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The Institutional Analysis: A Tool for Diagnosing Structural Contributors to Racial Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare

Part of the Child Maltreatment book series (MALT,volume 11)


Similar to what families of color experience in the society at large, families of color—particularly American Indian, Alaskan Native, African American, and Latinx families—have experiences with child welfare systems that are negative. While multiple individual and community factors are at play, the disproportionality and disparities are also produced by how child welfare systems function to meet the needs of families. This chapter describes an ethnographic methodology, known as the Institutional Analysis (IA). The IA examines how the design and features of child welfare systems fail to achieve positive results for families.

The IA identifies organizational structures such as policies, administrative requirements and job descriptions that may contribute to or produce the poor outcomes and assumes that invisible patterns of structural and institutional racism that exist in the United States society at large are also present in child welfare institutional practice. Findings from an IA conducted in any system can help frame and catalyze reform efforts to address the less visible patterns by revealing causes of structural racism and identifying practical strategies institutions can employ to address inequities. This chapter describes the IA framework, methodology, and its application in child welfare and highlights findings that have been similar across multiple jurisdictions where it has been applied and efforts taken as a result of the IA to improve the experiences of families.


  • Racial disproportionality
  • Racial disparity
  • Structural racism
  • Institutional racism
  • Institutional ethnography

Real and equitable progress… requires exceptional attention to the detailed and often mundane work of noticing and acting on much that is implicit and invisible to many.

John Kania, Mark Kramer, Peter Senge. The Water of Systems Change.

The authors wish to acknowledge the contributions of Gayle Samuels and E Feinman.

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  1. 1.

    Child welfare institutions include the public child welfare agency, the courts, child and parent legal representation, service providers, and other actors who influence child welfare operations such as court-appointed monitors. Throughout this chapter we use the terms “institution” and “systems” interchangeably.

  2. 2.

    Institutional Ethnography (IE) is an approach to empirical inquiry associated with the prominent Canadian social theorist Dorothy E. Smith. Combining theory and method, IE emphasizes connections among the sites and situations of everyday life, professional practice, and policy making. Retrieved from:

  3. 3.

    Names and some nonessential details have been altered to ensure confidentiality.

  4. 4.

    In an IA, the study team members are referred to as “investigators” as they are investigating the source of the problem that has been identified as the focus of inquiry.

  5. 5.

    The examples of forced separation of families of color and poor families are numerous. A few well-known and very harsh examples include historic government policies facilitating the separation of Black families through enslavement and American Indian families through Indian Boarding Schools. More current examples include the separation of immigrant families at the U.S. border. For more detailed analysis, see Minoff, E. “Entangled Roots: The Role of Race in Policies that Separate Families.” Center for the Study of Social Policy, October 2018. Available at:

  6. 6.

    Foster-Fishman, P. G., & Nowell, B., & Yang, H. (2007). Putting Systems Back into Systems Change: a framework for understanding and changing organizational and community systems. American Journal of Community Psychology, 39:197–215. See also, Kania, J., Kramer, M. & Senge, P. (2018) The Water of Systems Change, FSG available at

  7. 7.

    For more complete descriptions of the problematic features, see Pence, Ellen, PhD, (In)visible Workings: A change agent’s guide to closing the gap between what people need and what legal and social institutions do. Praxis International, Inc., St. Paul, MN (2009).

  8. 8.

    Such an example might lead to an exploration of why an individual practitioner’s mistake goes unchecked in the system, thus uplifting the question of how people in the system are held accountable to a standard of practice.

  9. 9.

    Epstein, R., Jamilia, B.J., González, T. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” Center on Poverty and Inequality Georgetown Law, June 2017. Available at:

  10. 10.

    See: Center for the Study of Social Policy. “Race Equity Review: Findings from a Qualitative Analysis of Racial Disproportionality and Disparity for African American Children and Families in Michigan’s Child Welfare System.” Center for the Study of Social Policy, January 2009; McCarthy, K. “One Fairfax: A Brief History of a County-Wide Plan to Advance Equity and Opportunity.” Center for the Study of Social Policy, December 2018. Available at:; Morrison, S. and Weber, K. “Creating a Climate for Successful Child Welfare Practice: Findings and considerations from an Institutional Analysis.” Center for the Study of Social Policy, September 2012; Raimon, M.L., Samuels, G., Bettencourt, B., and Weber, K. “Linn County, Iowa Institutional Analysis Report.” Center for the Study of Social Policy, August 2011; Weber, K., Morrison, S., Navarro, S., Spigner, C., and Pence, E. “Positive Outcomes for All: Using an Institutional Analysis to Identify and Address African American Children’s Low Reunification Rates and Long-Term Stays in Fresno County’s Foster Care System.” Center for the Study of Social Policy, October 2010.

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Weber, K., Morrison, S. (2021). The Institutional Analysis: A Tool for Diagnosing Structural Contributors to Racial Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare. In: Dettlaff, A.J. (eds) Racial Disproportionality and Disparities in the Child Welfare System. Child Maltreatment, vol 11. Springer, Cham.

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