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United States. Children's Bureau.
Chibnall, Susan.;Dutch, Nicole M.;Jones-Harden, Brenda.;Brown, Annie.;Gourdine, Ruby.
Study findings are presented in the two sections that follow. The first section presents the findings related to the issue of over-representation. Specifically, this section is focused on the participants' perception of over-representation, including how Federal policies have influenced their ability to work effectively with children and families of color. The second section is focused on examining the types of strategies child welfare agencies have used to meet the needs of children and families of color. It includes information regarding participants' perceptions about what resources would assist agencies to better serve children and families of color, and the types of practices and programs they feel are necessary to reduce over-representation. Finally, it presents information regarding the programs, practices, and strategies that agencies are implementing currently to improve the delivery of services to minority children and families.
4.1 THE ISSUE OF OVER-REPRESENTATION: THE PERSPECTIVE FROM THE FIELD
To gain input from the child welfare field on the issue of over-representation, the project team solicited information from all participants across the nine sites based on the following topic: What is your perception of the issue of over-representation? That is, why do you think children of color are over-represented in the child welfare system? The next section presents the perceptions of the participants regarding this issue.
Consistent with the literature that relates disproportionality to a variety of risk factors, including poverty and such related problems as family instability, the issues most commonly reported by participants as primary to disproportionality were factors external to the child welfare system. Participants across the nine sites consistently reported such factors as poverty, lack of resources in poor communities, discriminatory practices in the larger society, the characteristics of the families entering the system, and the media as contributing to the over-representation of minority children in the child welfare system.
Poverty and related issues
The link between poverty and child abuse and neglect is strongly supported in the literature. Much of the literature focuses on documenting the link between income and the incidence of abuse and neglect, with lower incomes correlated with a higher incidence of abuse and neglect. Other sources have documented the link between poverty and risk factors. Consistent with the literature, across all nine sites, an overwhelming majority of participants at all levels cited poverty, and poverty-related circumstances, as primary reasons for the over-representation of minority children in the child welfare system.
I think [racial disproportionality] has a great deal to do with socio-economics. It has to do with society. It has to do with politics. It has to do with all the barriers that society and the world has put up for people of color, for poor people. It has to do with the struggle. (Administrator)
You have your money, and then you [have the] people…and the blacks are going to fall at the bottom because of their income and their locality, and the [lack of] jobs and education and all of that. (Direct service worker)
The poverty-related issue that participants talked about most frequently was the relationship between the need for services among minority clients and the lack of resources available to them. According to participants across sites, poverty exposes families to multiple stress factors that compromise their ability to manage day-to-day activities. Because minority families in this country, particularly African-American families, are more likely to be poor than are non-minority groups, they are also more vulnerable to social problems, including child abuse and neglect, domestic violence and substance abuse, among others. Participants were quick to note that, despite their need for services, poor families were more likely to be living in resource poor communities, many of which also were geographically isolated from other communities that might offer support and services. As a result, families living in poverty were the least likely to have resources available to them. According to participants, without access to services, families are further compromised. The more compromised these families are, the more likely it is that they eventually will come into contact with the child welfare or some other social system.
We have waiting lists forever to get any kind of services, [including] substance abuse, domestic violence, [and] parenting classes. When you go into different neighborhoods, Caucasian neighborhoods, we make a referral... within days, they have the services they need. My clients wait months. If we put in the referral or the case is in court but the client hasn't gotten services yet, they'll pull those kids. (Direct service worker)
There's a lack of black resources. We don't have resources in place for [black] people to get help. And if there are resources, there are so many hoops that you have to jump through to get something, even a little bit. People just say, "Forget it. Just take my kids or I'll take them and whatever happens, happens." It's too hard. It's too complicated for people to get anything. (Direct service worker)
Related to resource issues is the visibility of minority families, which, according to participants, is another factor that contributes to disproportionality. Because minority families are more likely to be poor and to lack access to resources, they are also more likely to use public services, including public health care (e.g., hospitals and clinics), and to receive public assistance, including TANF and Medicaid. Participants felt that having more frequent contact with these systems made African-American families more visible in terms of the problems they might be experiencing, including child abuse and neglect. In addition, they felt that individuals employed by public welfare agencies were likely to hold prejudices against the people who used them and, subsequently, to scrutinize their behavior more closely. According to participants, these factors often result in reports to formal systems, including, most frequently, the child welfare and criminal justice systems, regarding African-American clients.
I think any individual, regardless of their minority status, that ends up in a poverty situation is more visible, because they're having to access free clinics, and social services, and welfare, and those types of things… Child abuse, it certainly crosses the broad range of socio-economic classes, however, if you have more wealth to your name, it's easier to cover up. People are less likely to report you. (Administrator)
Participants talked about another discrepancy in resource availability between minority and non-minority clients—the lack of resources African-American families have to negotiate the child welfare system once they've entered it. After years of oppression and negative experiences with formal systems, participants noted, African-Americans are often scared, uninformed, and intimidated when interacting with formal systems. When African-American parents are approached by the child welfare system, therefore, they are often at a distinct disadvantage. According to participants, African-American parents frequently lack important information about how the child welfare system works, the financial resources to navigate the system, including hiring an attorney, and the confidence to advocate for themselves and their children. These factors create a distinct disadvantage for African-American parents that often follow them throughout their family's trajectory through the child welfare system.
Once they enter the system, [African-American] clients feel powerless. (Direct service worker)
Society, it's unfortunate, but we look at black people, poor black people in particular, they're not empowered. They don't feel empowered. They don't feel in power politically. They are not educated. They fear authority and they have a reason to. Because when you look at the jails, when you look at all the systems, they have a reason to be afraid. (Supervisor)
I think one of the reasons for over-representation is there are no advocates for these individuals. They are intimidated by everybody. They don't know how to present themselves. They probably know that something is wrong but they don't know how to address it or explain what it is that they are feeling or what is happening to them. So, a lot of times, they leave [the system] without answers, without solutions, until CPS gets involved again and we've got to go through this whole process again. I really don't think they understand their rights, their roles, what they can really do to help themselves. (Direct service worker)
Community and family characteristics
Studies consistently suggest that over-representation may have less to do with race or ethnicity of minority groups and more with the characteristics of the communities in which they reside. In this study, participants in Illinois, Georgia and Michigan talked about the disorganization of many African-American communities and the disintegration of the African-American family as factors responsible for over-representation.
The black culture that we've created since we've been in this country...is not about "old world" customs. We don't have "old world" customs that [we brought] over here. The other nationalities that I've worked with, the Hispanics especially, there is a strong sense of culture... The child welfare system is a reaction to how society has fallen apart in the African-American community. There is no culture. There is poverty, drugs, teen pregnancies, and no fathers at home. So we take the kids in, clean them up, and put them out, but the problems started a long time ago. (Direct service worker)
In two states, both African-American and Hispanic participants used perceived differences between Hispanic and African-American communities to explain the lower rates of Hispanic children and higher rates of African-American children in the child welfare system. Participants perceived that the Hispanic population, having come to this country more recently and under different circumstances than African-Americans, had not experienced the kind of oppression and disadvantages that African-Americans have. As a result, the Hispanic community has not been affected by years of racism and oppression that, ultimately, has led to social, economic, and political challenges for African-American families and communities. In and around one site, there are enclaves of tightly knit and tightly connected Hispanic communities, comprised of extended families that, while mostly low-income, are not seen as experiencing the same types of challenges as many African-American communities, including substance abuse and domestic violence. In addition, participants felt that because Hispanic families and communities were more cohesive, they were better able to support each other in times of crisis. Bound by a we take care of our own philosophy, the Hispanic community was ready and able to respond, often without outside intervention, to family or community crises. They also tended to have access to resources, often within their own communities, in their own language.
As far as the Hispanic community, I think, it's like, "we take care of our own. We'll take Mama out... and get her straight. [The child welfare system] won't take Mama out and get her straight. We will do that." [The Hispanic community] has our own DCFS system that's not the public child welfare system. (Supervisor)
We need to realize that there are a lot of resources for Spanish families. And they do have families, and strong family support systems, in their own language, in their own communities. They have outreach programs. The Spanish community is growing. It has very strong support. It has strong family support. It has resource referrals, resources that we can tap into immediately. Now, some of them are coming into custody, but a lot of them are not because we have those resources for them. (Supervisor)
I feel that the majority of the Latinos in this county are probably Mexican families that come into the country looking for agrarian work. Because they have larger family compositions we can rely on other family members to help reduce some of the risk to the children… We look to extended families to help with off setting risk factors. (Direct service worker)
To some extent, participants in a third state expressed this viewpoint as well. There, participants were just beginning to notice (or talk about) discrepancies between the number of Hispanic and African-American children coming into care, with African-American children coming into care more often than Hispanic children. The participants were not certain what accounted for the discrepancy, but many felt it was related to the same issues that were discussed above. Specifically, they suggested that the African-American community was more disorganized than the Hispanic community, although they acknowledged that this wasn't always the case.
One participant, an African-American supervisor, reminisced about the African-American culture of long ago. Her perception was that cohesive and supportive were adjectives that were used years ago to describe African-American communities. She spoke of a community with a strong sense of family and connection, a community of families where elders lived in the home, helping to raise the children, and parents worked hard to give their children a life they themselves never had. Lamenting the disintegration of this archetype, she noted that these characteristics had been replaced by less positive ones, including the lack of an extended family, inconsistent care taking, and dependency on public assistance. Years of oppression and related problems had resulted in the disintegration of African-American communities, which had left both the communities and the individuals residing in them powerless to prevent problems or intervene to change things.
One of the things we talked about [in relation to the differences between Hispanic and African-American families] was that there used to be [in the African-American family] a sense of family and a sense of connection and extended family...Older relatives lived in the home and were both being taken care of and taking care of...Now we see some of our African-American families without extended families, and lacking consistent care [for their children]. Whoever is around, that's who takes care of the children. Years ago, if things went wrong, you got sent up north, you got sent to live with family and those kinds of things... [There] was a sense of family and extended family. (Supervisor)
Participants in a fourth state also talked about the challenges African-American communities and families have faced in recent decades as central to disproportionality. Their perception was that generations of economic deprivation had resulted in disadvantages for African-Americans in important areas, including education and employment. They felt that as African-Americans experienced fewer and fewer opportunities, the community found itself disempowered and caught up in a cycle of crisis and response. Over time, African-American communities became more vulnerable to such social ills as drugs and violence and, as communities became more vulnerable, so too did the families that lived in them, eventually finding themselves more vulnerable to involvement in social service systems, including child welfare. According to some participants, these problems persist today except that now, rather than presenting a challenge to be overcome, they have become a part of the culture.
[Disproportionality] is representative of a group in crisis. It's coming from the fact that there are no family resources and so the children are coming into care. It's coming from the fact that families are not intact and so the children are in the system instead. It's coming from the fact that there's a feeling in other [non-black] communities that they can do something to help their community. We need to empower the black communities again so they can rise above their current circumstances. (Supervisor)
Participants in a fifth state were also beginning to examine the child welfare involvement of Hispanic families. In contrast to other sites, they did not suggest that Hispanic families were more organized than African-American families. They attributed their lower numbers to a lesser emphasis on reporting in Hispanic communities, different standards in the Hispanic community regarding childrearing, lower utilization of public institutions (which are responsible for many child welfare referrals), and the language barriers. In one site, participants spoke of rising numbers of Hispanic families due to culture-specific child rearing practices that are perceived as negative in the mainstream culture (e.g. extreme corporal punishment) and the lack of supervision related to the agrarian employment of parents.
They (Hispanic families) don't have access to resources or don't utilize the resources because of the language barriers, and they don't see the bruise on the kid's butt when he's at the Health Department. (Direct service worker)
Some theorists and researchers argue that disproportionality is a result of discriminatory practices within the larger society against minority groups, particularly African-Americans (e.g., differential treatment by race). According to participants in this study, in relation to the child welfare system, this differential treatment manifests itself most often in the over-reporting of minority parents for child abuse and neglect. The systems most frequently involved, at least as reported in this study, are the medical and school systems.
In the case of hospitals, participants in Illinois, Virginia, and Texas noted that clients were most commonly reported for neglect based on postpartum drug tests. They felt that doctors and other health care providers tended to believe that drug use was more common among minority groups. As a result, medical personnel were more likely to suspect and report minority families for drug use during pregnancy. Participants told story after story about clients that had been drug-tested without knowledge or consent after giving birth2. In fact, in most of these stories, consent was not even an issue—no one had asked the woman for it. This issue has tremendous bearing on racial disproportionality in the child welfare system, given that currently drug abuse is thought to be one of the major reasons for child welfare involvement with families, although evidence is mixed.
...Far more African-Americans go to [that] hospital for whatever, including pregnancies, than other races, and they would routinely test the babies for illegal drugs in their system, without the mother's knowledge. So that was contributing a great deal, and the other hospitals in the city were doing the same thing. So, if you're an African-American mom and you looked kind of poor, you're kid was likely to be tested. And so there was a report to DCFS, and an investigation, and an indication on your child abuse and neglect tracking system record that you gave drugs to the baby... So, it's more likely that African-American kids were brought into the system. (Supervisor)
School personnel also were implicated for over-reporting minority children, especially for neglect. Again, in three states, participants felt that teachers frequently confused neglect with issues related to poverty, calling in neglect reports regarding children who were, for example, hungry and unkempt or who were sometimes absent from or late for school. While participants did acknowledge that these issues could be associated with neglect, they felt strongly that school personnel were unable to differentiate poverty from neglect and, when dealing with minority (or impoverished) families, were not invested in detecting the difference.
Because most often, what happens, is that people confuse poverty and how it impacts children and families with neglect...[And that's how they end up in the system] (Administrator)
One of the things that we talked about and we dealt with specifically was the issue of poverty versus neglect and abuse, because so many cases come in because of poverty issues. But poverty issues have nothing necessarily to do with child abuse and neglect. We need a whole different system or way of looking at [issues related to poverty], but that is another reason why the proportion [of black children in the system] is so high. (Supervisor)
Just little things, like you see it in the school system. They [say] "Well, she came to school dirty, her clothes are always dirty." And it's usually the minority kids. Well, they [minority families] often don't have a washer and dryer where they can just wash clothes every day. They don't have the money to go to the laundromat daily. But that doesn't mean [the children] are being abused or neglected.(Direct service worker)
We get a lot of calls from schools and from hospitals, and a lot of these mandated reporters don't actually know, don't have a clue, what they should call in... They call in every little thing, and, a lot of times, it is the African-Americans they're calling about, once again, disproportionately. And the Child Abuse Reporting Act states that a report should be called in when there is a suspected case of child abuse or neglect, not any time you see a child walk down the hall with a bruise or a mark... (Supervisor)
According to participants, the media also play a role in the over-representation of minority children in the child welfare system. In recent years, there has been increased media attention nationwide to extreme cases of abuse and neglect, especially those involving child deaths. The media attention has left supervisors and workers alike feeling vulnerable and under increased scrutiny from the agency administration and the community. Unfortunately, participants in several agencies reported that these feelings of uncertainty often manifest in their substantiating more cases and, as a result, bringing more children into care.
Workers in two states reported feeling frightened and insecure during times when they were under increased scrutiny from the media, which has become more and more frequent, as least from their perception. During times of increased media attention, and, according to some participants, at all times, workers report being more inclined to both substantiate a case and remove a child. Despite reports that in substantiating a case workers reduce the ever-present fear that one of their children will end up in the media, this coping mechanism also results in feelings of powerlessness. In one state, workers reported questioning their ability to make good decisions, while in the other, workers reported feeling frightened when case decisions were imminent. In addition, because both of these agencies are located in communities that are primarily African-American, substantiating more cases generally means substantiating more cases involving African-American children and families.
[Workers] tend to feel safer placing children in care... because they've gotten pressure about leaving children in homes and something happens to them so they feel safer bringing a child into care. When in doubt, take them out. A lot of times, in African-American communities, they're going to take them out.(Direct service worker)
I know [the agency] is in the spotlight right now. It's safer to just take the case [regardless of the seriousness of the report] and check it out... Also, you never know if it is a 'set-up.' You never know who's setting up or calling in and making an intake. It's safer just to check it out. (Direct service worker)
Participants in another state also reported an increase in both hotline calls and substantiated cases after high profile cases hit the media. To stop what had become a media frenzy, the administration decided not to run from the media, but to respond to them. Now, when cases end up in the media, the administration does two things. First, they give the media the full story, even if the agency was to blame to some extent. Next, they use their opportunity with the media to educate them about other child welfare issues and to give them positive stories to write about, for example, the increase in adoptions or decrease in the number of children coming into care. While the administration feels that this strategy has resulted in more positive relationships and press coverage from the media, workers continue to feel frightened about making bad decisions and uncertain as to whether the administration would support them if one of their cases ended up in the media.
One state has taken a proactive stance with the media. Recognizing the benefit of an informed media with whom you have a formal relationship, the child welfare agency invited a prominent local reporter who frequently covers local child welfare issues to be part of their council on over-representation. By involving him on the council, agency administrators hoped they would have an opportunity to educate the media regarding the mission, philosophy and operations of the agency, thereby providing them with a context in which to interpret and report future child welfare cases. It is not clear whether this strategy will produce its desired outcomes but, for now, the administration is hopeful that it will.
While most responses to the question regarding disproportionality included factors external to the child welfare system, there were two issues internal to the child welfare system that participants discussed in relation to over-representation: 1) worker bias; and 2) agency practices.
2 It is the case that some hospitals do not require consent for drug testing if they suspect a mother has used drugs during her pregnancy or is under the influence of substances at the time she is admitted to the hospital. Regardless, participants perceived that African-American mothers were suspected of drug use and drug tested in far greater numbers than Caucasian mothers or mothers of other racial or ethnic groups. back
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