Perfectly Imperfect: How Imprecise Definitions of Child Neglect and Poverty Reinforce Anti-Black Racism in the Child Welfare System

Sharon L. McDaniel, Sherri Simmons-Horton, Ervin Dyer, Yven Destin, Kathleen L. Gima, Anthony R. Sosso, Jr., Jay Kadash, Med, MA, James T. Freeman, James A. Stratford, Constance Iannetta, Katherine Buckley

Child neglect reports occur at a consistently higher rate than reports of other types of maltreatment. Black children are overrepresented in child neglect reporting and substantiation, which reflect compounded risk factors of poverty and anti-Black institutional bias in child protection systems. This paper will share the lived experiences of and draw from conversations with child welfare workers who are survivors of “neglect.” In addition, it will examine through literature reviews and research the history and biased legacy of child welfare in America, as well as the vast and vague definitions of neglect, which influence an uneven mandatory reporting system. While there is federal legislation providing minimum standards to states on how to define child neglect, these standards are broad and contribute to states’ varying authority in how to make child neglect determinations, thus giving local authorities room for racial subjectivity in child neglect substantiation and removal of Black children.

This paper seeks to identify trends in child neglect legal definitions across the United States and discuss how child neglect laws and language target Black children. Connections to historical anti-Black racism in child neglect are also examined. Additionally included are recommended changes in the language and a challenge to the federal government to more clearly define child neglect, establishing a consistent standard for all states and locales that uphold equitable treatment of Black children in child neglect investigations. 

The child welfare system, in its stated intention of protecting children, has served as a system of surveillance for Black families and has used their experiences with poverty as a weapon in family intrusion, family separation, and exclusion in the provision of resources to alleviate economic disadvantage. This paper will explore the lived experiences of professionals in the field who, as a response to personal exposure to the system’s ills, have dedicated their careers to the service of children
in child welfare. Further, structural racism in the child welfare system manifests through the definition of child neglect, which falls under a broad classification of child maltreatment, labeling poor Black children and families as “at risk.”

Ultimately, Black children and families who the child welfare system engages in due to allegations of neglect suffer harmful outcomes, such as prolonged trauma, oppression, and discrimination. Given the current challenges the child welfare system faces in the engagement of Black children and families, the paper will explore the historical context of race in child welfare, examining both the trends and data on how Black children and families have been engaged in the child welfare system over time. In today’s child welfare system, child neglect is considered a malevolent act by parents and caregivers and is not equally viewed for all, which disproportionately impacts Black Families. It disregards the reality that many Black families in the United States lack the support required to provide for basic needs like food, safety, and nurturance of children.

Dismissing the link between poverty and neglect for Black families places the blame squarely on Black parents and discounts the historical legacy of systemic racism, legal neglect’s vague classifications, and the patterns of surveillance of Black families once they are targeted by the system—all of which have produced lingering traumatic impacts on children, which the system professes to protect.1 If the child welfare system is dedicated to the well-being of children, it must start by engaging Black children with lived experiences in the child welfare system and using their stories to decolonize and redefine
child neglect. This paper will demonstrate the link between neglect’s flawed definitions and mandatory reporting’s impact on Black children and families.

1 Roberts, Dorothy. Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. Civitas Books, 2009, p. 26.

You can access this full article in the Spring 2022 Edition of Family Integrity and Justice Quarterly.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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