Disparity and Disproportionality


While all families have similarities and common experiences, each family is unique. Each family unit presents its own set of strengths and challenges. When families are unable to provide children and youth with basic needs, they should be able to access and use the types of services they require in the right amounts. The mix of services a family needs will vary from one to another, since no family is like another. Services should always be tied to a family’s need.


Disparity occurs when services to one segment of the community, relative to other segments, are presumptively allocated, poorly provided or inadequate in addressing a family’s underlying needs; it also means that these differences in service delivery are not justifiable based on the family’s identified need, available agency resources or other objective criteria. The effect is that differences may appear unnecessary, avoidable, unfair or unjust. In the context of child welfare, 

such disparity may result in the family’s inability to access quality care, resources, services or opportunities to thrive. The issue of disparity in public child welfare warrants great concern because families that do not get the help they need are at increased risk of experiencing negative children, youth and family outcomes.


Disparities are often social, political, economic and attitudinal in nature. Societal factors such as institutional and structural racism, poverty and classism have historically caused families of color (for the purposes of this document the terms "families of color" and "children of color" refer to families and children belonging to various cultural, ethnic, and racial communities, including African American/black, Latino/Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American/Alaskan Native groups) to endure disparate treatment in this country. Even today, families of color are less likely to access quality health care, have opportunities for positive early childhood experiences, achieve adequate educational attainment and earn sufficient household income. Disparities also take place at the service system level. Compared to other children, 

children of color that become involved in the public child welfare system experience a higher rate of admission into foster care and a lower timely exit rate.


Disparities are often interconnected in a way that produces a ripple effect and may cause families to experience disparate treatment at multiple points throughout service delivery. For instance, a high admission rate into foster care can result from the bsence of quality, community-based preventive resources in addition to culturally insensitive agency service strategies prolonginga stay once a family member enters care.



Disproportionality refers to being out of proportion. Simply, it is the over or under-representation of certain groups (e.g., racial/ethnic, gender, age, jurisdiction, etc.) in a public child welfare agency relative to the group’s proportion in the general population. Disproportionality is caused by disparities, some in society at large, and some in public child 



Our examination of disproportionality in public child welfare focuses on race because of the prevalence of racial disproportionality. National data show that although African American/black children account for 15% of the U.S. child population, they make up 45% of children in foster care.4 Native American children are also consistently overrepresented in public child welfare. Native American children experience system involvement at various stages of service delivery at 

about the same or slightly higher rate than African American/black  children.5The issue of under-representation usually receives less attention but should also raise concern because children, youth and families who are in need of services and do not receive them are also at risk for poor outcomes. For instance, data show that Asians and Pacific Islanders are nationally underrepresented in child welfare. While Asian/Pacific Islander children represent 3% of the total population under the age of 18, they are 1% of the foster care population.6 White children, who constitute 60% of the 

child population, account for only 36% of the children in out-of-home care.7 


While the national data provide a context, disproportionality is largely a local phenomenon. How disproportionality manifests will vary from one jurisdiction to another and therefore national findings cannot be generalized to reflect what is taking place in all states and communities. For instance, Hispanic children make up 17% of the child population and 15% of the population in the foster care system. This national figure appears balanced, yet Hispanic children are overrepresented in ten states. Since communities and states can experience different types of disproportionality, public child welfare agencies are encouraged to assess for the occurrence and type(s) of disproportionality within their jurisdictions in order to define the problem and provide relevant, effective remedies.


Interrelationship of Disparity and Disproportionality

The terms disparities and disproportionality are often confused. In fact, some mistake the terms for each other and may even, in error, use them interchangeably. Yet, the distinction between disproportionality and disparities described above remains critically important. Disproportionality results from disparities.


Disparities, in the context of public child welfare, are created by the policies and practices of public child welfare agencies, and other systems, and may include biased personnel decision-making. Disparities also come from other service systems (e.g., court system) and other larger, societal constructs outside of the agency. It is important to note that the public child welfare system cannot and should not be expected to single-handedly overcome disparities resident in society and other service systems.However, if disproportionality can be tied to disparities of treatment, quality of services or access to services in public child welfare (reasons related to matters of bias, racism, etc.), then the system has a responsibility to correct the disparity and its root causes. In some cases, correcting disparities might mean strategically partnering with other service systems to address disparities in the society at large.


Even if we eliminate disparities that are tied to inequitable treatment, and focused on providing high quality services to those who need them, it is possible to still have disproportionality - a possibility that has some justification if service provision is tied to need. For instance, an agency might make intensive prenatal services and medical care available to an impoverished community to reduce the occurrence of low-birth weight babies – a characteristic that can bring 

families to the attention of public child welfare. Here, the service is tied to need and the goal is to achieve reduced disparity and break negative outcomes; as a result, the data could reflect that the population in this example is being disproportionately over-served. Yet, the goal of the intensive services is to help strengthen maternal and child health of the community and reduce dependency on public child welfare services. The real culprits of disproportionality are 

intentionally under-serving and over-serving without regard to need.


It is also important to note that the absence of disproportionality (in other words children represented in proportionate numbers) does not necessarily mean that disparities are absent. In fact, it is possible to observe proportionate numbers of children in care at various service delivery points while certain groups still face disparate treatment. In a hypothetical situation, African American children could represent 15% of the population of a county, and 15% of admissions 

to the county’s public child welfare system.Yet, they could face disparities by receiving fewer visits from social workers or home visits compared to their counterparts from other racial and ethnic groups once in care. Consequently, the 

disparity in social worker or home visits in this situation would very easily make it difficult for these children to make a timely exit out of the system. In fact, the disparity would likely cause these children a longer stay in out-of-home placement than other racial groups. Or, a hypothetical county that had high rates of older white youth entering care could also have high rates of African American infants entering care—these numbers could be offsetting and, if disproportionality was used as a signal that there was a need to change the service mixture, it would not show that both of these groups needed more attention. As a result, it is important for agencies to continuously look at their data to understand the full experiences of children, youth and families who become involved in the system to help families achieve positive outcomes.


Disproportionality indicates that an issue of unfair or biased public child welfare services may exist – but it is not proof that one exists. Disproportionality that remains, even after differences in need are well matched and addressed by services, may be desirable. The disproportionate service provision should not be withheld. Instead, the search may be better 

focused on whether earlier disparate treatment or social conditions created the differences in need.


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