Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Letting children die to avoid appearance of racial disparity

Racial split a breach in foster care
Simerman, John. Contra Costa Times, Dec. 20, 2006.

When it comes to child welfare in Contra Costa County, geography and skin color make a big difference.

Take predominantly white ZIP codes in Danville, Clayton, Orinda, San Ramon and Walnut Creek. Reports of abuse or neglect in those areas are nine times less likely to lead a child into foster care than in poorer, racially mixed areas of Concord, Richmond, Martinez, Antioch and Pittsburg.

Lately, county welfare officials have pushed to change that with programs designed to keep more black children in their homes and out of foster care. But some county social workers say moves to correct the imbalance come with a price -- pressure to apply a lower standard of safety in those homes.

The policy may not be in writing, they say, but it is clear: Barring heavy violence or sexual abuse, removing a black child is frowned upon.

County welfare officials dismiss that idea, saying their goal is equal treatment. That means overcoming racial biases among caseworkers. Some child welfare scholars see racial or cultural bias as a key reason reports of child maltreatment more often lead black children into foster care, and why they stay longer.

The county initiatives, which include social worker training on "white guilt" and what some describe as a "bend-over-backward" approach for black families, have some social workers wondering whether the county is sacrificing safety to make its "numbers" look better.

"We were told not to remove any black children under the age of 3 unless we had supervisor's approval, and we never got it," said one veteran child welfare worker.

"We used to remove children who had black and blue marks and were beaten. Now, not if they're ethnic," said another. "We used to remove children because they were at risk. Then they told us not to remove children, particularly black children, unless they were unsafe in that moment ...

"It's crazy. All of a sudden we had different standards."

Both caseworkers insisted on anonymity, saying they feared retaliation.

Contra Costa launched a plan almost three years ago to reduce the "over-representation" of black children in foster care by setting specific goals. Included are grant-funded programs that target four areas with high rates of abuse reports and foster care placements: Richmond's troubled Iron Triangle, poor neighborhoods in Pittsburg and Antioch, and Concord's Monument Corridor.

"The policy is not to do anything different for children that are African-American or Latino. The policy is to make sure we are, in fact, assessing those families in the same way as we do other families," said Joe Valentine, director of county Employment and Human Services.

"There's no reason, theoretically, why African-American children should be removed at a higher rate."

Valentine, who assumed his post this year, said there never has been an edict against removing black children from their homes, but a focus on reducing the racial disparities may have puzzled some social workers.

"Initially, there may have been a lot of confusion. There's been a lot of training recently where we've tried to clarify where the process should be," he said.

Death draws scrutiny
The death in late October of a black 8-year-old Richmond boy, whose mother is accused of child endangerment and torture, raised concerns inside and outside Children and Family Services regarding how it handles reports of maltreatment.

Six times in the years before Raijon Daniels ingested pine-scented cleaner and died, according to police, county social workers fielded calls involving Raijon or his young mother, Teresa Moses.
In each case, county officials said, the reports never rose to the level where they would remove him
. The agency is reviewing its actions in the case, and a report to the board of supervisors is expected in a few weeks.

Most of the reports arose in 2005 as the county agency honed its focus on reducing racial disparities.

That year, the number of first-time foster care placements in Contra Costa fell nearly 20 percent, from 662 to 534. The decline, which occurred for whites, blacks and Latinos -- bucked a 7 percent increase in foster placements statewide and a 12 percent rise in Alameda County.

The number of substantiated reports of child abuse or neglect in Contra Costa also slipped, by 5 percent.

County officials said they were at a loss to explain the sharp decline in foster placements.
Such declines often are taken as a positive sign because most child welfare officials agree that the foster care system has performed poorly at best, and horrendously in many well-documented cases.

Mike Weinberg of SEIU Local 535, which represents county caseworkers, was skeptical of Contra Costa's decline, calling it the result of "hyper-revolution" in the agency. Facing what they consider a change in marching orders for black children, caseworkers applied the same standards across the board, he said.

"What's really happening is that they're just removing fewer children of all races. It's a good thing if it's because we're doing a better job. It's a bad thing if it's being done (based on) flawed policies and inappropriate goals," said Weinberg.

He alleged that four babies in the county died of suspected abuse or neglect in the past few years after coming in contact with the Children and Family Services system. Those babies "perhaps should have been removed but weren't due to what we believe are overly PC (politically correct) policies."

The Times was unable to verify the four deaths. Only since July has the state Department of Social Services required county child welfare agencies to file public reports on such fatalities or near-fatalities with the state, and Valentine said the county may not have records of deaths before then. Reports from the county's Child Death Review Team that would identify the victims of child fatalities are considered confidential.

The most recent report from Contra Costa County's Child Death Review Team analyzed child deaths from 1997 to 2001 but did not look at how many of the victims had prior contact with the child welfare system.

It found 52 children died from violence in that time, including 33 homicides, 17 suicides and two from unintentional injuries. Of the homicides, 12 victims were 10 or younger. Nine were younger than 5.

In the Richmond case, Children and Family Services never sought to remove Raijon. Instead, they offered his mother help under a new program in which the county contracts with local social agencies to introduce parents to services such as parenting classes and drug programs.

The program is voluntary for parents, and the county does not check to see whether the parent makes use of it.

It is among several programs the county has launched to help fill gaps in the child welfare system and partly address the causes of racial disparities.

Sobering figures
Numbers tell some of the story: Black children were 2.5 times more likely last year than whites to be the subject of allegations of abuse or neglect compared with their share of the child population.

Caseworkers substantiated allegations at about the same rate across racial lines, yet black children were nearly 3.5 times more likely than whites to enter foster care, according to county data compiled by UC Berkeley.

They also stay longer. The result: Last year, blacks made up 11 percent of the child population in the county but nearly half of those in foster care.

Statewide, blacks make up 7 percent of the population but 29 percent of foster children. In Alameda County, blacks make up 15 percent of the child population but a full two-thirds of foster children.

Children younger than 2 make up the lion's share of children entering foster care in all races, but particularly blacks.

The situation mirrors a national dilemma that has prompted hand-wringing among child welfare experts and calls for change. According to one study, from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, only Oregon sees a bigger over-representation of black children in foster care than California.

Some view those numbers as sensible; more minorities live in poverty or single-parent homes -- leading risk factors in studies of child abuse. But studies also show that when accounting for poverty, minorities are no more likely to abuse their children than whites are.

"When you start whittling away the explanations like poverty and this and that, you're left with a chunk that smells a lot like institutional racism, biased decisionmaking, whatever you want to call it," said Barbara Needell of UC Berkeley's Center for Social Services Research.

Such disparities are nothing new, but better data have shone a spotlight on them.

The debate lobs race into a vexing central question in child welfare: When is it better to keep a child in a dysfunctional home and try to build a support network around the family, and when is it better to remove a child into a dysfunctional foster care system in which many children languish, bounce from home to home and face grim futures?

They also may face abuse or neglect in foster care, or worse.

Last week, 2-year-old Deonna Green, who police said was severely underweight, died after ingesting baking soda at her new foster home. Police say she also suffered blunt trauma to her abdomen.

The foster mother, Khareasha Pugh of Pittsburg, was arrested on suspicion of willful child endangerment and may face charges.

Whether the county agency was aware of Deonna's condition -- police say she weighed a mere 17 pounds at the time she was admitted to the hospital -- remains in doubt, despite a reported "well-baby" check by a doctor Nov. 30.

The number of foster children in California has more than doubled since 1988, and county agencies have struggled to find qualified foster parents.

"I think we've all learned that if we're going to remove a child and put a child into foster care, we'd better be sure the foster care placement is better," said Mary Ault, deputy director of Children and Family Services for the state Department of Social Services.

The issue of racial disparity, she said, is "one of the most sensitive and one of the most controversial and one of the most profound issues that child welfare is looking at."

A different way
One relatively new approach has been adopted by Contra Costa County: In eight ZIP codes where reports of abuse run high and incomes low -- and countywide in cases involving young black children -- parents on the verge of losing their children can get intensive help from a customized team of caseworkers, clergy, relatives, local service providers and others.

The idea is to meet and hash out the family's problems and develop a plan -- a sort of makeshift intervention.

The approach, called "Team Decision-Making," or TDM, can mark a dramatic shift, but one that some social workers find hard to embrace, said Bill Bettencourt, a consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The foundation has given money and advice to Contra Costa and dozens of other counties for a host of activities aimed at reinventing child welfare.

"There's a resistance from some of the folks, and then there are some who see it as valuable from the beginning. Once those meetings start happening, workers get involved and begin to see the value of it, not having to make all those decisions on their own," said Bettencourt.
"It's a way to begin. They have a long way to go."

Some, however, see a further drain on staffing that cuts time with clients. And some wonder whether it's making a difference. Three years after the TDM program started, county officials said they have not studied the impact and whether those children suffer less repeat abuse.
Similar programs, at least anecdotally, have proved successful elsewhere.

"Sometimes people don't think about the significant impact on the child and the family" from a removal, said Valerie Earley, the county's new director of Children and Family Services. "Their whole concept is, 'Oh, they're not safe.' They don't look at what options would have helped them be safe in the family."

Among the primary targets of the county initiative are child welfare workers themselves. Through training sessions on "exploring white privilege and guilt," for instance, county officials push caseworkers to gauge their own biases.

The point, said Valentine, is to "make sure we're not inadvertently assessing a child as being at a higher level of risk because they're African-American, Latino or some other race."

Caseworker complaints
Some caseworkers smell an insult.

"Why call it 'white guilt' if you're not talking about people who are racist?" said one. "They tried to tell us we didn't know what we were doing with black families, that we weren't sensitive. Most of us have been working in the field for a long time."

That impression itself can be damaging, said Miryam Choca, director of California strategies for Casey Family Programs, a nonprofit group focused on child welfare issues, including racial disproportionality.

"If folks start with a reaction that it's about them being bigots, it's very hard to get around that," she said. "And it also doesn't seem particularly accurate. ... Organizational or structural racism is different than people being individual bigots."

Some caseworkers see a different cause: a reluctance among county child welfare officials to remove children from more educated, moneyed parents who are better able to challenge the system.

"If it's a high-profile case or a wealthy family, they will change the recommendation. They will drop that case," said one social worker. "Basically, those kids don't get protected."

One thing is clear from a Times analysis: ZIP codes make a big difference

Countywide last year, 6.1 percent of all allegations of abuse or neglect resulted in a foster care placement. But the rate varies widely.

One Concord ZIP code, 94520, ranked highest, with one in 12 referrals -- or 59 of 714 reports -- resulting in foster care. Richmond 94804 was not far behind. The median household income in those two neighborhoods -- two of the county's three poorest -- averaged just more than $41,000, census figures show.

In three other ZIP codes -- in Clayton, Walnut Creek and Danville -- where median household income averaged $97,000 and whites make up 86 percent of the population, there were 252 reports of abuse or neglect in 2004.

None of them resulted in a foster care placement.

"When you see that kind of disproportionality," said Ault, the state official, "you think, 'Something's not right.'"

Reach John Simerman at 925-943-8072 or


Blogger Steve Bryant said...

There's a powerful new online forum addressing disproportionality in foster care, including video and audio interviews with leading voices in the effort to address the issue and potential remedies. It's well worth checking out at:

It's a part of this year's National Foster Care Month activities.

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