Monday, March 5, 2012

Child welfare and race: The not-so-shocking data that shocked Chapin Hall

            The Chapin Hall Center for Children, the onetime orphanage and residential treatment center that now often is home to regressive advocacy disguised as “scholarship” held a forum last month about “new findings” concerning child welfare and race. The findings seemed to  thoroughly flummox the Chapin Hall researchers.

            But there’s nothing perplexing about the findings.  In fact, they mirror what NCCPR has been finding for years, when we compare the propensity of states and counties to take away children.

            Chapin Hall compared the proportion of Black children taken from their homes and the rate of racial disparity – the extent to which Black children are in foster care at a rate above their rate in the general population – to levels of poverty and “social disadvantage” in various communities.

            They expected to find that proportionately more Black children would be removed and that disparity rates would be higher in counties with higher poverty rates and greater social disadvantage.  In fact, they found the opposite.

            But of course Chapin Hall expected this because Chapin Hall wants to believe certain things: First, they want to believe that poverty not only is confused with neglect but also contributes greatly to actual child abuse.  Since child abuse is linked to stress and poor people tend to be under more stress than rich people, it is reasonable that there would be some increase in actual child abuse in poor communities.  But that is likely to be dwarfed by the extent to which the poverty itself is confused with neglect. 

            Chapin Hall also wants to believe that child welfare systems are rational – that caseworkers go in with their checklists of “risk factors” and remove children based on the actual amount of harm or threat of harm. 

            If these hypotheses are true, then, of course, there would be not only a greater number of Black children removed in poor communities, but also a greater proportion of Black children removed in poorer communities.  

            Such findings also would help Chapin Hall it its ongoing efforts to downplay the role of racial bias in child welfare decision-making.

            But instead, they found the opposite.  They found that the proportion of Black children taken away and rates of disparity actually were greater in counties with less child poverty. 

            They can’t figure out why.  And as long as they’re “in denial” about the extent of racial bias in child welfare, they never will.

            In fact, this is something NCCPR has been tracking for years.  We’ve noticed, for example, that the rate of removal  - entries into care compared to the total number of impoverished children – tends to be lower in big cities than their surrounding states.  So New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, for example, all have lower rates of removal than New York State, Illinois and California.

            Several times, when comparing rates of removal within states, we’ve found astoundingly high rates in very affluent counties.

            Once you acknowledge that the racial bias that is part of the rest of American life does not, in fact, stop at the child welfare agency door, it’s not all that hard to figure out why. 

            Big cities often are poorer than their surrounding states.  In addition, the poverty in big cities is concentrated and very, very visible.  So child protective services caseworkers are used to it.  They see it all the time.  So they are less likely to confuse the poverty they see with neglect.

            In contrast, in a county filled with McMansions, the substandard housing in which poor people must live may well shock a caseworker, so she is more likely to take the child and run.

            Similarly, there is likely to be more racial bias in a community where few minorities live.  

            One can see how this all plays out by looking at one very, very affluent county in Georgia; Fayette County, near Atlanta.  Median household income in Fayette County is $79,000 per year, compared to $46,000 for the state as a whole.  When we first calculated the rate of removal in Georgia counties, in 2007, Fayette county had one of the highest rates of removal we’d ever seen in any jurisdiction anywhere in America to that point. 

            There were very, very few poor people in Fayette County – but the poor people who were there were prime targets for child protective services in a way that just didn’t happen in, say, Atlanta.

            In the intervening years three things happened:

            ● NCCPR’s findings prompted the Fayette County NAACP to increase its own, ongoing efforts to curb bias in child welfare in the county – they already had been active as a result of individual cases.

            ● Reform-minded leaders at the state child welfare agency replaced the leaders in the Fayette County office and began working to curb wrongful removal.

            ● But also, the demographics of the county changed.  The percentage of children living in poverty, though still low, nearly doubled, from 5.9 percent to ten percent.

            Total entries into care declined sharply, and today the rate of removal in Fayette County is roughly at the state average.

            A combination of aggressive action by local advocates and the state and the simple fact that Fayette County child welfare workers got more familiar with poor people and less prone to confuse their poverty with neglect – or their race with bad parenting – made a huge difference.

            So the Chapin Hall findings are a mystery only if, like the people at Chapin Hall, you are unwilling to accept that racial disparity in child welfare has a whole lot to do with – race.