Thursday, September 8, 2011

Child welfare in Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Where stigma and bias “flourish”

The case file had a single word written across the top.  There was no context for this one word, no explanation.

But in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and surrounding Linn County, when that word is on a child welfare file, no explanation is necessary.  Everybody knows the word means the agency doesn’t like the family, the family deserves an extra measure of suspicion and the case worker really thinks the children would be better off with people with whom that worker is more comfortable.

That one word amounts to seven scarlet letters for a family caught up in the net of the Iowa Department of Human Services in Linn County.

The word is “CHICAGO.”

Why does the file say “Chicago”?  Because over the past several years, cities like Cedar Rapids and nearby Iowa City have seen an influx of “urban immigrants” – they actually use that term – from Chicago.  Many are poor people who moved to the region when giant public housing projects were torn down.

As Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Jennifer Hemmingson has written:

Iowa City’s shifting demographics have brought real changes to our neighborhoods and schools. But “those people from Chicago” have also been convenient scapegoats.

So why does the file say “Chicago”?  Because it’s a great codeword.  The caseworker would have gotten in trouble if he or she’d simply written across the top of the file: “BLACK.”

The file marked “Chicago” was found by researchers for the Center for the Study of Social Policy as they prepared an Institutional Analysis Report on the child welfare system in Linn County.  To its credit, Iowa DHS invited CSSP to do the study as part of an effort to reduce racial bias in the system.

That bias is profound.  Data compiled by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges show that African American children are trapped in Iowa foster care at a rate nearly quadruple their rate in the general population.  The rate of “disproportionality,” as it’s called, is even worse for Native American children – no surprise in a state where the chief juvenile prosecutor in a county in which one in ten Indian children is in foster care, says: “I don’t think there’s anything in any of these cases that points to something positive about Indian culture, except the culture of drugs and the culture of poverty and the culture of abuse.”

So it also should come as no surprise that the CSSP researchers found that the child welfare system in Linn County, Iowa is a place where “stigma and bias are permitted to flourish…”

The racial bias is on top of the fact that, year after year, Iowa tears apart families of all races at one if the highest rates in the nation.  In 2010, Iowa tore apart families at the fourth highest rate in the nation, a rate more than two-and-a-half times the national average.  (That’s part of a national pattern.  The states that have the worst record on racial bias, like Iowa and Nebraska often also are the states with the highest rates of child removal for all races.)

Though not as detailed as CSSP’s similar report on Michigan, the Linn County report uses the same combination of hard data, rigorous case record review and interviews with participants in the system to produce a compelling narrative that interweaves data and case examples.  (Throughout this post, when it comes to conclusions, unless that conclusion is quoted directly from the report or attributed to it, it’s my interpretation, not necessarily CSSP’s).

The incident about the case file marked “Chicago” is in an entire section devoted to the ways African American families are stigmatized by the Cedar Rapids DHS office.  (The section is headed “Stigma.”) Other examples cited by the study include:

● One therapist described a "loud,” “emotional” father as being perceived as “risky” and “hostile.”
· An African American youth described how he hoped to change his last name when he became an adult because his family had a “reputation” in the community.
· An African American father was told that the only way he could prove he was not seeking reunification to benefit financially from his son’s public assistance was by using his own money to purchase a car seat for his son.
The report concludes that:

In a system with weak accountability, issues of stigma and bias are permitted to flourish and become part of the agency’s culture, resulting in a troubling lack of consensus about policy and practice in Linn County.

The stigmatizing and stereotyping apparently runs so deep that some caseworkers may view African American parents as almost literally sub-human, so it may not even occur to them to consider the emotional trauma inflicted on the child by removing that child from the home.  Consider this example:

…a three month old infant was removed when the child’s mother called the hospital because the infant had fallen from a bed. DHS filed a report and removed the infant after the mother failed to bring the infant to the hospital, even though the child’s mother had called her own mother – a nurse – the night of the fall for medical advice. The infant sustained no injury, a visiting nurse was in the home at the request of the mother, and the mother brought the infant to the doctor the next day. Although the infant was currently safe and the mother had significant community based supports in place, the hospital, the DHS worker, and the court all supported a decision to remove the infant from the care of this young mother. Six months later, the infant had experienced two foster home placements and was not gaining weight in foster care. [Emphasis added.]

On the other hand, the error in this next case is so common in lousy child welfare systems that I suspect it could as easily have happened to a child of any race:

Another young child in a residential treatment program misbehaved after returning from an overnight visit with her parent, resulting in DHS denying overnight visits rather than considering that the behavior might be related to a child missing her family and working with the family to get to the root cause of the behavior.

The very fact that young children are warehoused in residential treatment centers at all is appalling – since the evidence is overwhelming that residential treatment does no good, and is particularly harmful for younger children.  Yet that issue arises again in another case:

a six year old African American boy with behavioral issues was placed in a residential program. Professionals working with the mother on this case determined that a residential setting was the only available service to meet this young child’s needs. After nine months, when this boy was being prepared to exit placement, it was unclear what, if any, at home and in school supports would be available. Further, it was unclear if residential placement could have been avoided altogether if meaningful, intensive in home and community based services had been available.

Residential treatment also is among the most expensive services – so lack of money is no excuse for the lack of alternatives that not only are better, but also cost less.  Rather, it is a function of a system that dehumanizes impoverished children and families, especially impoverished Black children and families.

The dehumanization extends to victims of domestic violence.  According to the report:

data indicated that African American women who defend themselves in battering situations are often assessed as the aggressor and their case plans then require them to attend anger management classes, rather than providing them assistance as victims of domestic violence.

It all adds up to a system that, the report says, “intervened with some African American families in extensive ways with no clear reason or rationale.”

According to the report, the Cedar Rapids DHS office would force families into substance abuse screening and treatment when there were no substance abuse issues and harass a family with unannounced visits “three or four times a week” – a full year after a child had been returned home with no problems.  As the mother’s attorney told the CSSP researchers it is nearly impossible for clients to “prove they are not doing something.”  Private agencies that were supposed to provide help would re-report families to DHS for “minor new concerns.”

But it will be easy to prove whether or not, at long last, Iowa decides to do something about its penchant for tearing apart families in general and minority families in particular.  One need simply watch the figures for entries into care.

And there are signs that Linn County, at least, is taking some first steps in the right direction.  According to the Gazette, the number of cases in which a caseworker declared an allegation of child maltreatment against an African American family to be “substantiated” was cut in half in the seven months ending July 1, compared to a similar period in 2010.

On the other hand, the same story reports that neighboring Johnson County, they’re not even trying to reduce needless removal of children – they’re just trying to find more Black foster parents.

How very Iowa of them.