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United States. Children's Bureau.
Chibnall, Susan.;Dutch, Nicole M.;Jones-Harden, Brenda.;Brown, Annie.;Gourdine, Ruby.
Findings, Part 3
4.2 EXAMINING THE STRATEGIES CHILD WELFARE AGENCIES USE TO MEET THE NEEDS OF CHILDREN AND FAMILIES OF COLOR
States have been grappling with the issue of over-representation for at least a decade, when studies first began to document its existence. In recent years, however, the child welfare system has come under increasing scrutiny in response to the ongoing barrage of media attention on extreme cases of abuse and neglect, cases often involving minority families. In addition, the recent passage of such Federal policies as the Multi-ethnic Placement and the Adoption and Safe Families Acts also have focused attention on issues related to minority children in the child welfare system. As a result, agencies are once again focused on the issue, including searching for effective practices to respond to it.
To learn more about the strategies child welfare and child-welfare serving agencies use, the study team asked participants to discuss several issues. First, they were asked to talk about programs and practices that might help them better serve minority families. Next, they were asked to discuss strategies that they felt might reduce over-representation. Finally, they were asked to describe programs, practices and strategies they were implementing in their agencies to either reduce over-representation or better serve minority families. This section presents the findings related to these issues.
How can agencies better serve children and families of color?
In addition to gaining insight into the issue of over-representation and the impact of Federal policies on an agencies' ability to serve children and families of color effectively, the team also was interested in learning about factors that would assist agencies to serve children and families of color better. To gain this perspective, discussions were focused on the following topic: What policies, procedures or practices would assist your agency to better serve children and families of color?
In response to this question, participants did not talk about strategies designed specifically to reduce the over-representation of minority children and families in the system. Instead, they spoke most often of philosophical shifts or general practices. Across the sites, participants talked about several areas in which improvements would result in better services for children and families. First, participants talked about changing the nature of service delivery, including emphasizing prevention over intervention and treatment, and establishing collaborative relationships with other service providers and agencies to improve the availability and delivery of quality services to clients. They also talked about needing additional resources to serve clients effectively. In addition, participants also talked about agency-related factors such as administrative support, culturally competent and experienced staff, and reducing caseloads as strategies for improving services to families of color, and families, in general. These issues are explored in greater detail in the following section.
The nature of service delivery: Emphasizing prevention
The overwhelming response to this question was that agencies need to emphasize prevention and provide more front-end or prevention programs and services to families. Participants talked about the overarching philosophy of the child welfare system as being crisis- rather than prevention-oriented, and how it works against rather than for families by focusing on what families are doing wrong or intervening only after family functioning has deteriorated beyond repair. A shift in focus to prevention would allow the system to capitalize on opportunities to stabilize families before they come to the attention of the child welfare system. By providing resources and services to support families before they come to the attention of the system, fewer minority children would enter the system in the first place.
It isn't until the family situation becomes worse and worse and worse and then there is some sort of crisis that involves physical abuse or something more serious that child protection gets involved…There would be a benefit and maybe you would avoid the crisis later on if you could give appropriate services for families earlier. (Supervisor)
One of the things that is a real impediment for us is that we are somewhat crisis oriented and it cuts down a lot on the plan for a thoughtful approach to constructing a service system. We're trying but it is really a hindrance when we are always kind of running ragged trying to prevent some imminent crisis from occurring. (Supervisor)
To shift the focus toward prevention successfully, families need access to quality, community-based services. In many cases, workers reported that their clients lived in communities that lacked basic resources and services, including safe and affordable housing, mental health and drug treatment, and employment and educational opportunities. As a result, clients either did not get services or were required to travel long distances to meet with service providers who were generally not culturally competent. Participants also felt that locating services within the community would help to empower the community, and that an empowered community would be better positioned to support at-risk families from entering the system.
We are now diverting families to community-based agencies where there are family advocates that go out and provide services. The goal is that they will not come back to our attention. They will get the services they need to remain intact and stable. (Supervisor)
Agencies that are really effective, are effective because they are rooted in the community... Agencies that are effective are rooted in the [ethnic] neighborhoods; they're seen as part of the community. It's seen as a place that people feel comfortable stepping up to. It's safe to walk inside their doors. You know they're going to get help there. They have that kind of reputation in the community. And then, when families walk inside the door, they see people that look like family. They're agencies that have come up out of communities of color. (Administrator)
Building public and private agency partnerships
Historically, the relationship between private and public child welfare agencies has been wrought with tension. The tension often stemmed from the perception that public and private agencies were in competition for clients. In addition, the service agendas of private and public agencies were often very different. Some individuals from the public arena felt that the public agency's job has always been to move families out of the system, while the private agencies, focused on profit and sustainability, were sometimes motivated to retain families for long-term services. Regardless of the validity of this explanation, it remains the case that in years past, the public and private agencies frequently operated without regard for one another. In recent years, public agencies have come to recognize the opportunities and resources that are available through new relationships with private agencies.
A lot of what we do now in terms of getting the community involved is our relationship with community providers that we contract with. About three-quarters of our work is done through contractor relationships. And we make the extra effort to recruit ethnically sensitive or ethnic specific provider organizations to work with a number of the families that we serve. And it works. It provides a level of support that families might not otherwise receive. (Supervisor)
In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on comprehensive, collaborative service delivery at both the state and Federal levels. This, combined with recent reductions in service dollars, and an increasing recognition among service providers of an overlap in client populations across social service systems, has brought public and private agencies together. All nine of the agencies represented in this study currently have relationships with private child welfare agencies, including community-based and ethnic-oriented agencies. These relationships include both formal contractual relationships and informal referral-based ones. While it may not always have been the case, participants feel positively about their current relationships with other service providing agencies and, in most cases, report that it enhances their ability to do their job.
We had this backlog of kids on whom adoptions had not been finalized. And so, we contracted with [a private, African-American focused, adoption agency] and they assisted us. They really assisted us in finalizing those adoptions and finding adoptive homes for those children. It was extremely helpful. (Direct service worker)
I think the communication avenues that they've opened up between [the child welfare agency] and the courts and [other private agencies] and the schools are doing incredible things for our kids. They're really helping to move things along. And I think it's incredible.(Family court attorney)
One of the advantages of having relationships with private agencies is that they can be located within the community, especially the ethnic agencies. The location gives clients access to services that may be less intimidating than services located elsewhere because the providers understand the community's needs.
Overwhelmingly, participants across sites reported that they simply needed more resources to serve clients, including more time to spend with families, and more resources to support families to stay together, including such basic necessities as food, housing, employment, and child care options. Across sites, participants talked at length about the lack of resources and the implications for children and families.
I think the main issue is just having the resources available to meet the needs of our clients. We don't often have what they need and that hurts kids' chances of going home. (Direct service worker)
You ask, "Why are children over-represented?"...One of the problems is that you are really out there alone. You have no resources. You have a family that is homeless but there is no housing they can afford and you have nothing to offer them...A lot of the African-American community, we don't have services to offer them. We're losing a lot of our resources. Funding has cut a lot of resources for families. (Supervisor)
We have waiting lists that go on forever to get any kind of services, substance abuse, housing, domestic violence, parenting classes. And if you can't get the services in place within a specific timeframe, they'll pull the kids. (Direct service worker)
Participants in several agencies felt that minority families could be better served if there were more resources for supporting reunification, including more financial incentives for kin to provide temporary foster care, and in cases where children cannot return home, financial assistance for kin to adopt. Most workers perceived relative placements as a positive alternative to traditional foster care but also recognized the additional strain these placements could put on a sometimes already strained family.
Our approach to placement, preparation and recruitment is one way that we support families. The fact that we offer support after placement is important. When people know that they are going to get supported after placement, especially when they are taking on kin or kids that they know are going to be a challenge from the get-go, it makes a difference. We are not going to place them and leave them. It is all of that combined that does it. (Direct service worker)
How do we get the services and resources that those children will need to maintain those families until they grow into adulthood? There's a piece beyond, "Okay, we've now got homes for these children, we're out of it." As an agency, we've have limited dollars for adoption subsidies. We have limited dollars for post-adoption services, especially for kin, and what we do have we just piece-meal together. It's been a real struggle. (Administrator)
Finally, participants in two states reported that foster and adoptive families are resources that are critical for moving children out of the system, especially for older children. Unfortunately, many agencies continue to experience a lack of minority foster and adoptive families. Participants in both agencies reported having difficulty recruiting and maintaining minority foster and adoptive families and convincing non-minority families to take in minority children. Some participants thought African-American families might be less willing to adopt because many are single parents or are already caring for a sibling's child or an elderly family member. Participants did acknowledge that finding foster and adoptive families for children might not be the best way to serve minority families. However, in situations where a child can not go home, workers must focus on providing a permanent, stable, and safe home for that child and, unfortunately, for many African-American children, those homes do not exist. Foster and adoptive homes, then, are importance resources that are often lacking.
We need more homes, more African-American homes, especially for children 14 and older. It's just the way it is. We would do much better by these kids if we had more homes. We just need more homes. (Supervisor)
We also need to increase the numbers of appropriate families willing to look at these [minority] kids... If you look at the number of African-American families that we've received [foster or adoption] inquiries on versus the number of Anglo families versus the number of Hispanic families, you'll see that, in particular, African-American families are not looking to foster or adopt. (Direct service worker)
Participants also talked about agency-related factors that would assist them to perform their jobs more effectively and, in doing so, would result in better services for children and families. Specifically, participants noted issues related to staff and administrative support.
There are many different perspectives about what cultural competence means and what relationship it has to effective practice. In this context, participants agreed that cultural competence meant having a diverse workforce that was representative of the population being served and that, regardless of race, could understand and appreciate cultural differences and similarities within and among groups. While participants did not necessarily feel that supervisors needed to practice race matching when assigning cases, they did feel strongly that non-minority workers needed to be well versed and open-minded to issues related to the particular culture of the client to whom they had been assigned. Participants talked about training and diversifying the staff as potential solutions to increasing its cultural competence. They also noted the importance of finding mechanisms to assess workers on issues related to race and ethnicity before they are hired, such as screening tools or specific interview questions that address issues related to the racial and ethnic make-up of the client population.
I think it's critical to have diverse staff because we're not the only ones involved in the decision making, especially after removal. And if we don't have staff that have an understanding of the cultural and can correct the misconceptions of these other people, then regardless of where we stand on the case, if the judge or someone else sees it differently, the decisions that are ultimately made may not be what we think should happen. (Administrator)
I do honestly think that getting people to understand and appreciate cultural differences and how to work within that context is an effective strategy that's in the best interest of the families; that is what we need to focus on and workers need to have it continually drilled into their heads. We also need that message being brought down from senior management that that is where we are going [toward cultural competence]. We need to be more about serving our community in a way that is amenable to our communities. (Supervisor)
In several sites, participants perceived that a lack of training and experience among workers frequently resulted in culturally insensitive practices among them. To explain this, some noted the lack of colleges and universities that offer courses that prepare students for work with racially diverse groups (except for social work programs which, according to some participants, have courses that emphasize culturally sensitive practice). They also noted the lack of exposure some workers, including both Caucasian and minority staff, have had to people outside of their own racial or ethnic group. This lack of exposure limits their ability to understand the context of other cultures and can result in biased decision-making against certain racial or ethnic groups. For example, participants in three states talked about the role of discipline in African-American families and how someone without exposure to the African-American community might confuse discipline with abuse and poverty with neglect.
A lot of times, when the schools call in their report, the children have explained to them why they received a spanking or why the mother may have spanked them with a belt. And they explain it to the social worker and it still gets substantiated. The way I look at it, why isn't that social worker seeing what really happened or what might have happened and how she can help that family instead of opening a CPS case on them? It is not always abuse and the workers should know that. (Direct service worker)
Participants also talked about the assumptions that are sometimes made about clients who live in certain neighborhoods, with workers associating certain neighborhoods and, therefore, certain clients, generally minority clients, with drug use and violence. In cases where workers perceive that the neighborhood is unsafe or unsuitable, they might be more likely to substantiate a case and then place the child in foster care outside of the community. According to participants, workers who engage in this practice are using it as a means to ensure that they do not have to go into certain neighborhoods for home visits, not because it is the best placement for the child.
So these workers [that grew up in affluent communities], what they see in delivering services or investigating an African-American home is real different from someone who may have grown up in the inner city. And then their sense of how to assess risk if these children are at risk is real different from someone who has been a part of a minority group, and understanding their culture, not being shocked at seeing impoverished circumstances. Their assessment of that situation is going to be real different from someone who has not been exposed to that and their decision-making and assessment of risk is going to be different. (Administrator)
Finally, across all sites workers reported that hiring more workers and reducing caseloads would improve the delivery of services not only to families of color but to all families. Across the board, workers talked about feeling pressured for time to spend with families, make good decisions and complete paperwork in a timely and efficient manner. In fact, some participants felt that they spend more time engaged in administrative tasks than they did working with families or that they feel pressure to trade administrative tasks for practice or practice for administrative tasks, but always lacking sufficient time for either task. These issues, coupled with the demand of working with families that are experiencing a variety of serious problems, including substance abuse, mental illness, and homelessness, resulted in workers feeling overwhelmed, burned out, and subsequently, concerned about the quality of service provision.
Well, we need more workers to do what we want to do, which is to help families. (Supervisor)
We need more workers so we can work with our families longer and with more intensity. (Direct service worker)
We need more staff because it's like you come into the emergency room and you get a band-aid and you go back out in the world. Because of the numbers [of cases], we cannot spend quality time that is really needed with families and children, to keep children out of care. (Direct service worker)
Recognizing the importance of a strong relationship between an agency's administration and its work force, the administration of agencies in three states talked about their efforts to improve services by improving the work environment.
Specifically, they talked about the importance of an agency infrastructure that includes experienced workers, proper supervision and oversight, strong peer relationships, and manageable caseloads. They felt that a strong agency infrastructure could reduce disproportionality by allowing supervisors and workers alike to do their jobs more effectively. If supervisors are able to supervise properly, then workers will be able to do their jobs more effectively, leading to better outcomes for children and families, including fewer children coming into the system in the first place.
This is about effective management...When you think about this as new or emerging practices within the field, I am [talking about] new or emerging management practices that help to strengthen any operation. [Our staff] felt that the leadership was disconnected, that we couldn't bring our staff high enough due to turnover. [The agency administration] did not have appreciation for the challenge of the job, did not have appreciate for how community decisions are actually made, that people felt that they couldn't participate in the system... We were going to build real conduits between top administrators and front-line workers that could really facilitate the exchange of ideas, improve services to families. (Administrator)
Our ratio of child protection workers to their supervisors is too high... If we could get it down to eight child protection workers to one supervisor, that would give supervisors much more time to focus on coaching and supporting staff on a whole broad variety of issues... The lower ratio also helps us get at these attitudinal issues so that if a supervisor picks up that a social worker has a punitive attitude, they can begin to turn that around... This is what can help improve disproportionality. (Administrator)
Clearly infrastructure (e.g., experienced workers, proper supervision and oversight, strong peer relationships, and manageable caseloads) and administrative support is important because, in places where participants felt disconnected from the administration and its decisions, job performance was affected. For example, in one state, staff reported feeling isolated from the decisions that were being made by the administration and, as a result, felt there were unrealistic expectations placed on supervisors and workers. Supervisors, in particular, talked about how it was difficult for them to see the big picture or understand the rationale behind administrative decisions if they were lacking important information regarding changes in practice or policy.
I don't feel like a manager... I really feel like a glorified worker. Because the expectation is that if [the workers] can't do it, [the administration] is telling us that we ought to do it. If they can't go to court, we have to go to court. If they can't go out and investigate, we have to go out there. In the past, we were able to delegate, and the workers were expecting us to be out in the field supervising. It's just more difficult now and I don't understand [the administration's] reasoning behind it. (Supervisor)
In addition, workers in one location talked at length about on-going budgetary constraints and the closing of a regional office. These were issues they did not understand but that were having a serious impact on their work performance. The perceived lack of information regarding the decision to close the regional office, coupled with the loss of income, employment opportunities, and peer relationships for those involved, contributed significantly to the negative feelings workers expressed during discussions.
In addition, supervisors and workers often felt an underlying sense of mistrust toward the administration when it came to media cases. In response to several attacks by the media, supervisors in three states reported feeling pressure from the administration to scrutinize workers decisions more carefully. According to the workers, this increased scrutiny often left them feeling that they could not be trusted to make good decisions and fearful that if they made a decision that resulted in further harm to a child, the administration would not support them.
To me, I can follow policy to the letter, and if a kid dies, I am not going to feel comfortable with my decision... It may be a kid in a family where the worker has established a relationship, they're visiting the family every week, and they've established a relationship with that child, and the child dies. But instead of showing compassion for the worker, [the administration] is like, "what did you do wrong?"... It seems like you can never do anything 100 percent right, even if there's no repercussions. It's just the stress level... If there is an incident where a kid dies, it is already assumed that you did something wrong. (Supervisor)
While issues related to staff and administrative support may not directly influence the over-representation of minority children in the system, there is evidence that they affect it indirectly. When staff are not culturally sensitive, the agency infrastructure is weak, and workers lack the confidence they need to make informed decisions regarding cases, both the work environment in general, and the quality of services provided are compromised. When services are compromised, it is not just families of color that are affected. All families are affected.
What is necessary to reduce over-representation?
After asking participants to talk about changes in policies, procedures or practices that would assist them to serve children and families of color better, they were asked to focus the discussion around the following topic: What types of services, programs, and policies do you think would be necessary to reduce over-representation? The responses fell out into two categories: resources for clients, both external and internal to the agency, and developing community connections.
It is important to note that there is some overlap in responses to this topic and the one preceding it (What policies, procedures or practices would assist your agency to serve children and families of color better?). In both cases, participants talked about the need for resources, both external and internal to the child welfare agency, to serve children and families. They also placed particular emphasis on the need for preventive and community-based services, and to build collaborative relationships with other service-providing agencies. While the overlap may be related to the salience of these issues to the participants, it also may be the case that the two questions were similar enough in nature to elicit similar responses.
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