Thursday, March 22, 2012

Child welfare and race: Did the past meet the future at Chapin Hall’s forum?

Video of the presentations discussed below is available, in full, here.  The section discussed below begins about 30 minutes in.

            About two weeks ago, I wrote about some of the new findings on child welfare and race discussed at a forum convened by the Chapin Hall Center for Children last month.  But the forum itself was as interesting as the findings.

            During the forum, I got a glimpse of child welfare’s promising future, and a reminder of its failed past.  At least I hope that’s what was reflected in two competing visions.

            The future (I hope) was represented by Eric Fenner, who recently retired from a job running the child welfare system in metropolitan Columbus, Ohio.  Fenner took over from a longtime agency chief, John Saros.  Though Fenner was too polite to say so, Saros was the quintessence of all that is mediocre in child welfare.  Year after year, whenever I would read a John Saros quote in the Columbus Dispatch, I would envision a man shrugging his shoulders.

            Saros finally was eased out of Columbus (and promptly landed the same job in nearby Akron).  He left a huge mess behind.  In 2005 the rate of child removal in Columbus was so high that, were it a state it would be the worst in the entire nation.

That changed when Fenner, the first African American ever to run the agency, took over.  Before he ran the agency, Fenner said, there were 6,382 children on its caseloads, of whom 47 percent were African American, 43 percent were white and the rest were other races.  By 2010, the total caseload was cut by nearly one-third, to 4,435, of whom 44 percent were white and 41 percent were African American.

How did things change?  For starters, Fenner’s agency faced up to the problem, something many in child welfare – including, it seems, the very next speaker at the Chapin Hall panel - still refuse to do.  Said Fenner:

Racial bias specific to decision making as a case progresses through the child welfare system is a critically-important consideration in trying to explain [the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care].  If you don’t address racial bias in your organizational practices, I don’t think it really matters what else you do.  You will continue to experience overrepresentation and disparities when it comes to treatment and approaches.

But that does not mean bringing in someone to wag a finger in the face of all the white people in the agency and tell them what racists they are.  They’d actually tried that 25 years earlier, Fenner said, and it took decades for the agency to recover. Instead, Fenner drew a crucial distinction. 

            We began with the premise that individuals could not be racist.  They could be biased – and they probably held preconceived notions, but could not be racists – because [as individuals] they lacked one fundamental element: power.

Individuals can hold beliefs, but they can’t hold you in a repressive state of existence.  If I don’t like you I can move away from you, but if I don’t like how you investigate me  I can’t ignore you, you have authority to investigate me, you have the authority to tell me how I should raise my children, and you have the authority to terminate my parental rights. 

That’s power.  As a representative of that institution - that’s where the racism existed.

(Note how Fenner doesn’t hide behind the b.s. about “we don’t have any power only the courts can take children away” – he knows where the power really lies.)


Once the agency faced up to the problem, people realized they’d been overlooking a vital resource that had been part of poor communities in Columbus for a century: settlement houses.  “We had never connected with them and they had been there for 100 years,” Fenner said.

We started to put more money into settlement houses. … Many of those settlement houses were within walking distance of the kids we were serving.  It’s so much easier to go to an after school program two blocks away, than to see a therapist on the other end of town once a week.  … Most of those kids really had issues and problems that could be addressed on a voluntary basis.

And Fenner had a way to make voluntary help work: Franklin County became one of a number of Ohio counties piloting “differential response,” an approach embraced by progressive child welfare leaders across the country.  Under differential response, low-risk cases are referred for an assessment instead of a full-scale investigation.  Twenty-three separate evaluations of differential response have found no compromise of child safety.  Every evaluation found lower rates of subsequent reports alleging abuse for families diverted to a differential response assessment.

In part, this new approach was rooted in Eric Fenner’s own life experience:

I grew up in inner-city Washington DC, in a poor neighborhood.  …  If you didn’t have a chance to meet me and know me, or come to the neighborhood I grew up in, just saw it on a datamap, you’d walk away with one perspective. But if you came to the neighborhood and you if you spent a few days with children and families you would walk away with very different perspective.  It’s more than the data and the research, it’s really about the people and who they are and where they came from.


If the very next speaker was listening to any of this, it had no apparent impact on his presentation.  That speaker; the one who, I hope, is the blast from the past, was John Mattingly, now back at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which he’d left in 2004 to run the New York City Administration for Children’s Services.

As I’ve noted before, NCCPR would not exist if not for John Mattingly – he recommended that Casey fund us back in 1998.  So whenever the topic is John Mattingly I have to choose between being a hypocrite - ignoring statements and decisions I would criticize had they come from anyone else - or an ingrate.  Once again, I choose ingrate.

Mattingly’s presentation was defensive and, at times, disturbingly arrogant.  Just moments after Fenner’s clarion call to face up to the fact that racial bias is “a critically important factor” in the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care, Mattingly said, in effect: Well, the jury’s still out – much the way tobacco companies spent all those years saying we still don’t really know if smoking causes cancer.

But here’s the statement that should make jaws drop.  Apparently John Mattingly is a strong believer in the Myth of Child Welfare Exceptionalism; the notion that people who work in child welfare are just plain better than the rest of us mere mortals, and have developed an immunity to prejudice.  Or, as Mattingly put it:

While rigorous research has demonstrated that racial bias and discrimination exists in key public systems, including financial lending, employment, education, juvenile justice and housing. I personally know of no studies that can accurately claim the same for child welfare systems.  Certainly the doubt must be there that racial bias and discrimination also exist in our nation’s child welfare systems, yet we have no reason to believe that racial bias is the only or even the primary cause of disparities. 

Right.  It’s only all those other places – financial lending, employment, education, juvenile justice, and housing where it’s a problem. Child welfare?  Well, maybe a little, but we’re oh, so special. (By the way, there is in fact, plenty of evidence for bias in child welfare.)

Mattingly’s big, overarching fear is that somehow, somewhere in America there is a Black child who has been denied the benefits of having a child protective services agency barge into her or his family’s life, because of his race.  The fact that there is only one state in America where Black children are in foster care at a lower rate than in the general population  has not quelled his fears.

And by intervention, Mattingly does not mean something smart like “differential response.”  On the contrary, he’s opposed it for at least a decade, and blocked its implementation in New York City.  No, a typical case when Mattingly ran ACS was more like the appalling example discussed in this previous post.

Yes, Black children are overrepresented in foster care, Mattingly says, but that’s just because Black parents are more likely to be child abusers.  Or, as Mattingly put it:

Recent evidence shows significant difference in the need for child welfare intervention by race. African American children are, in fact, at greater risk of child maltreatment than white children across the entire society. That should be no surprise given the correlation between child maltreatment and poverty and the higher rates of poverty and social disorganization facing African American families.

But that is not, in fact, what “recent evidence” reveals.  Rather, a great deal of this so- called “greater risk of maltreatment” is a consequence of labeling.  Poverty itself often is labeled neglect.  Since Black families are more likely to be poor, their children are more likely to be labeled “neglected.”  This example from Houston is a classic case in point.

So what the recent evidence shows is a need not for intervention by child protective services but rather for intervention to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty – the kind of thing done through options like differential response, which John Mattingly opposes.

One can only hope that this really is the past, and that Eric Fenner really does represent the future.  The reverse is too depressing to contemplate.