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Black children are involved in Colorado’s child welfare system at rates far higher than all other kids, a disparity that has state officials reexamining decades-old policies that have contributed to racial bias. 

The overrepresentation exists in all levels of the child protection system — from the number of calls to the statewide child abuse hotline to the number of Black teens who emancipate from foster care without ever returning to their families or being adopted. Black teens were more than three times as likely as kids of other races to age out of foster care in 2020, according to data provided to The Colorado Sun by the state division of child welfare. 

Racial inequities in Colorado and child welfare systems across the nation are receiving fresh scrutiny in the continuing fallout from the murder of George Floyd, a Black man whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police led to a national reckoning over racial bias in law enforcement, education and beyond. In Colorado, Hispanic children are also more likely than white children to become the subject of a substantiated abuse or neglect case, yet the disproportionate number of Black children is far more acute. 

“At every stage, we see a higher rate of involvement,” said Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the state Office of Children, Youth and Families, within the state Department of Human Services. “When you see it graphically represented, it’s shocking.” 

For Black children, the disparities grow deeper with each layer of the child welfare system. They are more likely than other children to be the subject of calls to the child abuse and neglect hotline. County child protection caseworkers are more likely to determine that reports about Black children require further investigation and to find that abuse or neglect occurred. And Black children are also more likely to leave their parents and go to foster families or residential placements. 

Black children are the focus of calls to the child abuse hotline 1.27 times more than their percentage of the population in Colorado. White kids, meanwhile, are underrepresented in hotline calls compared to their portion of the state population, at a rate of 0.64. A value of 1 would mean that the number of hotline calls per race was equal to the percentage of their population in Colorado.

The inequality is the worst when examining the rates of children who age out of foster care, beginning at age 16, without a family. Black teens are overrepresented in this category by almost three and half times.

State officials now are in talks about how to tackle racial bias at the system’s entry point, the child abuse hotline. 

Each call that comes into the hotline is recorded and the information provided by a caller is entered into the state database for all child welfare cases, documentation that follows a child throughout their time in the system. This includes information about race. If a caller says they are reporting a concern about a “Mexican family down the street” or the “African American family on my block,” that information goes into the database and is seen by small groups of caseworkers who determine whether the call warrants further investigation. 

A child’s neighborhood is also documented, and so is the fact that their family speaks another language, if that information is provided by the caller. “The neighborhood and the community are also collected,” Castillo Cohen said. “Sometimes there are biases that could come up.”

County officials determining whether to send a caseworker to check on a child are not supposed to use race or language information when making their decision, but racial bias exists, she said. 

Also, it’s possible the information is wrong, since it originated from a caller and not the family that was the subject of the call, she said. The state is considering a change in policy, or perhaps in law, that would prohibit racial information from entering the database until after counties decide whether to investigate the report and after asking the family involved how they identify, Castillo Cohen said. This also would affect references by a hotline caller about LGBTQ identity.

While discussions are ongoing, state officials are considering a policy that would allow only language information offered during a hotline call to enter the database. That’s because counties would need to know whether to send a Spanish-speaking caseworker or hire an interpreter when conducting an investigation into the family. 

The state child welfare division also is putting more effort into keeping children, especially Black and brown children, connected to their biological families even when an abuse or neglect case is substantiated. This would decrease the number of young people who emancipate from child welfare and start life on their own, Castillo Cohen said. 

Child welfare workers across the state recently attended a training about how best to locate relatives or at least trusted adults for children who can no longer live with their parents. The training, provided by a contractor called Kinnect Ohio, included a session about how to ask kid-friendly questions that would lead to relatives and family friends — “If you won the lottery, who are five people that you would give some of the money to?” And “If you won a huge award, who are the people you would invite to watch the ceremony?”

Colorado officials also are considering making it easier for relatives to become certified as foster parents so they receive financial support when they take in grandchildren, nieces or nephews, or other relatives. Under current law, they must go through the same, exhaustive certification process required of all foster families. Without the certification, there is no stipend. Other states have revamped their process, and in Oklahoma, a recent policy change made it so that if grandma, or any relative, is determined good enough by caseworkers to have custody, she is also good enough to receive a stipend. 

Child welfare officials in Colorado aren’t going that route, at least not yet. “I can’t say we would eliminate the certification process. We need that right balance of safety,” Castillo Cohen said. 

But the topic is among those up for discussion for a newly formed group of experts — including eight people who have either been in the child welfare system as children or who have been foster parents or the subject of abuse or neglect calls — who are brainstorming about how to remove racial bias from the system. 

In a New York Times editorial published last month, foster care advocate Sixto Cancel wrote that he did not learn until after he emancipated from foster care — after a childhood of couch surfing and painful foster placements — that he had many aunts and uncles, including some who had been foster parents. None had ever been identified by his caseworkers while he was in the system.  

Disparity in child welfare leads to disparity in juvenile detention

Similar to the child welfare system, racial disparities persist in the youth corrections system.

In Colorado, the rate of Black kids and teens placed in the juvenile detention system is 557 per 100,000. That compares to 160 Hispanic youth and 76 per 100,000 white children, according to data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  

Overrepresentation in child welfare contributes to overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system because one can lead to the other, said Marina Nitze, a Seattle-based public interest technology fellow for the New America think tank.

Children placed in foster families and residential centers are more likely to get involved with law enforcement, in some cases, because their foster parents or residential centers call the police on them, Nitze said. That’s one of the reasons that states should improve efforts to find “kinship” placements, she said. 

“You have to place them with an adult they already know and trust. Grandma. Mom’s best friend,” she said. “Grandma is not going to call the cops on you if you push your sibling or you yell at breakfast. This is something that most states suck at.” 

In cases in which abuse or neglect is substantiated by caseworkers, states need to do a better job finding relatives, Nitze said. In San Jose, California, caseworkers draw a heart with two lines in the center and ask kids, “Who is in your heart?” One child listed his grandmother’s dog, so authorities set up regular visits with the dog. Some states are using a family-friend tree that requires 80 names, allowing kids to list friends, neighbors and relatives they might not have even met. Rhode Island decreased the number of kids going to residential care by about two-thirds by using the extensive family tree, Nitze said.

At a basic level, the nation’s child welfare system is biased against poor children, she said. Children growing up in low-income families, for one thing, come in contact more often with mandatory reporters — people including doctors, welfare workers and government employees who are required to report suspected abuse or neglect. Also, low-income, working parents are more likely to struggle to find affordable child care and, as a result, leave kids home alone to go to work or job interviews, or perhaps take them to the local food stamp office instead of to school because they can’t pick them up in time, Nitze said. 

“That is fundamentally poverty and not child abuse,” she said “Neglect is code for ‘they come from a poor family.” 

And once children have had contact with the child protection system, the biases continue at every level, Nitze said. “If someone shows up at my house, they will find something,” she said. “If they show up at your house, they will find something. That is the lens that they are looking at things through.”

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...