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Racism at the root of racial imbalance in child welfare



If child welfare systems removed 1 in 10 white children from their families as they have in some Black and Native American neighborhoods, "they would shut down the system," says Dorothy Roberts, author of "Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare."


"There is no way that the proportions of Black and Native American children in foster care would ever happen to white children," the author and professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law and Institute for Policy Research in Evanston, Ill., told about 100 people in Portland on June 21. Drawing from numerous studies and researchers' conclusions, Roberts made the case that the removal of children of color from their families is firmly rooted in racism that affects decisions made at each step in the child welfare process.


Roberts was the keynote speaker at the day-long conference "Understanding Racial Disproportionality and Racial Disparities in the 21st Century." The conference, aimed at child welfare policy makers and practitioners, was part of Oregon's overall efforts to safely and equitably reduce the number of children in foster care. It was sponsored by Portland General Electric, the Oregon Department of Human Services, Oregon Commission on Children and Families, Casey Family Programs, Black Parent Initiative and the Governor's Child Welfare Equity Taskforce.


Roberts noted that children of color made up 31 percent of the nation's population of children in 2000 but accounted for 59 percent of the children in foster care and 61 percent of the children waiting for adoption.


Those numbers become even starker when broken down by race to demonstrate the disproportionality between children of color and White children. Of 1,000 foster children across the United States, 21 are Black, 16 are Native American, 7 are Hispanic and 5 are White. That means, Roberts says, that Black children are four times more likely as White children to be in foster care. Roberts cautioned that the numbers can vary city by city. In San Francisco, for example, of 1,000 children in foster care, 130 are Native American and 110 are Black, compared with 6 White children. That means Native Americans are 22 times more likely and Blacks are 19 times more likely to be in foster care than whites in San Francisco.


Further, national statistics show that 54 percent of all children are eventually reunited with a parent, but only 46 percent of Black children are reunited with their parents.


When examining decisions and outcomes throughout the child welfare system, Roberts says you can make a good case that Black children fared worse than others. For example, suspected abuse of African American children is reported more often, charges are more likely to be substantiated, Black children are less likely to receive mental health services in foster care, they have fewer visits with parents and siblings, their families receive fewer services, families have fewer contacts with caseworkers and parents' rights are more likely to be terminated.


Still, Roberts says, the debate often swirls around whether the causes are inside or outside the child welfare system. Her conclusion: It's both. Race interacts with other predictors, such as substance abuse, to influence outcomes, and there is a cumulative effect, with disproportionality increasing at each decision point as children move through the system.


Roberts cited statistics on reporting of suspected child abuse to demonstrate the racism that sets child welfare system into motion. A 1999 study, for example, showed that doctors failed to detect abusive head trauma 2 times more often in white children as in minority children. Black and Hispanic children hospitalized for fractures from 1994 to 2000 were 5 times more likely to be evaluated for child abuse and 3 times more likely to be reported than whites, according to a 2002 study. And, finally, a 1990 study showed that Black women were 10 times more likely to be reported by doctors for substance abuse during pregnancy than whites.


"Even when families have the same characteristics and problems, African American children are more likely to be taken out of the home, and Hispanics, to a lesser extent, are more likely than whites to be placed in foster care," according to a 1997 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study.


A Center for Study of Social Policy study found that African American families do not receive the necessary support, the system does not fairly assess or appreciate their unique strengths and weaknesses, African American families and youth are negatively characterized or labeled by workers, there is insufficient advocacy for families and children and there are no mechanisms to hold agencies accountable. Finally, the center concluded, people think that African American children are better off away from their families and communities.


It is also clear, Roberts says, that Black children benefit from needed child welfare services. But, she asks: "Why does foster care have to be the No. 1 response that we spend so much money on as opposed to less disruptive ways of dealing with children's needs?"


She noted a class action suit, Nicholson v. Scoppetta in New York City, which was brought on behalf of women whose children were taken away because the women were victims of domestic violence. In one case, the children were not in the home when an out-of-town boyfriend beat the woman. From the hospital the woman arranged for her children to be cared for safely, but they were still taken into foster care. The New York Supreme Court found in favor of the women in 2004 and concluded:


"They (the children) are continually forcibly removed from their abused mothers without a court adjudication and placed in forced state custody in either state or privately run institutions for long periods of time. They are disciplined by those not their parents. This is a form of slavery."


Roberts has studied what she calls the "racial geography" of child welfare after noting that the system's involvement with families is concentrated in poor communities of color. In some African American and Native American neighborhoods, 1 in 10 children are in foster care.


She interviewed 25 women, ages 24-56, in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood, a poor, African American community where child welfare is intensely involved. All but one of the women was aware of the involvement. The women reported the presence of child welfare interfered with parental authority, created family conflict over child placement, damaged children's ability to form relationships, and created distrust among neighbors.


Still, the women thought that the child welfare system should be more involved in the neighborhood because of the financial support it provided for the families, particularly through foster care payments to family members caring for the children. That situation, says Roberts, creates significant questions about why the child welfare support if provided only after the bond between parent and child is broken. The women told her they couldn't call child welfare to request counseling or other forms of help because they only saw the agency taking children away.


Why must a parent lose a child for the state to step in and provide needed services? Roberts asks. "What would be wrong with just providing the services these families need? Why does it have to hinge on abuse and neglect?"


So what are some practices and policies that can reduce disproportionality? Roberts argues that because disproportionality creates community wide harm, it's important to focus on community solutions. Roberts' suggested solutions include more support for families to avoid involvement, advocacy for families, parent education and neighborhood-building.


At the system level, Roberts says direction must come from the top but no single solution will solve the problem, multiple efforts must be made at various levels, including community engagement. The system must translate racial equity philosophy into policies and practices, Roberts says. She uses the example of differential responses: "Every child doesn't have to go into foster care. That can be reserved for the most serious cases, and we come up with creative ways to keep children in their homes."


For social workers, Roberts prefers what she terms "cultural humility" rather than "cultural competence," which suggests that people learn the culture but continue doing what they are doing. Instead, Roberts advocates for a change in attitude. "Let's be humble and appreciate that people in various cultures know how to take care of their kids, but they may be having difficulty because of material circumstances they're in."


She called upon each member of the audience to consider what practices can reduce disproportionality, identify barriers and determine how those barriers can be removed. And, finally, she asked: "What can we each commit to do, right now, to help increase equity in the child welfare system?"


Harold E. Briggs, professor at Portland State University's Graduate School of Social Work, set the stage for Roberts' comments about racial geography, noting that where you live determines where you attend school. "Where you attend school determines the extent to which you are prepared for college, entrepreneurship, employment - or the underclass. Let's be very clear that if the school's capacity does not prepare you to be able to enter the labor market or attend college, you lose the opportunity to obtain the type of employment that will provide health insurance, which then will protect you from health disparities."


Further, Briggs noted that according the census tract information for Portland, the wealthiest 20 percent of Whites live among other wealthy Whites. By contrast the wealthiest 20 percent of African Americans live among the 20 percent of poorest African Americans.


The program also included the film "Donald L. Hollowell, JD Foot Soldier for Equal Justice," which traced the Civil Rights Movement through the life of NAACP lawyer Hollowell and provided historical context for the day's discussions. PassinArt, a Portland African American theater company, staged a dramatic reading of the discussion-provoking "Bourbon at the Border," the story of a couple struggling with the traumatic and lasting effects of attacks that occurred while registering Black voters in Mississippi.