Child Welfare’s Race Conversation

Bobo: Staff decisions are affected by “attitudes and biases that may be shaped by our class experiences.”

Washington—Weeks before Barack Obama was forced to start a national conversation about America’s racial divide, some prominent thinkers were holding public conversations here about that very issue in child welfare.

Obama could only be envious that the impetus for these conversations came from researchers rather than a pastor. The basic data point is this: While African-Americans make up 15 percent of the nation’s children, they account for 45 percent of children in foster care.

Racial disparity in public systems that serve youth – especially in out-of-home care – has long been an issue of concern. Juvenile justice systems have been trying for years to reduce disproportionate minority contact, with modest success.

Over the past few years, the issue has gotten more and more attention in child welfare. In January, a panel discussion titled “Racial Disparity in the Child Welfare System” drew a wall-to-wall crowd of more than 100 to the Urban Institute, plus several hundred on a simultaneous webcast. The event was co-sponsored by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.

“It has taken us a very long time to even look at this issue,” said panelist Sharlynn E. Bobo, director of Washington, D.C.’s, Child and Family Service Agency. Her agency did so, she conceded, because of prompting by judges.

She and others stressed that the dilemma isn’t just a matter of black and white.

Roots of the Divide

The racial disparities are determined by “attributes of place and attributes of children,” said Fred Wulczyn, a Chapin Hall researcher on the Urban Institute panel.

African-American babies, he said, are referred to child welfare systems at a rate three times that of white babies. For black adolescents, the rate is more than two times that of whites.

Another Urban Institute researcher, Marla McDaniel, noted that external systems often “choose” which kids get referred to child welfare. A discussion paper she co-wrote in 2007 – “Racial Disparities and the New Federalism” – explained how decisions made in the education and health systems can result in racial and ethnic disparities that lead to even more disparate treatment in other systems.

For instance, the paper said, in 2002 middle-income African-American youth were more likely than whites to have ever been suspended or expelled from school, exacerbating disparities in educational achievement. Because of racial disparities in health care, many minority children get medical care later than they should, and they get it more often in emergency rooms rather than doctor’s offices.

These factors are important, McDaniel said, because “external systems are the eyes and ears of the child welfare system,” accounting for 44 percent of reports to that system. “Disparities in multiple systems may have implications for disparities in the child welfare system.”

Wulczyn’s recent report further underscores the need for a more intricate understanding of the data behind disparities, and the possible remedies. In his 2007 study on foster care admissions, Wulczyn speculated that parental substance abuse could be a key factor for the high rates of minority infant admissions into child welfare. He said more drug treatment and prenatal care could help reduce admission disparities.

In urban areas with high concentrations of minority youth – where efforts have been made to limit minority foster care placements – disparities have been reduced, Wulczyn found. But in non-urban areas, racial and ethnic disparities in adolescent foster-care placements are growing at a faster rate. “So we need to focus geographically on the situation,” Wulczyn said.

Focus on Staff

Urban Institute panelist Tula Lacy, director of family team conferencing at the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, said the city sought to get a handle on child welfare system disparities in 2006 by forming a Task Force on Racial Equity and Cultural Competence. The task force, which Lacy co-chairs, focuses on awareness, collaboration and knowledge; data collection; and front-line practices.

Lacy noted one likely factor behind the disparity problem: The percentage of staff and administrators of child welfare systems that are African-American is usually not nearly as large as that of the families they come in contact with. The task force tries to elevate more African-Americans to higher agency positions, Lacy said, hoping that the “leadership mirrors the picture of the children in care.”

The task force also pushes administrators to “dig deeper into the data” on the system’s treatment of other minority children, including Latinos and Asians, Lacy said.

But the staff/family divide goes beyond race. The cultural competence of staffers – their ability to understand the milieu of the clients being served along race, ethnic and class lines – is cited as a major factor in systemic decision-making.

In Washington, Bobo told the Urban Institute audience, “the majority of the staff are quite middle class,” but they serve an overwhelmingly poor client base. “I think class is operating in this” situation, through the “attitudes and biases that may be shaped by our class experiences.”

Wulczyn agreed that placement decisions are “multi-dimensional.” He noted that in areas with large concentrations of single parents with low education levels, “be they black or be they white, you tend to have higher placement rates.”

Adding to the complexity is that poor families often cannot get adequate social services, which makes them more likely to live in conditions that seem neglectful. “If a worker decides they’d like to serve a family with in-home services, but those services don’t exist, it’s not a practice issue, it’s a supply and a policy issue,” Wulczyn said. Child welfare workers can’t be blamed for failing to act in culturally competent ways “if we’re not willing to provide the supply of alternative resources” to help families better care for their children, he said.

That, said Lacy, is why the New York task force uses “family team conferencing,” which brings parents together with service providers to share ideas and improve outcomes for families.

Finding Change

At another symposium – “The Overrepresentation of Children of Color in America’s Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems” – everyone seemed to agree on a point made by Chapin Hall Research Fellow Jeffrey Butts: When it comes to addressing the racial imbalance, there is a “misguided reliance” on changing youth, but not the adults who work with them.

“If you are only working with youth, you are not going to change a thing,” Butts said in a panel discussion at the event, held in March at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and co-sponsored by Chapin Hall.

The symposium included discussion of promising practices at the Texas Department of Family Services. Among other strategies, the department assigns Child Protective Services (CPS) staffers to work with Project HOPE (Helping Our People Excel), a collaboration that links families under CPS supervision with additional support services. These include family strengthening services and providing a disproportionality specialist for certain cases, Daphne Casses, the CPS coordinator for Project HOPE, said via e-mail. The services also include staff cultural competency training.

Texas is among the states participating in the “Breakthrough Series Collaborative on Disproportionality,” launched in 2006 by Casey Family Programs and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The goal, Casses said, “is to educate the community, especially those institutions where these disparities manifest themselves.”

John Kelly and Patrick Boyle contributed to this report.


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