United States. Children's Bureau.
Chibnall, Susan.;Dutch, Nicole M.;Jones-Harden, Brenda.;Brown, Annie.;Gourdine, Ruby.
This qualitative study represents the field's first attempt to gather systematically the perceptions of child welfare personnel about the issue of racial disproportionality. In many ways, the findings are consistent with the evidence from the extant empirical literature regarding this issue. This study also amplifies and enriches the available evidence, by highlighting the voices of the people who do the work on a daily basis. In this section, we examine the findings from this study in the context of the literature that addresses racial disproportionality in the child welfare system.
5.1 RACIAL DISPROPORTIONALITY IN THE CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM
Across the board, child welfare personnel in all nine sites acknowledged that racial disproportionality existed in their child welfare systems, and offered varying reasons for its existence. In summary, they attributed racial disproportionality to external factors such as poverty and racial discrimination, to community and family characteristics such as the lack of informal and formal supports, and to internal issues such as worker bias.
The evidence from this study linking racial disproportionality to external factors is consonant with much of the literature in this area. For example, numerous studies on child maltreatment find strong associations between child neglect and poverty (Sedlack & Broadhurst, 1996; Eckenrode et al., 1998). One would expect, then, that groups that are more likely to be impoverished, such as African-Americans, also would be more likely to be represented in the child welfare statistics on neglect. In regard to child welfare system involvement, Barth and colleagues (2001) have suggested that the overrepresentation of African-American children may be due to their increased need for child welfare services due to the many poverty-related risk factors that they experience, such as substance abuse, mental health problems, and academic underachievement. Additionally, numerous studies, including this one, have pointed to the resource impoverishment of minority communities to explain their representation in the child welfare system. Frequently, minority communities are devoid of the formal and informal institutions that could respond to the needs of vulnerable families before they enter the system (Wilson, 1987).
Racial discrimination was another factor identified by respondents as contributing to racial disproportionality. The child welfare literature is replete with discussions of how racial discrimination in the larger society has affected African-American and other children of color (e.g. Everett, Chipungu & Leashore, 1993; Pinderhughes, 1991; Gibbs, 1993; Billingsley & Giovannoni, 1972). Although there is currently limited empirical evidence to address the specific effects of racial discrimination in the child welfare system, we can draw from the literature that has documented discriminatory practices in multiple social institutions. Racial disparities in various aspects of health care were a recent topic of a Surgeon General's report (USDHHS, 2001). The discriminatory practices of judges, attorneys and juries have been documented as contributing to the disproportionate representation of African-Americans in the justice system (e.g. Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, 2000).
In multiple sites, and on multiple occasions, child welfare personnel suggested that the over-reporting of minority families to the child welfare system contributed to the overrepresentation of minority children. The existing data addressing this issue are mixed, with some studies documenting differential reporting rates and others not. The perception of many child welfare workers that minority families are more visible to reporters, and therefore are more likely to be reported, has been empirically tested. Extant evidence, refutes the visibility hypothesis, and suggests that there are no differences between reports for minority families in settings where they are more visible versus where they are less visible, with the possible exception of African-American families (Garland et al., 1998). In addition to the visibility hypothesis, respondents in the study pointed to the increased likelihood of minority mothers to be reported because of their prenatal drug use, which is a major risk factor for child welfare involvement. Evidence from studies of prenatal drug exposure suggest that minority mothers are more likely to be tested for drug use than Caucasian mothers (Chasnoff et al., 1990), which could lead to a higher likelihood of referral to the child welfare system.
Particular community and family characteristics also were identified in this study as contributors to racial disproportionality in the child welfare system. Study respondents in many sites discussed the weakening of community institutions, supports, and connections in many areas with large minority populations. Recent sociological and psychological studies of community have pointed to the negative impact of community disorganization on child and family well-being (e.g. Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). Additionally, some scholars have documented severe changes in the infrastructure of African-American communities that may lead to this type of community disintegration. For example, Wilson (1987) has suggested that, with the advent of integration, middle-class African-Americans migrated to other neighborhoods, leaving the socioeconomically disadvantaged members of the community without role models and institutional supports. Interestingly, respondents referred globally to the African-American community as the group of families who were at high-risk, and did not raise the fact that the majority of the African-American population does not live in poverty or in high-risk environments.
Relatedly, many respondents discussed the distinctions between the Hispanic and African-American cultural communities. As was presented in the findings section, the Hispanic community was perceived as being more integrated and having more resources available for its members. Anthropologists and other social scientists have distinguished between voluntary immigrants such as Hispanics and involuntary immigrants such as African-Americans (Ogbu & Simons, 1998; Garcia Coll et al., 1996). It is suggested that minority groups who enter this country voluntarily may be more motivated and skilled, as well as have more cultural connections than African-Americans. However, many scholars argue against such comparative approaches and recommend examining each group's cultural processes individually (e.g. Garcia Coll, et al., 1996). Further, there is no evidence to suggest that Hispanic communities have more resources than African-American communities. In fact, many scholars and practitioners have decried the minimal services available in Hispanic communities, particularly in reference to the lack of institutions that have Spanish-speaking personnel who can work with Hispanic families (Zambrana, 1998; Sue et al., 1990). The perception that Hispanic communities have more resources and are more integrated than are African-American families is interesting, however.
Worker bias was repeatedly identified in the discussions with child welfare workers in this study as one of the reasons for racial disproportionality. The issue of worker bias and discrimination has long been an area of concern in social work practice (Devore & Schlesinger, 1996; Davis & Gelsomino, 1994). Cultural differences between workers and clients have been found to influence worker expectations of clients as well as their service delivery (Fletcher, 1997; Boyd-Franklin, 2003). Reflecting discrimination within the child welfare system, worker bias was perceived by many participants in this study to occur in terms of class and culture. For example, respondents suggested that a Caucasian or a middle class worker might not be aware of the cultural foundations of some modes of corporal punishment. There are data to suggest racial, ethnic and cultural differences in how children are reared in this country. Although the majority of Americans resort to corporal punishment in their disciplinary interactions with children, there are racial and class differences in parenting style as well as in individuals' perceptions of parenting style. For example, poor and minority parents are more likely to use control-oriented forms of discipline than are middle class and Caucasian parents (Steinberg, Dornbusch & Brown, 1992). Some longitudinal research has suggested that this type of parenting style may result in more favorable outcomes for poor and minority children (Deater-Deckard & Dodge, 1997; Steinberg et al., 1992).
The final set of questions for respondents relative to racial disproportionality focused on federal laws and their impact on children of color (e.g. Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, Adoption and Safe Families Act). As the findings section indicates, child welfare personnel varied in their understanding and perceptions of these laws. However, practitioners at all levels had strong opinions about the impact of the specific policies on children of color. MEPA/IEPA was perceived by many child welfare practitioners as benefiting children of color by promoting placements with extended family. The increasing use of kinship placements across the country (AFCARS, 2003) suggests that this perception of child welfare workers was accurate. Despite this perceived benefit, many child welfare practitioners articulated that this policy might have harmful effects on children of color, a position that reflects findings from other studies (e.g. Carter-Black, 2002). A concern raised about MEPA/IEPA was the potential increase in transracial adoption due to the penalties for the use of race as a factor in placement decisions. The data thus far do not support this perception; transracial adoptions have not increased in the years since the implementation of MEPA (Wulczyn, Oberleke & Haight, 2002). It is also important to note that worker concern about transracial adoption seems to stem from their belief that this type of adoption has detrimental effects on children, particularly in the area of racial identity. There is considerable controversy in the literature regarding the impact of transracial placement on the well being of minority children. One set of scholars has documented that tranracially placed children may fare as well as those in same-race placements (e.g. Simon & Alstein, 1992; Brooks, et al., 1999). Others have found a diminished sense of racial identity in children who are transracially adopted, particularly during adolescence, when identity strivings are most salient (e.g. McRoy, 1994; McRoy et al., 1984).
In regard to ASFA, many child welfare practitioners in this study suggested that children of color experienced permanency more often and more expeditiously as a result of this policy. Although the impact of this policy will not be known for some time, current data do suggest that children of all racial and ethnic groups are more likely to receive permanent homes in the post-ASFA era, at least in terms of increased adoptive and permanent relative placements. In contrast, other child welfare practitioners denounced ASFA as inherently unfair to families of color because the time limits were not realistic to support the rehabilitation of parents who had multiple problems, which many minority families were likely to have. The evidence regarding the decrease in successful reunifications post-ASFA is consistent with such a misperception (e.g. Wulczyn, 2003).
Additionally, respondents stressed the challenge of doing concurrent planning, which is mandated by ASFA (i.e. seeking an alternative, permanent home for a child while working towards reunification). Similar ambiguity and difficulty have been reported in other studies of concurrent planning (Katz, 1999). No study to our knowledge has addressed the impact of concurrent planning specifically on children of color. However, extrapolating from the data on kinship care, concurrent planning may be easier with African-American children. First, African-American children are more likely to be in kinship care (Berrick et al., 1997). Kinship placements tend to be stable and provide children with another permanency option (Benedict, Zuravin & Stallings, 1996; Beeman et al., 1996). Additionally, children in kinship care are more likely to have sustained relationships with their biological parents (Chipungu et al., 1998; Benedict et al., 1996). Taken together, these findings suggest that concurrent planning may more naturally occur when children are in the potentially permanent homes of relatives who support their reunification with their biological parents.
5.2 SERVICE DELIVERY STRATEGIES AND CHILDREN OF COLOR
When asked what services would benefit children of color in the child welfare system and address racial disproportionality, respondents offered many suggestions. Preventive intervention was the most common theme. Consistent with the services research literature, child welfare related preventive services were underfunded in the sites included in this study (Bess et al., 2003; Courtney, 1997). Respondents strongly recommended the development of quality, community-based services that address the unique needs of specific cultural groups. The family support literature suggests that such services are more effective for families and children (Kagan & Weissbourd, 1997). In a similar vein, staff identified the need for more and better quality reunification services. Evidence from child welfare services research suggests that African-American families are less likely to receive in-home and reunification services (Landsverk et al., 1996). For families in child welfare, it has been recommended that a targeted approach to service delivery is necessary for prevention and reunification programs, in which services are not universal but are designed to meet the unique needs of families (Littell & Schuerman, 2002).
Various scholars have discussed the importance of building a community infrastructure that is integrally connected to the service sector (Wilson, 1987). Just as the lack of resources was repeatedly identified as a reason for the existence of racial disproportionality, respondents in this study underscored the need for more external and internal resources to support families and children of color, including basic services such as housing and employment. Many studies have documented that families with increased financial and other concrete resources have enhanced psychological functioning (Mistry et al., 2002 & McLoyd, 1998). The need for mental health and drug treatment services for families of color also was emphasized by study participants. Often minority parents are reluctant to utilize such services due to the stigma associated with receiving mental health services and their perception that the staff of these programs lack cultural competence (Garland, Landsverk & Lau, 2003; Boyd-Franklin, 2003). Decreased mental health usage has also been reported for minority foster children when compared to Caucasian children, due to issues related to diagnosis, referral, and accessibility (Garland et al., 2003). Finally, court reform was often cited as an important step toward improving services to children of color. Families of color were perceived as having less knowledge about negotiating the legal system and less access to strong legal representation. There are examples of court reform efforts that have been reported in the literature, although rigorous evaluations of these initiatives have rarely been conducted (Malik et al., 2002), particularly regarding their impact on families of color.
Child welfare personnel participating in this study tended to believe that kinship placements were beneficial for children of color. Other studies of kinship care (e.g. Beeman & Boisen, 1999) have documented positive worker perceptions as well, with some suggestion that workers of color may be more positive than Caucasian workers. Child welfare practitioners in this study advocated for more concrete and psychological resources for kinship caregivers, including board and maintenance payments. Many jurisdictions have experimented with providing concrete and instrumental support to kinship families. For example, evaluation of subsidized guardianship and licensed (i.e. paid) kinship care in Illinois has suggested that such efforts can reduce racial disproportionality (Testa, 2001). Although services for kinship care providers have grown over the past decade, many scholars underscore the need for additional services for this vulnerable population (Ehrle & Geen, 2002; Dubowitz et al., 1994; Chipungu et al., 1998).
Enhancing the staff's capacity to work with families and children of color was also a salient theme, specifically regarding staff diversification and cultural competence. Many practitioners emphasized the pivotal role of culture-specific organizations internal and external to the child welfare system to promote diversity and cultural competence. Although the literature does suggest that the goal of staff diversification is important for effective child welfare programs (English & Brown, 1997), the data on race matching between worker and family are less than compelling. Many scholars suggest that the cultural competence of workers is more influential than their race per se (Fletcher, 1997; Williams, 1997). Cultural competency training and supervision on this issue have both been raised as strategies for enhancing staff's capacity to work with minority families (Zayas et al., 1997; English & Brown, 1997; Jones et al., 1995). A major issue in this area is the capacity of staff to work with the multitude of ethnic and cultural groups that currently characterize the American populace (see U.S. Census Bureau, 2000), and thus are involved in the child welfare system.
On the surface, creating a strong infrastructure in child welfare does not seem to relate to the overrepresentation of African-American children. However, this strategy was described by a number of administrators as part of their effort to enhance service delivery to children of color, and perhaps reduce racial disproportionality. Management strategies, such as reducing caseloads and improving supervision/training, have been found to enhance outcomes for families at risk (Oregon Healthy Families evaluation). In addition, an aspect of various child welfare system reform initiatives is supporting the system's infrastructure to be able to implement fairly global policy changes (e.g. Family to Family program, Families for Kids program, public-private partnerships). Such efforts may serve to facilitate optimal service delivery to all children in the child welfare system, including children of color. For example, in North Carolina, changes in the child welfare system resulting from the implementation of the Families for Kids program did result in a reduction in racial disproportionality (Wildfire, 2000). Thus, the administrators in this study who are committed to improved overall child welfare service delivery may be simultaneously working toward the goal of improving the child welfare experiences of children of color specifically.
5.3 CONCLUDING REMARKS
By and large, the findings from this study provide qualitative documentation of processes that have been anecdotally discussed in the literature. Some empirical studies using administrative data have examined these issues as well, and offer similar notions of the reasons for racial disproportionality, and strategies to reduce it. The voices of child welfare personnel provide specific information about perceptions of administrators and front-line workers, which has been lacking in the literature. On specific issues, it seems that child welfare personnel in this study may be operating on faulty assumptions about the experiences of minority groups. For example, many view Hispanic communities as being more resourceful, and many adhere to the notion that the visibility of African-Americans renders them more vulnerable to child protection involvement. Thus, specific practice decisions emanating from these assumptions (e.g. not providing sufficient agency supports to Hispanic families) could potentially further racial differences in how children are served in the child welfare system.
These findings point to the need to examine the perceptions of child welfare personnel more fully, as well as address their concerns and strategies from a policy and practice perspective. We now turn to implications of these findings for policy, practice, and research.
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