Date of Award

Spring 2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Public Service

Committee Director

Berhanu Mengistu

Committee Member

William M. Leavitt

Committee Member

Thomas E. Chapman

Committee Member

Michael L. Clemons

Committee Member

Mohamad G. Alkadry


This study seeks to provide a structural explanation for a poorly understood administrative and policy phenomenon: the problem of minority overrepresentation or disproportionality in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Disproportionality is a pressing policy and practice concern regarding how to halt the continual over representation of African American and other minority youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. It has social and policy implications at the national, state and local level. Disporportionality affects the lives of youth who are unnecessarily removed from their families or adjudicated and detained as well as state and local budgets when scarce financial resources are spent in costly interventions like detention, juvenile correctional facilities, residential treatment and foster care.

A qualitative comparative, explanatory case study methodology treated front line bureaucrats as experts about what transpires within the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and essentially asked those making decisions “what do you think is going on?”. Thirty-six people were interviewed in two localities regarding the role of professional decision making in generating or maintaining policies and procedures that affect disproportionality. Disproportionality in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems in these localities was explored with the goal that the collective insight of these decision makers might result in a greater understanding and explanation of the structural causes of the problem. Participants identified that professional bias is a significant factor affecting assessment at every decision point in the system. Although these findings are case specific and cannot be generalized they add to the literature by providing insights that are transferable about how race is a factor in public administration decision making. The study has implications for policy makers who may need to consider the structural nature and insidiousness of such differential decision making prior to implementing further policies. It also suggests that the colorblind civility engaged in by many public administrators since the post-civil rights era, is a form of collective, public collusion that denies the existence of deeply held racial biases and the reality of institutionalized inequities and injustices.