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United States. Children's Bureau.
Chibnall, Susan.;Dutch, Nicole M.;Jones-Harden, Brenda.;Brown, Annie.;Gourdine, Ruby.
Findings, Part 4
External resources for clients
Related to the perception that poverty and poverty-related issues are two primary explanations for over-representation, participants linked the availability of resources, again, preventive resources, for clients to a decrease in over-representation. Specifically, participants referred to the importance of having access to resources external to the agency to help support families to stay together, including adequate housing, educational and employment opportunities, quality child-care services, and financial support. They also discussed the importance of ancillary services, including community-based drug treatment and mental health services, in keeping families stable and children out of the system. According to some workers, if every family had equal access to these resources, over-representation would take care of itself because fewer children would come into the system in the first place.
I think moms need more health services now but we can't find those services. We have very poor quality substance abuse treatment; it's almost a joke. And you [have] a lot of other stuff going on that if we could help, we would keep them out of the system. The quality of service in our area [a predominantly African-American community] is just so lacking. (Supervisor)
If I could fix it, I would put some child care facilities in place that don't charge families so that they can put their child in a safe environment, so they can go and get job training, and they can look for employment, and they can go to work, so that they can have the money they need to do what they need to do to support their family. I would put some facilities in place within their communities where they can go and get some support services. Those are some things that I think would matter [to keeping African-American families out of the system]. (Supervisor)
While tangible resources are important, many participants also talked about the importance of addressing larger, more systemic issues such as the lack of information, advocacy and power they often see in their African-American clients. In two states, participants commented frequently that African-Americans did not know their rights when it comes to social service systems, and have neither the power nor the information they need to advocate for themselves when the child welfare system knocks on their door. Participants gave examples of situations involving Caucasian families where parents, when confronted by the child welfare system, not only knew that they had the right to an attorney but exercised that right immediately. Without knowing their rights, African-American parents were unable to do the same (although it is unclear why this disparity exists and why Caucasian families are better advocates for themselves than are African-American families). In other reported cases, African-American mothers were unaware of hospital confidentiality and consent policies and so submitted to drug tests without having given prior consent. Participants in one of the states talked about cases in which mothers did know that consent was required for drug testing but, too frightened and intimidated to resist, they complied regardless of their desire to do otherwise.
Similarly, once involved with the system, African-American clients are much less likely to know how to negotiate it, especially when it comes to the courts. The most commonly cited example was the assignment of public defenders to minority clients that cannot afford to hire a private attorney, a very common situation. Overwhelmingly participants reported that private attorneys will do a lot more work for their clients than will public defenders and that parents who are assigned public defenders are at a distinct disadvantage, especially in terms of whether the children will go home or not. According to some participants, children are less likely to go home in families represented by public defenders.
Those clients [that are given public defenders] are given an injustice. When they come into the system, where their children are taken away from them for various reasons, most of them are given a public defender, and that's an injustice to the client... Now, you bring someone else, someone of a different race or someone that's middle class, and they come in here with their attorney, and their attorney really looks out for their rights. These poor people don't have anybody to look out for them. The public defender may say, "I'm going to help you" but they have to tell their story to 10 people every time they go to court and that's unfair. That's one of the worst things that happens to our kids... When you take protective custody, and I get to court, if we have a private attorney, those kids are going back home. (Supervisor)
In addition, there was some discussion among participants in three states regarding the social stigma attached to poverty and how that plays out in the courtroom. Many workers felt that, regardless of the quality of the legal representation, the negative stigma associated with poverty often resulted in differential outcomes in court for African-American and non-minority families, with minority families losing their children more often than white families.
I don't know the extent that socioeconomic [factors] play [a role], but I do see it in my section in intake and the courtroom. The people who are socio-economically disadvantaged, they get whatever they get in terms of legal representation, and then the families that happen to be socio-economically advantaged, they tend to bring in private attorneys. And it is very clear when there is a private attorney in there versus a public defender versus a court appointed attorney. The private attorneys will do, in my opinion, a lot more work for the clients than the other attorneys. (Supervisor)
Participants also expressed frustration at their powerlessness to do anything to change these issues for their clients. They talked about empowering African-American communities but recognized that this solution was complex and multi-faceted and, most important, out of the control of the child welfare agency.
I think it is really more about politics than anything else...We have to empower communities but that's difficult. [The child welfare system] can only do so much and that's really limited. (Supervisor)
Agency resources for clients
In addition to addressing issues and resources external to the child welfare agency, participants talked about additional client resources within the child welfare agency, especially monetary resources, as critical to addressing over-representation. One of the issues most frequently discussed by participants was the need for financial incentives and resources for foster and adoptive families, particularly for kinship care providers. Because kinship care practice is one of the oldest traditions in African-American culture, many African-American children who do not live with their parents are already living in informal kinship placements with grandparents or other kin. While the informal practice of kinship care keeps children out of child welfare system, the lack of resources for formal kinship placements often means that families are either not able to take children in at all or are unable to take in additional children when formal placements are necessary. Participants felt confident that family members, including those already involved in informal kinship care, would be more likely to foster and adopt children if financial support and other resources were available.
If we looked at policy changes, I would want us to look at kinship care. Because a lot of the family members that we have been involved with, who might actually be a good resource for children, are not financially able to do it. Or they agree to take it on and find out later that they really can't do it financially. If we increased financial support and assistance to these families... I think we'd have less disruption in the placements that we put them in. (Supervisor)
In addition to incentives to foster and adopt, families also need ongoing post-adoption support services. In two states, workers reported that foster care subsidies are available only to families that are fostering children and are terminated once a family adopts. Once they adopt, families also lose contact with their foster care worker and access to a variety of supportive services—resources they depend on when children are acting out or need emotional support. Participants felt that these restrictions reduced the number of families willing to adopt but that on-going financial and supportive assistance to adoptive families, post-adoption, would increase the number of permanent placements available for African-American children, helping move them out of the system more quickly.
One of the issues that we really struggle with is financial disincentives for relatives or foster parents who want to adopt children. We are pretty generous with our foster care rates... but we have relatives that cannot afford to adopt children and so they don't get permanency for that very reason. So then we get frustrated with them because they won't commit to adopt but really, it is [because] they cannot afford it... People are already struggling and then they take on more... Support those kin with more funding, more services and I guarantee you will get more minorities willing to adopt. (Supervisor)
Participants in all sites felt that developing relationships with communities and partnerships with community-based systems and agencies was another important mechanism for reducing over-representation, re-emphasizing the need to establish collaborative and contractual relationships with ethnic and community-based agencies to provide services to minority families. In this context, however, participants talked about moving beyond the provision of community-based services, focusing instead on establishing real connections with minority communities.
[As an agency], we have a real obligation to step forward and be a catalyst and bring community members together with us as partners. To begin to look at what can we do in partnership and how can we use natural supports in the communities, like churches and neighborhood groups, and those types of things. How do we empower [communities] to support families and how do we connect families with those natural resources? (Administrator)
Participants recognized that one way to establish relationships with minority communities was to engage community leaders. Community leaders, whether formal or informal, are often community experts, especially in the African-American communities. Leaders are often individuals that have lived in the community for decades and, as a result, have a great deal of knowledge regarding the community. They know what goes on in the community, including where the problems and resources exist, and often have long-standing relationships with families and local organizations and agencies. Because of their standing in the community, there are a number of ways leaders can assist the child welfare community. They can assist workers to understand the culture and dynamics of the community. This information can help workers decide how best to approach and engage families in social services. In addition, aligning themselves with local leaders may give workers the credibility they need to access and engage family members. Because community members often look to local leaders for guidance, community members may feel more comfortable initiating contact with a child welfare worker if they know the leaders are supportive of the agency's practices.
I think it's crucial that our services are community-based... close to where the people live so they can access them and we can be part of the community... And to really work with community leaders in trying to understand what families need and providing services to families... really reaching out and looking at community leaders as the experts and try to work together with them to connect with families. (Direct service worker)
Once the child welfare community had established relationships and credibility in minority communities, participants felt that they might have new opportunities to work within the community, including educating community members about the mission of child welfare and working proactively with families. Participants acknowledged that partnering with the community would likely be difficult, especially in light of the fact that clients can have preconceived ideas about child welfare workers, based on misinformation and misunderstanding, just as easily as workers can have them about clients.
Partnering with the community is tough because you first have to get through all those sort of miscommunications and misunderstandings and lack of understanding and lack of knowledge [about the child welfare system]. But, then, once you get through all that, it usually pays off. It helps us provide better services because we get input from the community. (Supervisor)
For example, one worker talked about her experience venturing into certain minority communities and how, regardless of her mission, people automatically thought she was there to cart off their kids. Participants felt that if they could get close enough to the community they could educate them about the system, dispelling long-standing myths of the child welfare agency as baby-snatcher and helping them to see that the system could be a resource to them, not just an enemy. Also, by increasing their knowledge about the system and related systems and services, workers could build the community's capacity to respond to children and families in need.
I think that when planning for services and programs for families... it should be more about connecting with the community, with community agencies that are out there, community organizations and just being more hands-on with the community. And not just saying, well, here's how we're going to address the disparity issues, "we're going to hire more black staff." We need to be out in the community. (Direct service worker)
Establishing community connections also is important because it can assist workers to learn about and take advantage of existing community resources, something many workers report knowing very little about. For example, because the church is central to the African-American culture, it can often be a tremendous resource to the child welfare system. Church leaders are often part of the informal community leadership structure and can help workers identify and help families that may be struggling. In addition, the church often has financial resources and services, such as faith-based counseling, that families can access right in their own community. In addition, because recruiting more families of color to adopt is essential to reduce the numbers of waiting children, and because the church has such strong ties within the community, churches can provide an important opportunity for recruiting African-American foster and adoptive parents. This has been the premise on which such practices as One Church, One Child have been built. As a result, many agencies have incorporated a faith-based component to their recruitment efforts. Because of its strong ties to the community, the church has become an important resource for recruiting African-American foster and adoptive families.
One of the things I'm hoping we can be a part of is a real faith-based initiative in the community... There are social services that exist within many of our temples, and churches, and synagogues... and particularly within the African-American community... I would love to see the faith community... taking on the charge of recruiting and certifying foster and adoptive families and providing support for families in the community so that they can identify fictive kin for our children and keep our children home and supported. (Administrator)
Finally, workers in one of the sites talked about giving power back to the communities. Instead of providing services to the community, they felt that the child welfare agencies could redirect some of its financial resources to local agencies and organizations, including faith-based groups, to empower them to find solutions to their own problems, including supporting their own families. While the workers recognized that there might always be a need for a formal child welfare system, they felt that the system could reduce over-representation and better serve communities by re-building them instead of trying to fix them.
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