Race and Poverty Bias in Child Welfare and at School

Bias harms families and children of color and low socioeconomic status involved in the child welfare system as well as the public school system. While other biases must be addressed, such as those related to religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and more, here we discuss race and poverty bias.

These statistics and similar reports from around the country indicate race and poverty-related disparities and disproportionality in the child welfare system. Race and socioeconomic status often impact decisions in every stage of the child welfare system from reporting, to foster care placements, to termination of parental rights decisions.

Many factors may explain the evidence of disproportionality and disparity surrounding racial groups and low-income families:

  • correlation between poverty and maltreatment;
  • visibility or exposure bias;
  • limited access to services;
  • geographic restrictions; and
  • child welfare professionals knowingly or unknowingly letting personal biases impact their actions or decisions.

Child welfare and education professionals must address their own biases when working with children and families. Many biases develop from the schema in our brain that lets us quickly analyze people, places, and situations. Schema may be gathered through learned stereotypes and stored in the recesses of our brains. Our schema operates as the lens through which we interpret and predict the world. Schema often results in a fixed oversimplification of groups. Because schema assists our brains with processing, it can create preferences for particular groups, negative or positive.

Biases exist in two forms: explicit and implicit. An example used to describe implicit bias is racial profiling by law enforcement – implicit bias may lead police officers to be more suspicious of male minorities. In the child welfare realm, a study from a Philadelphia hospital suggested African American and Latino toddlers hospitalized for injuries such as bone fractures “were more than five times more likely to be evaluated for child abuse, and more than three times more likely to be reported to child protective services, than white children with comparable injuries.”

Everyone has implicit biases. The presence of implicit biases does not necessarily lead to explicitly biased decisions or behaviors; however, bias may predict subtle discriminatory behaviors. By definition, implicit biases appear without awareness or direction. Research suggests that one way to reduce or prevent implicit bias in our decision-making process requires recognizing our biases. Since implicit biases are unconscious, using tools and self-reflection are the means through which we discover these biases.

Harvard University created the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to help identify implicit biases. The IAT uses a methodology relating reaction time to words and categories to elicit unconscious opinions. There are IATs to test biases for race, gender, disability, and much more. Strategies also focus on identifying and addressing bias in systems that work with children and families.

Our implicit biases affect our daily decisions. For many of us, implicit biases may control who we sit beside on the subway train on our daily commute or in a room with other people. Biases can impact our work with families in the child welfare system and children in school settings. Bias that goes unchecked can impact the trajectory of a child’s academic performance or a child welfare case for families. While implicit bias is not always negative, it can lead to discriminatory actions.

“Addressing the overrepresentation of children and families of color in our juvenile courts requires careful consideration and reform of the policies and practices that drive bias and structural racism.”

Child welfare system and school leaders should actively address concerns about bias-a priority above all else.

Become aware of your own biases

A critical step towards addressing bias is knowing your own biases, whether positive or negative. Being aware of the bias enables you to flag and remove that bias when making decisions so a fair, individualized assessment can be made. Becoming aware of bias may require completing tests such as the IAT to identify your biases. Practicing ongoing self-reflection of your beliefs, presumptions, and opinions can assist with checking on pre-existing and newly formed biases.

Our biases typically derive from our personal experiences. Therefore, by educating ourselves through reading books, listening to podcasts, participating in trainings, and having productive discussions that disrupt bias,  we can gain new perspectives that help to understand our decisions.

Raise consciousness

We must raise our consciousness of bias in practice. Assess your bias about families or color or poor families. We each have a responsibility to acknowledge and properly address cases when the bias of others lead to improper determinations and decisions.

A major area to raise one’s consciousness of cultural bias is when there are language barriers between families and educator/practitioners. Due to the difficulty of communicating, professionals may act unreasonably due to misunderstandings. We must advocate for access to tools and resources, such as language services, interpreters, or colleagues with language and culture fluency to foster meaningful communications with families. Never let language barriers inhibit effective communication and advocacy.

Deliberate, reflect, and educate

To reduce or eliminate our own biases, we should take time to reflect on reasoning and facts before making decisions. Due to high caseloads, classroom size and the need for effective assessment and triage,  practitioners often make quick, in-the-moment, decisions. These off-the-cuff decisions are usually biased because individual facts may not be considered.[10] Our brains often fill the gaps with stereotypes or prior cases we have encountered. These are what I call,‘ immaculate perceptions’.


Write it down– writing typically brings about more deliberation and will cause you to think about your justification for your decisions.

Explain your reasoning to someone else-another opportunity for deliberation. Taking the time to reflect, write down your perspective, or discuss resolutions with a colleague can uncover when and how a bias is impacting decisions.

Change perspectives

Foster an “in their shoes” approach. This means imagining you are the client, considering all factors you may know about the child or family (race, socioeconomic status, and more), and understanding their perspective. Meet  “where they are” and understand what they want and need. Exercise cultural empathy to understand how people with varying backgrounds may differ. Cultural empathy is simply appreciating and considering the differences and similarities of another culture compared to one’s own.

An extremely underutilized option and opportunity to combat and question bias is to utilize ‘blind removals’. This requires a panel or team of professionals to view a case with all racial and cultural identifiers absent. This is done BEFORE a child is removed from a family or a classroom. In child welfare settings, this strategy results in fewer out of home placements for children of color.

Welcome and embrace diversity among educators and practitioners

Research suggests exposure to varied groups may reduce bias. One mechanism for change may be the “social contact hypothesis.” This hypothesis “suggests that prejudice and stereotypes can be reduced by face-to-face interaction between groups.” This means meeting and working with individuals from other communities can actually reduce our biases. More specifically, contact with “positive exemplars” can shape and possibly even reduce how we associate stereotypes to particular groups. A great way to introduce positive exemplars may be embracing a more diverse staff and/or peer mentors. Other examples of positive exemplars include reunification heroes, parent allies meeting with legislators, and parent allies employed by the child welfare system.

Take a step toward addressing bias today whether that means taking an IAT, starting a conversation in your office, setting up a bias training for peers, educating yourself with books or podcasts, or engaging in a new event or practice directed at disrupting bias in the school, juvenile justice and child welfare systems.


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