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Black History Month: Advancements in Child Welfare Services and Historical Developments

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

Happy Black History Month! As we strive to improve the foster care system and enhance supportive services for those with lived experience in foster care, we are deeply committed to embracing and honoring the historical figures, struggles, and lessons learned from the past as we pave the way forward.

Federation College (Barrett Learning Center)

In the 1960s, many dependent children of color were placed in adult jails because of racial segregation. To eliminate maltreatment Janie Porter Barrett, Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry, and Carrie Steele worked to create alternative services.

The combined efforts of these 3 incredible women brought about home finding and child placement solutions for Black children and notably contributed to the historical development of social welfare during the period 1886-1939.

These are the stories of the women that shaped the early development of social welfare services for Black youth.

Janie Porter Barrett

Janie Porter Barrett’s edifice for reform began in 1890 at her home in Hampton, Virginia, as the Locust Street Settlement. Barrett’s settlement was founded on the principles of acceptance, purposeful expression of feelings, improving quality of life, democratic social order, justice, fairness, and harmony. Her efforts expanded to The Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls built in 1915 with the help of The Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (National Association of Colored Women’s Club). Barrett’s facility became a model for other states and is still around today, known as the Barrett Learning Center.

Barrett created a growth-promoting atmosphere for young Black girls that expressed a philosophy similar to contemporary social work values.

Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry

During the mid-1930s home finding for dependent children in Kansas City was conducted by the local Community Charities Chest Committee, but only for needy white children. Dependent colored children, ages 12 years and older, were regularly sent to a state delinquency institution until age 17.

Fredericka Perry, the granddaughter of Frederick Douglas, served as a juvenile court worker and was concerned with improving child welfare and reducing delinquency.

With the help of the Kansas City Federation of Colored Women's Club (National Association of Colored Women’s Club), Perry founded the Colored Big Sister Association of Kansas City. The association investigated alternative housing situations for girls to prevent them from being placed in the state institution for delinquents. Perry was superintendent of the residence and, with interracial cooperation, the home operated until 1943.

Carrie Steele

Steele’s contributions to the child welfare system began with her work rescuing children and babies who were abandoned at the railroad station where she served as a terminal maid. She founded an orphan home in 1888 to care for the abandoned. Steele’s efforts on behalf of these children instilled institutional changes in Atlanta, leading to a state-chartered non-profit organization.

Her legacy exists today as the Carrie Steele-Pitts Group Home a private, non-profit organization in Atlanta, Georgia. The agency offers counseling and tutoring to children ages 6-18 years and services to developmentally disabled and sexually aggressive children.

Racial Disparities in The Child Welfare System Today

Statistics show that children of color face disparity and disproportional representation in the child welfare system. While services have improved throughout the years there is still work to be done especially with programs long hindered by socioeconomic barriers and systemic racism.

In Michigan:

  • Children of color are twice as likely to be identified as victims of abuse or neglect and placed in out-of-home care.

  • 31 percent of children in Michigan are children of color, they make up 51 percent of the foster care population.

  • While 16 percent of children in Michigan are Black, children who are Black make up 29 percent of the state’s foster care population.

(Data: Racial Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare, Family and Children Services Organization, 2021.)

Additional learning resources:

Advocacy Agencies:


Peebles-Wilkins, Wilma. “Historical Perspectives on Social Welfare in the Black Community (1886-1939) Based on Updated Accreditation Standards.” HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES ON SOCIAL WELFARE IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY,

“Racial Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare.” Family & Children Services - Racial Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare, FAMILY & CHILDREN SERVICES, June 2021,

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