United States. Children's Bureau.
Chibnall, Susan.;Dutch, Nicole M.;Jones-Harden, Brenda.;Brown, Annie.;Gourdine, Ruby.
Findings, Part 2
I think it's not only African-Americans but also poor people in general. Here I am, a social worker with a Master's degree. I've got the training. But my first court experience, I was really afraid to enter the courtroom [because the people were different from me]. And so, if it [being African-American] has that kind of impact on me, imagine what kind of impact it could have on someone else that is not at my level. (Direct service worker)
In many cases, participants felt that their colleagues, across racial and ethnic groups and job categories, brought preconceived ideas or biases against minority groups, most often African-Americans, to their position within the agency. Participants, most often African-American participants, identified racial bias as a common problem that frequently interfered with good decision making. They felt that many staff, but Caucasian staff in particular, lacked exposure to cultures other than their own and had no context for understanding the cultural norms and practices of minority populations.
There are so many different factors involved in worker bias or racism. Even just going out and doing home-calls in different neighborhoods. I think some workers immediately, just driving into a certain neighborhood, have a particular perception. (Direct service worker)
[Workers] have preconceived notions of how they're going to deal with blacks and other minorities. I worked with a child welfare worker who, before she even went out to the house, before she even interviewed them, already said, "This is what I expect." (Direct service worker)
Maybe my culture is different from a person of color, so having a staff person who you can go talk to and, even for myself, I can find out things from a staff person about somebody else's culture. (Direct service worker)
One frequently cited example of worker bias was the difference in perception between white and black workers regarding what constitutes abuse and discipline, particularly discipline within the African-American culture. Many African-American workers gave examples of situations where physical discipline might be confused with abuse if the individual making the determination had no previous exposure to the African-American community and its disciplinary practices. The participants who discussed this issue were quick to note that they were not trying to justify the use of physical discipline or abusive behavior. Instead they were trying to explain the importance of understanding the cultural context of certain behaviors when critical decisions were being made and the lives of children and families were at stake.
One of the issues that I think has not been addressed would be cultural issues with regard to people of color and forms of discipline that have been passed down for generations. I think the way we were disciplined back in the 70s and 80s... my grandmother went out and got a switch... And now, you know, people of other races, they have "time out." But a lot of African-American families are still raising their kids the way they were raised. There's no "time out."... There are circumstances that come into play. It's not just, you see a bruise and it's a founded case. You still have to look at the circumstances that caused it. (Direct service worker)
Culture plays a very major role in terms of how protective services interfaces with the families. When they go in, understanding the dynamics of the families based on their culture is important in determining whether or not to remove the child. I mean, abuse is abuse; that is not a cultural issue. Neglect is neglect; that is not a cultural issue. But if you have a situation where a child is sitting on the floor eating some collard greens or cornbread with their fingers, that's not an issue of neglect. That is just how some of us of color eat our food. But it can be something as simple as that that can have far-reaching ramifications for splitting up a family.(Direct service worker)
Participants also talked about class bias. Class bias, however, seemed to be more of an issue in those agencies where the client population, the surrounding community, and the majority of agency staff were minority. It may be the case that race is less salient in those communities that are predominantly African-American.
Classism impacts children coming into care... I've even talked to...our own staff who have never experienced poverty or the kinds of conditions or violence that some of our families have had to endure. And because of that, they go immediately to [wanting] to remove the children. They don't see the strength in the families because they are very middle-class and their decisions about whether or not kids can stay in their own homes is based on their own perception… It doesn't matter if they're African-American. They're making those decisions based on their perception as middle class persons. (Administrator)
Overall, participants felt that worker bias had a negative effect on African-American clients. Specifically, they felt that biased decision-making resulted in more African-American children being removed from the home, and fewer returning home to their families.
When you have [workers] who are disconnected from the cultural dynamic of a community that is poor and minority and you send them into that particular community with the force of the law to remove children.... They'll determine the environment to be unsafe... The system does not have controls to limit the subjectivity of the worker. (Administrator)
In some sites, participants did attribute racial disproportionality to internal agency practices. For example, some suggested that their agency had in the past ignored the rising numbers of minority children and did not attempt to address the issue practically. They emphasized the importance of making the reduction of racial disproportionality an important administrative and practice goal. There were specific agency practices that they felt contributed to the large numbers of minority children in care. For example, participants in two sites suggested that their use of a standardized risk assessment tool reduced the number of minority children and families who were involved in the child welfare system. The tool was utilized to make more objective decisions regarding substantiation of cases and the need for placement of children.
Additionally, participants identified the lack of front-end work (i.e., prevention) as having an impact on the numbers of minority children brought into the child welfare system. Additionally, they suggested that the historical recruitment of mainstream (i.e., white and middle class) foster and adoptive parents limit the placement options of minority children, and therefore affect the numbers of children in care. Excluding relatives as service partners and potential placement options also was perceived as leading to higher numbers of minority children in care. Staff training and hiring issues also were raised as contributing to racial disproportionality. These issues will be discussed in greater detail in a later section of the report that examines agency practices and promising programs more closely.
Over-representation and Federal policies
This study sought to assess the impact of Federal policies on child welfare practice with children and families of color, specifically, the Multi-ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) and the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). To this end, discussions were focused around the following topic: How have Federal policies like MEPA or ASFA changed the way in which your agency serves children and families of color?
The Multi-ethnic Placement Act
For three decades, racially matched adoptive placements for child-welfare involved children were not uncommon child welfare practice. In recent years, however, concern that racial matching practices were contributing to a delay in placing children of color in adoptive homes pushed policymakers to examine it more closely. In the end, MEPA was born.
Passed by Congress in 1994, MEPA is a Federal law designed to remove barriers that might delay or deny the placement of African-American children and speed up the adoption process by prohibiting state's from considering a child's ethnic and racial background when considering placements with prospective parents. MEPA has three primary goals. First, it was designed to decrease the length of time children wait to be adopted. Second, it was designed to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Finally, MEPA was designed to facilitate the identification and recruitment of foster and adoptive families that could meet the needs of children needing placement.
Since its passage, MEPA has been criticized for several reasons, including that its legal mandates do not translate easily into child welfare settings or social work practice because they are vague in nature. In this study, participants' familiarity with MEPA varied based on their position within the agency. While agency administrators were generally familiar with and knowledgeable about MEPA, many direct service workers and supervisors were not. Placement workers were more familiar with MEPA than were investigators or in-home workers, but this is not surprising given that placement workers are responsible for finding and approving adoptive homes for children, a responsibility that requires them to be informed of adoption policies. In far more cases than was expected, however, the research team members found themselves explaining MEPA to participants and fielding questions related to its guidelines and implementation.
I'm not very familiar with that. I don't know what the details of it are. (Direct service worker)
I could probably be more helpful if you would define [MEPA] for me. (Supervisor)
Explanations frequently were required even for those participants who reported having some familiarity with MEPA. Supervisors and direct service workers alike reported confusion about what MEPA was designed to do and, subsequently, raised concerns regarding how to implement it. While this confusion was less commonly reported among adoption workers, they too were sometimes uncertain about MEPA regulations. This general lack of knowledge about MEPA and confusion over its guidelines suggests that there may be a gap between policy and practice when it comes to understanding, interpreting and implementing MEPA.
MEPA has been very confusing to staff. I think there is a fear factor associated with it. [Workers think] "Oh, my gosh, if I do something wrong, I'm doomed. My career is on the line here." And I think that's real. It's been very difficult to train in and answer all the questions staff have [about MEPA]. We have made progress in moving minority children out of care over the last few years but I don't know that I can say MEPA did that. I'm not sure how much staff really know about it. (Administrator)
The literature regarding MEPA suggests that some individuals who oppose it do so because they are concerned about the detrimental affects of transracial placements on a child's overall well being. Specifically, some in the child welfare community believe that transracial placements are detrimental to children's overall well being, including children's adjustment to adoption, their self-esteem, and their ethnic or racial identity (although there is controversy in the field regarding the empirical validity of these concerns).
Participants in three states expressed this viewpoint. In these sites, participants, mostly African-American direct service providers and placement workers, reported that MEPA was contrary to the best interests of African-American children. These participants felt strongly that because race is critical to a child's emotional and psychological well being, one cannot think about the child's best interests when making placement decisions without consideration of race. They talked about the difficulties inherent in raising a black child in a white family, especially in terms of access to culture and culturally specific practices and rituals, and racial and cultural identity. In many cases, workers reported that they lacked confidence in a non-minority family's ability to provide these things for African-American children.
That's very difficult because color does matter. If you have two families that are equal with everything, and one is African-American and one is Caucasian, and the child has only known African-Americans, your color is a factor in placement even though the law says you can't use it as a basis. But if everything is equal and this is what the child knows and this is what the child doesn't know, why would you place him in a situation that is completely unfamiliar with him or her? First of all, the child is going to have adoption issues to begin with. And then you add on the transracial issues of 'why am I different' and ['why am I] being placed in a completely different world than what [I am] accustomed to?' That's difficult. (Direct service worker)
One time, I had an African-American little girl placed with a white family, and they didn't know how to comb her hair. And they called and told me, "We just want to cut it off." I said, "Well, no, we just can't do that. We need to come out and I can give you some lessons. Or you know what? Better yet, I'm just going to take this little girl and I'm going to get her hair braided for her, but we're not going to cut her hair." (Direct service worker)
I have a problem with a black child being in a community where they don't see anybody else that looks like them. I have a problem with a child being in a family that doesn't recognize that they are black kids... This child needs some life skills because the world out there is very ugly. I have to teach my little black boy, "It's ugliness out there" and I have to teach him the skills to learn to deal with that. How is a white family going to teach a black boy that? (Direct service worker)
I think historically a lot of the African-American families will feel more comfortable with an African-American child being in their home. They have expressed it…that if placement were to occur that they would feel more comfortable with an African-American child. (Direct service worker)
Despite their concerns, however, participants agreed that children should not languish in foster care if, for example, a white family was available to adopt a black child, and that they always practiced in a manner that reflected this philosophy. In fact, there was a general consensus among most participants that it was always better for a child to be adopted by a caring family, regardless of race, than for the child to endure a long term in foster care. However, participants did acknowledge that they made placement decisions after careful consideration of a number of important factors, two of which might be the family's race or, more important, their ability to provide the child with culturally specific experiences and opportunities.
Despite the negatives, participants reported that MEPA had helped their agencies broaden the role of the extended family in placement decisions, a positive outcome. They reported that when MEPA was first passed, some of their agencies were desperate to find placement resources for African-American children. In many cases, without a lot of alternatives and little to no additional funding, agencies had no choice but to turn to the extended family network for help. Participants were not sure they would have considered these options if MEPA had not pushed them to consider alternatives.
What MEPA did was make us really pull back and …make sure that we were comfortable placing a child in a home, that we would be comfortable with that family adopting that child, should it come to that. (Direct service worker)
They also reported being pleased with the outcomes related to involving kin. Previously, kin were not generally considered as alternatives for placement for a number of reasons. In some cases, it was assumed that dysfunctional families produced dysfunctional children, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree analogy. In other cases, it was simply assumed that extended families were not interested in fostering or adopting kin because of the added financial burden additional children bring to the family environment. What participants reported, however, was that when family members were given the opportunity, even those with children still living at home, they were willing to assist. In fact, they were willing to assist even if it meant fostering or adopting a child or even a sibling group, an outcome that some participants found surprising.
Participants also perceived extended family placements as win-win situations. Because kin placements often provide stability and safety as well as familiarity and cultural appropriateness, participants report feeling confident that all the important bases had been covered. They also thought that kinship placements would likely result in more positive outcomes for African-American children because they are consistent with the African-American historical experience.
The other thing that [MEPA] has done...is that it has broadened the scope of the role that family [are] able to play. For instance, we never used to recommend relative adoptions. It was seen as being very problematic and creating all kinds of difficult dynamics within the family system. And, now, that's a preferred plan, to have a relative that wants to adopt. So, you work through those other issues and figure out solutions. (Supervisor)
In addition to decreasing the amount of time children wait to be adopted, MEPA also was intended to facilitate the identification and recruitment of foster and adoptive families to meet the needs of children needing placement. As a result, in many cases, agencies have stepped up their efforts to recruit African-American foster and adoptive families, although results have been mixed. Some have had success while others are still struggling to find placements for these children. In places where recruitment efforts have been successful, however, participants report that by providing additional placement options for African-American children, recruitment efforts have helped to move children out of the system, thereby decreasing the number of African-American children in the system.
One good thing about [MEPA] is you can look for the best placement for the child, regardless of race, or color, or religion or whatever, and you don't have to be limited to only looking for one certain type of family. (Direct service worker)
Adoption and Safe Families Act
Passed as law in 1997, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, was designed to promote safety and permanency for children through its emphasis on adoption. ASFA also identifies circumstances under which reasonable efforts to reunify are not required and shortens the timeframe for initiating proceedings for the termination of parental rights. ASFA also provides incentive payments to states to encourage adoption of children out of foster care.
Overall, participants were more familiar with ASFA than they were with MEPA; however, knowledge was still tied to position within the agency. As was the case with MEPA, agency administrators were more knowledgeable regarding ASFA and its implementation than any other group. This is not surprising given that administrators are responsible for ensuring that agency practices are in line with state and Federal policies and regulations. In addition, ASFA includes a number of specific provisions that require or provide incentives to states to change policies and practices to promote children's safety and adoption or other permanency options, including expedited timelines for moving children into permanent placements. As a result, its impact on agency-level policies and practices has often been significant and immediate. Some states, including Minnesota and Texas, had initiated expedited timelines before ASFA was enacted, while agencies in other states quickly had to restructure policies and modify practices to meet ASFA requirements.
Generally, the primary concern expressed by participants regarding ASFA was that its shortened timelines were too restrictive for families dealing with multiple issues. Specifically, across sites and at all levels, participants voiced concerns about whether parents experiencing substance abuse, mental health or other serious problems would be able to manage and change their situations within ASFA timelines. The workers' biggest fear was that they would be forced to move toward termination of parental rights before parents had sufficient time to receive appropriate services or become engaged in treatment in a therapeutic manner.
Poverty wasn't created in six months. Drug addiction wasn't created in six months. So how are we going to take six months to undo it? The kind of logic in that really never made sense to me. (Direct service worker)
The thing about ASFA is we're giving them 18 months to get it together and sometimes it takes them longer [especially in substance abuse treatment]. (Direct service worker)
With regard to [ASFA time limits], especially if you are working with women with substance abuse issues... I've worked in substance abuse... I worked with heroin addicts and that is one of the worst addictions, and these women need more time to get it together. The time limit is not enough. [These] mothers have a right to a second chance to those children. That time limit is just not good. (Direct service worker)
In addition to the shortened timelines, participants talked about the challenges of implementing ASFA without additional financial resources to support mental health and substance abuse treatment for parents working toward reunification and also for potential adoptive families (a perception that is not supported by the reality of ASFA, which provides additional dollars for ancillary services). With the emphasis on permanency, agencies felt pressure to find large pools of adoptive families, while the emphasis on shortened timelines required quick access to quality services, something that is not always available.
If you are going to say you have to meet these requirements in a shorter time period, then the other side of that is that you have to adequately fund services that are going to make it possible for families to do that. You can't get assessments, mental health assessments. There are waiting lists. So it's unrealistic... (Supervisor)
What I've seen in terms of the time limits is that adoptive families are being quickly certified because the resources that were put into certification were not substantial enough [to support lengthy home studies]. I think it's horrible for a child to languish in foster care... but I think it's equally horrible for them to be placed quickly into an adoptive home that's not appropriate for them and where there's no training and support. (Direct service worker)
If you're going to put in a Federal guideline, you've got to give us the tools, the money, everything we need to accomplish that. (Supervisor)
Another challenge related to ASFA as reported by workers in two states is the practice of concurrent planning, a practice that is emphasized in the Act. Concurrent planning is a practice that requires workers to work toward reunification while simultaneously planning for the permanent placement of a child. The strategy is designed to support reunification but also to plan early for an alternative permanent placement should reunification become impossible.
According to participants, one of the problems with concurrent planning is that it seems to make more sense in theory than it does in practice. Supervisors and workers alike talked about the difficulty of being fully committed to two outcomes that seem to be in direct opposition to each other. Workers reported feeling pressured by the competing demands of reunification and permanent placement and the perceived increase in effort concurrent planning requires from them. In many cases, workers felt that they were experienced enough to tell, early on, which cases had a chance for reunification and which ones did not, making concurrent planning seem like nothing more than extra work. Other workers mentioned, on a positive note, that concurrent planning sometimes puts them ahead of the game in cases where reunification became unlikely early on and placement plans had already been arranged.
In one site where the family conferencing process is utilized, participants reported that concurrent planning allowed them to search for a permanent home for children among the community members who came forward to provide support and care for children and families at the initiation of the child welfare referral. Generally, however, workers felt that the benefits of concurrent planning did not outweigh the additional effort it requires. While these issues do not relate directly to over-representation, they may have implications for children of color, especially in relation to the higher numbers of African-American children in foster care currently.
On the positive side, across all sites, participants felt that ASFA had resulted in positive change by increasing permanency options for children. While there were concerns regarding the timelines, participants perceived that the timelines also provided both workers and parents with the motivation to respond more quickly. Many participants reported that the timelines associated with ASFA provided workers with the leverage they needed to both push parents to commit to reunification earlier, or not, and to implement timely consequences when parents failed to comply with the conditions set out in the permanency plan.
It surprised me how much of a turnaround we made in terms of the number of kids we were able to move out of long term placement. It put [parents and families] on a real tight timeline in terms of having to demonstrate that they could work a plan. If they weren't getting it together, those kids would be terminated. And we had to work harder too, to meet their needs more quickly. But it was ok because we should have been doing that all along. (Supervisor)
It motivates families right away, families that might not have been motivated [otherwise]... I think it gives the agency a really good guide, one that was needed to seek and reach permanency for children a lot faster. I've seen a lot of children benefit from it. (Direct service worker)
You'd be amazed at how the service plans look different. Suddenly, they're not trying to make perfect families for kids. They're focused on safety, which is really all you should be focused on...Now, you have to do risk assessments and it has to happen early on and ASFA is wonderful in reducing timeframes so that happens more quickly. We've got a whole lot farther to go but it has moved people and it's raised the bar in terms of permanency. (Direct service worker)
Participants also reported that the timelines pushed workers to assess a family's needs and find appropriate services to meet their needs more quickly. The hope is that an early commitment to reunification combined with immediate access to support services (and timely consequences for non-compliance) will increase the number of children who go home rather than into adoptive placements. Similarly, for those children who are not likely to return home, because parents are unsure about reunification or are unwilling to make the necessary changes to achieve it, workers can begin the search for an appropriate adoptive home sooner than they had previously.
ASFA has really helped us to focus more on the needs for achieving permanency in a timely manner. When our law changed here, we were making those changes anyway, out of necessity to comply with the law locally. [ASFA] was a big adjustment in the way we were thinking. We really had to start being more geared to do stuff faster, up front...I think that you can achieve permanency in a timely manner, if you can do everything in the case up front, and I think ASFA has really emphasized the need for that.(Supervisor)
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