Racism in Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems


Systemic racism has destroyed the lives of Black people in the United States for generations. The work we do every day must move us toward rebuilding the social, economic, commercial, and government policies and practices that have perpetuated racial inequality and injustice in our country.

Children’s Rights has long recognized and witnessed the damage that racism has done to Black children, and their families, at the hands of child welfare and juvenile justice systems that purportedly exist to protect and care for them.

A seminal 2017 study found that a shocking 53% of Black children in the U.S. will be investigated as potential victims of child abuse by age 18, 16% higher than the rate for all children — even though studies show no relationship between race and child maltreatment. Once in the system, Black children also are more likely to languish in foster care, less likely to be reunified with their families, more likely to be placed in group care, age out in greater numbers, and become involved in the criminal justice system.

The pipeline that feeds youth in foster care and juvenile justice facilities into the adult criminal system has an especially harmful impact. As of 2015, Black youth were five times as likely as white youth to be detained or committed to juvenile justice facilities. In 2019, The Kansas City Star surveyed nearly 6,000 incarcerated people in 12 states. 1 in 4 responded that they had been in foster care.

Black children are separated from their families and placed in foster care at a far higher rate than white children, often repeatedly. In 2019, Black children accounted for 23% of the children in foster care, although they make up only 14% of the country’s children age 18 or younger. They are also more likely to be placed in a group home where they face additional trauma and abuse. In a devastating tragedy earlier this year, staff members restrained and killed a 16-year old Black boy, Cornelius Frederick, while being held in a for-profit foster care group home facility.  Before he passed out from the restraint hold, Cornelius is reported to have yelled “I can’t breathe.”

Children’s Rights’ Work and Commitment

In Tennessee, Children’s Rights brought claims of racial discrimination against Black children in foster care and won specific reforms, including ensuring a pool of foster families that represents the racial makeup of children in the system, options for subsidized guardianship to keep extended families together, and tracking of outcomes by race. 

In Atlanta, Children’s Rights won critical reforms for a foster care system that serves almost entirely (98%) Black children, including faster reunification, mandated health check-ups, improvement in high school graduation rates, and the closing of dangerous emergency shelters.

In Connecticut, we worked with the state to identify opportunities to rapidly reunify Black children in foster care with their families and helped demonstrate that Black children living predominantly with relatives while in foster care were measurably more likely to be successfully reunited within 12 months.

In 2020, Children’s Rights was awarded a grant to study and recommend new policies, funding opportunities, legislative reforms, and possible legal strategies for ending practices in the nation’s child abuse and neglect surveillance, investigation, and removal systems that reinforce structural racism, criminalize poverty and tear apart families of color. The same grant will fund a separate project to encourage states to rethink and end the continued inappropriate placement of children in congregate care in the wake of long known harms to youth who are unnecessarily institutionalized, the COVID-19 public health crisis, and the national movement to end systemic racism in government systems.

Dismantling structural racism in child-serving systems is a priority for Children’s Rights. We will apply a racial equity lens in all we do and work in partnership and solidarity with organizations throughout the country that are fighting on behalf of families of color and advancing racial equity.