Cases of child abuse and neglect that involve black children are reported to and substantiated by public child welfare agencies at a rate approximately twice that of cases that involve white children. A range of studies have been performed to assess the degree to which this racial disproportionality is attributable to racial bias in physicians, nurses, and other professionals mandated to report suspected child victimization. The prevailing current explanation posits that the presence of bias among reporters and within the child welfare system has led to the current large overrepresentation of black children. A competing explanation is that overrepresentation of black children is mainly the consequence of increased exposure to risk factors such as poverty.


We tested the competing models by using data drawn from national child welfare and public health sources. We compared racial disproportionality ratios on rates of victimization from official child welfare organizations to rates of key public health outcomes not subject to the same potential biases (eg, general infant mortality).


We found that racial differences in victimization rate data from the official child welfare system are consistent with known differences for other child outcomes. We also found evidence supporting the presence of cultural protective factors for Hispanic children, termed the “Hispanic paradox.”


Although our findings do not preclude the possibility of racial bias, these findings suggest that racial bias in reporting and in the child welfare system are not large-scale drivers of racial disproportionality. Our data suggest that reduction of black/white racial disproportionality in the child welfare system can best be achieved by a public health approach to reducing underlying risk factors that affect black families.

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