberts said. “And the entire image of the ‘crack baby’ is that of a black child. So people who have to identify substance-abusing mothers and make decisions about it are influenced by these stereotypes.”