Same situation, different outcomes: Understanding variation in foster child placement among African American families
Henderson, Lilian Daisy
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For several decades researchers have discussed the significance of structural and cultural factors influencing child and family well-being. Factors such as parental attitudes and behaviors, socioeconomic status, household structure, among others, are a large part of understanding family outcomes. These factors have also been found to play a role in the overrepresentation of certain racial and ethnic groups in the child welfare system. In this dissertation, I explore the structural and cultural processes that influence the risk factors which result in the disproportionate placement of racial and ethnic minority children in the child welfare system. These processes have been categorized as the following risk factors: (a) individual and family, (b) community, and (c) systemic or organizational risk. However, researchers have not fully explored these risk factors within the spectrum of a culture-structure nexus; I focus on individual, family, and community risk factors in this research. Culture and social structure are relevant to the debate about disproportionality because national-, state-, and county-level data often reveal that families who are more likely involved in the child welfare system are those living in poverty and/or are of minority status who face many social problems that contribute to their continued disadvantaged position in American society. I focus on black families since research indicates that there is a disproportionate involvement of African American children in foster care compared to their presence in the general population. Using in-depth interviews, ethnographic observations, the comparative case method, and state-level (i.e., New York) data, I investigate the forces that contribute to the high relative rate of removal of biological children from African American homes resulting in out-of-home placement in Erie County, New York. Results suggest that both culture and structure are important in understanding variations in outcomes of the urban poor. Indeed, the problem of the placement of children into foster care have both structural and cultural origins that work in conjunction with each other but structural factors are precursors to cultural ones. Families who experienced placement of their children into foster care exhibited a lack of strong, intimate social networks compared to families who did not experience placement of their children. Moreover, my research indicates that when social relationships and social networks are not robust and fully functioning, disadvantage for parents is often a result. This disadvantage may be in the form of risk factors such as neglect and substance and physical abuse where parenting skills and techniques are not developed, taught, or observed; they may even be totally absent. I also find evidence of the social reproduction of foster care placement from one generation to the next but that the transmission of a certain type of habitus, cultural capital, and agency can help mitigate against this occurrence. In this study, I raise important methodological, theoretical, and policy issues.