Black children and the feminization of child welfare: A historical perspective

Daphne Stephenson-Valcourt, Fordham University


The over-representation of Black children in the child welfare system today is paradoxical and a startling shift from past practices of exclusion and under-representation. This study seeks to discover how a child welfare system that was designed to serve mainly orphaned and abandoned poor White children changed over time to serve mainly poor Black children, given that there are more poor White children than there are Black and there are no significant differences in the rates at which they are abused or neglected. The study analyses systems response to the service needs of poor children over the past 150 years and discloses decades of neglect in the service needs of Black women and children by social reformers. The study proposes that the perception of Blacks as less than human, unequal and less moral has served to exclude Black children from the mainstream of the US child welfare system. The study illustrates that in the past 20 years, especially in New York, litigation has been the driving force behind systemic change, but that change has not come without a price. Entrenched attitudes about the worthy and unworthy poor and the moral worth of the individual have led to a punitive attitude towards poor Black women and children and have greatly influenced the manner in which services are delivered. To support this argument, the study examines from a systemic and historical perspective, against the backdrop of social inequality, the moral worth of the individual and the feminization of poverty, structural forces, and social reform initiatives. Also examined is how the interplay of these factors explains the increase of Black children in the child welfare system and the decrease of White children. The study sums up with implications for policy and practice and indicators for system reform.

Subject Area

Social work|Welfare|Black history

Recommended Citation

Stephenson-Valcourt, Daphne, "Black children and the feminization of child welfare: A historical perspective" (2003). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3111515.