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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Kentucky Researcher Examines Factors Associated with Child Custody Loss Among African American Mothers

Dr. Kathi L. H. Harp, assistant professor in the department of health management and policy at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health, published the paper “Factors associated with two types of child custody loss among a sample of African American mothers: A novel approach” in the journal Social Science Research.

[Photo: Dr. Kathi L. H. Harp]

African American families are overrepresented in the Child Welfare System (CWS); however, extant research on this phenomenon has focused mostly on Caucasian or mixed-race samples and has not examined informal custody arrangements alongside official child custody loss. Dr. Harp’s research addresses these gaps in the literature by examining factors associated with both official and informal child custody loss among a sample of African American mothers.

This is the first known study to examine unique correlates of two different types of custody loss, and is especially innovative in its examination of African American mothers who set up informal custody arrangements with their family/friends outside of the CWS. Results of the multinomial logistic regression showed that while a history of adulthood incarceration increased the odds of both custody events, there were unique relationships as well. Namely, more childhood victimization increased the odds of informal loss, while being older, having been homeless, having more children, crack/cocaine use, more support from family, and being lesbian or bisexual increased the log odds of official loss. Additionally, more perceived social support from friends decreased the odds of official loss.

These findings suggest the mechanisms that protect against child custody loss may vary based on the type of loss being studied. Mothers experiencing either type of loss are in need of socioeconomic resources to reduce the frequency of homelessness and improve a mother’s ability to financially provide for her children.

Because of the small sample size and limitations of this research, researchers note that future efforts should be made to examine predictors of different custody loss events with a much larger, probability based sample of demographically similar women. Interventions aimed at improving reunification rates among African American mothers and their children involved in informal custody arrangements should focus on ensuring that those providing care for a mother’s children do not have a history of abusing others; while interventions aimed at mothers who have lost official custody should work to provide substance abuse treatment, education, and job skills training to increase their earning potential and protect against homelessness. Continued research is needed to understand why sexual orientation might independently affect official custody loss. And all advocates for family reunification should work towards improving policies that have a disproportionate negative impact on women who are incarcerated. In an overburdened system where African American children have the worst outcomes, priority should be given to intervention strategies aimed at improving parent/child reunification rates, especially within the African American community.