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02/11/2021 Reducing racial disparities in child welfare

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Amid our country’s renewed reckoning with its racist history, there’s been a lot of talk about the need to fix systemic racism. After signing his Jan. 26 executive order on racial equity, President Joe Biden said, “we face deep racial inequities in America” and “systemic racism that has plagued our nation for far, far too long.”

In talking about systemic racism, Biden was referring to ongoing racial inequities maintained by society that disadvantage Black people and other people of color while favoring white people. One example would be racially explicit housing policies designed to segregate people by race and which were put in place and enforced by local, state, and federal governments beginning in the early 1900s. One of the most damaging and far reaching practices of these public policies was the overt denial of mortgages on the basis of race and ethnicity by the Federal Housing Administration. Racist housing policies continue today, though they are less overt. But they are why approximately 30 percent of homes foreclosed on during the Great Recession affected Black and Hispanic families as compared with approximately 11 percent of white families.   

These policies did not just block access to one of the surest ways to build wealth in America—home ownership—but also condemned the vast majority of Black Americans to living in crowded, substandard housing concentrated in urban neighborhoods with reduced access to quality schools, clean air, outdoor play, and even grocery stores stocked with nutritious food. These policies gave white Americans an unfair advantage in securing mortgages, purchasing homes, and building wealth for future generations, and they underpin today’s staggering racial wealth gap in which the median wealth of a white family in the United States is over $134,000 as compared with just over $11,000 for Black families. 

Numerous other examples of systemic racism abound. What makes such racism so pernicious is that these policies and practices are typically so embedded in the day to day operations of government agencies, schools, and businesses that the individuals affected by them are often unaware that they are being penalized—or favored—on the basis of their race. 

We see this dynamic play out in all aspects of the child welfare system, and it’s why HopeWell explicitly identifies racism as the key driver of racial disparities in outcomes among foster youth. 

A 2017 study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect investigations in the U.S. found that Black parents and guardians were nearly twice as likely to be investigated for alleged child maltreatment than white parents and guardians. 

Here in Massachusetts, Black children are 2.5 times more likely than white peers to be involved with the MA Department of Children and Families (DCF) according to DCF’s most recent annual report. The disparity is worse for Hispanic children at 2.9 percent. 

These disparities also exist in MA for out-of-home placements, including foster care: Black children are 2.5 times more likely and Hispanic children are 2.6 times more likely than their white counterparts to be removed from their homes. 

DCF states in its annual report that in FY2021, it is “mobilizing specific initiatives to address the disparities in child welfare in Massachusetts while paying close attention to racial equity work in child welfare agencies nationwide. Initially, the Department will look closely at available data and address workforce, policy, and program strategies to promote equitable outcomes for children and families.” 

As for reducing racial disparities in out-of-home placements, a study done in Nassau County, NY, points the way to a simple solution: race-blind decision-making about removing children from their homes. 

When Nassau County Department of Social Services officials began determining out-of-home placements without knowing a family’s race or ethnicity, names or addresses (which can provide clues about race/ethnicity), they saw a dramatic drop in the number of black children who were removed from their homes due to substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect. Decisions about whether to remove a child from a home or provide in-home services to help stabilize the family were instead made solely on the basis of information about current allegations, past allegations, and risk factors like mental health, substance abuse, parental stressors, and the number of children in the family. 

In 2011, 57 percent of the children placed in foster care by the agency were Black—even though Black people accounted for only about 13 percent of the county’s overall population. Five years later, thanks to race-blind removals, just 21 percent of children removed from their homes were Black—which evidenced the continued existence of racial disparities, but also demonstrated a significant improvement. 

The experiment was eye-opening for Nassau County social services officials as it forced them to confront their own racial biases, however well-intentioned they are about protecting children. One agency administrator told researchers that race-blind decision-making has brought objectivity to what traditionally has been a subjective task: 

“This particular field is very, very subjective because it’s a very emotional field. There’s no one that doesn’t have emotions around child welfare,” said the administrator. “And it’s very hard to leave all your stuff at the door when you do this work. And I don’t know that everyone is very good at it.” 

Another agency staffer acknowledged how preconceived notions about where someone lives could affect decisions about foster care placement: “Once you hear certain towns, right away, automatically you think the worst of that particular community,” the person said. “And it’s probably about six towns that I can think off the top of my head that they think is like, ‘Oh my God.’ So I think that the name and the address have a lot, and also the next part of it is the presentation of the [case]worker.” 

Sometimes the most effective solutions to problems are the most obvious. Race-blind foster care placement evaluations would be a good example. The practice will not fully eliminate racial disparities. But there is little doubt they can be a powerful tool in creating a more equitable child welfare system that responds appropriately and effectively to the needs of the children and families it serves. 

This detailed article by The Imprint is a great place to read more about the Nassau County study, the history of race-blind practices, and the political roadblocks to their wider use.

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