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In the U.S. there are major racial disparities in the U.S. child welfare and the juvenile
justice systems. Minority youth and children are generally overrepresented in almost every
aspect of these systems. Historically, there have been a number of debates about the root causes
of these disparities with most individuals falling into one of two philosophical camps. Piquero
(2008) defines the two camps as those who attribute the disparities to ³differential involvement´
or ³differential selection.´ Those who espouse a ³differential involvement´ perspective often
attribute racial disparities to differing behavior and offending patterns between youth of color
and whites (McCord, Spatz Widom, & Crowell, 2001). On the other hand, those who support
the ³differential selection´ perspective typically argue that these racial disparities persist because
of systemic racial biases among decision makers in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems
(McCord, Spatz Widom, & Crowell, 2001).


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Piquero (2008) notes that differential involvement theory suggests that minority youths
are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system because they generally commit more crimes
for an extended period of time. A number of researchers support this hypothesis and attribute
minority overrepresentation to a behavioral explanation which suggests that that minority youth
are merely committing more offenses (many of which are classified as serious offenses) which
suggests an accurate representation in the juvenile justice system (Kakar, 2006). While others
attribute the racial arrests discrepancies to the idea that African American males commit serious
violent crimes at significantly higher rates than white males which in turn leads to minority
males having hire rates of imprisonment for crimes in which they have more involvement
(Kakar, 2006).
In the child welfare system there are a number of researchers who suggest that
socioeconomic factors²more than race²drive incidence rates higher in African American
communities. For example, research has shown that there is a relationship between poverty and
child maltreatment. In 1998, 30.4 percent of African American households had incomes under
$15,000 whereas only 11.6 percent of Caucasian families had incomes less than $15,000
(Morton, 1999). From this perspective, because African Americans have disproportionately
lower incomes than Caucasians, then a case can be made that the behavioral effects of poverty
(abuse, etc.) would be more present in poor African American households.
Beyond that, research also has shown that a higher incidence of child maltreatment has
been observed in single-parent households. In this instance, data shows that 52 percent of
African American children live in a single mother household while only 18 percent of Caucasian
children were living in single mother households. Hence, because of the large number of single
parent households in the African American community²it would stand to reason that there
would be some disproportionality of contact with the child welfare system.

  
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Differential selection theory suggests that there are institutional biases that directly
contribute to the overrepresentation of minority youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice
systems. This institutional bias can manifest itself in a number of ways such as differential
processing practices, differing police presence in minority and Caucasian neighborhoods,
discrimination in the courts, and institutional racism. For example, in a report issued by the
Department of Health and Human Services, it was found that minority children were more likely
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to receive foster care placement than in-home services, even when exhibiting similar problems as
Caucasian children (Roberts, 2006). There is evidence that also suggests that African American
children also tend to remain in foster care longer, are moved more often, receive fewer services,
and are less likely to be either returned home or adopted than any other children (Roberts, 2006).
In the juvenile justice system, Piquero (2008) has noted that a number of studies of the
disposition and confinement process reveal that African American youth were consistently given
more restrictive dispositions than Caucasian youth who had committed the same offenses and
had the same prior record. It has also been shown that police officers tended to attribute
delinquency in African American youth to personality defects while viewing Caucasian
delinquency as a product of a dysfunctional environment (McCord, Spatz Widom, & Crowell,
2001).

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It would seem to be problematic to suggest that either viewpoint is wholly correct when
discussing minority overrepresentation. There are indeed a number of behavioral factors that
contribute to minority overrepresentation in these systems and there is most certainly a
significant amount of cultural and racial bias permeating both systems. Both points alone
present a compelling case for the contributing factors of minority overrepresentation. Yet,
minority overrepresentation is a large problem that cannot be adequately explained by either
viewpoint alone. Future social work study should approach both viewpoints as complimentary
companion perspectives that could potentially provide the framework for a treatment model that
addresses the racial disparities in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Ultimately, the
goal should be to break the cycle of institutionalization for these children and ultimately
transition them into spaces where they can prosper.

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Kakar, S. (2006). Understanding the Causes of Disproportionate Minority Contact: Results of
Focus Group Discussions. i  
i  , 369-381.
McCord, J., Spatz Widom, C., & Crowell, N. e. (2001). Race, Crime, and Juvenile Justice: The
Issue of Racial Disparity. In N. R. Medicine, i 
i i  (pp. 228-260).
Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Morton, T. (1999). The Increasing Colorization of America's Child Welfare System: The
Overrepresentation of African American Children.     , 21-30.
Piquero, A. (2008). Disproportionate Minority Contact.     , 59-79.
Roberts, D. (2006). Adoption Myths and Racial Realities in the United States. In J. Trenka, J.
Oparah, & S. Shin,            (pp. 49-55). Cambridge,
MA: South End Press.

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