Monday, September 10, 2018

More evidence of racial bias in child welfare – and an ingenious new way to curb it

When writing about the racial bias that permeates child welfare, I often mention a study in which caseworkers were given hypothetical cases. Everything was identical except the race of the family.  The result: Children were assessed as being at greater risk when the family was identified as African-American.

That suggests one obvious way to curb racial bias.  Or maybe not so obvious.  Because it didn’t even occur to me until I saw this video, a TED Talk by Prof. Jessica Pryce, director of the Florida Institute for Child welfare at Florida State University:

She discusses an approach that stands the hypothetical on its head, and applies it to real cases: If caseworkers are biased when they know the race of the family, what would happen if they didn’t know?

The county-run child welfare system in Nassau County, on Long Island, New York, decided to try to find out.  As one top administrator told Prof. Pryce:

Child welfare is very subjective, because it's an emotional field. There's no one who doesn't have emotions around this work. And it's very hard to leave all of your stuff at the door when you do this work. So let's take the subjectivity of race and neighborhood out of it, and you might get different outcomes.

And another worker in the agency acknowledged that
 Once you hear certain towns, right away, automatically you think the worst of that particular community. And it’s probably about six towns that I can think off the top of my head that they think is like, “Oh my God.” So I think that the name and the address have a lot, and also the next part of it is the presentation of the [case]worker.

So Maria Lauria, Diretor of Children's Services in Nassau County came up with a practice known as Blind Removal Meetings.  It works like this: When caseworkers want to remove a child from the home, they first must go before a committee. 

But, as Prof. Pryce explains:

When they present to the committee, they delete names, ethnicity, neighborhood, race, all identifiable information. They focus on what happened, family strength, relevant history and the parents' ability to protect the child. With that information, the committee makes a recommendation, never knowing the race of the family.

Now, of course, there is an entire group within child welfare that insists that there is no racial bias in child welfare.  If that’s true, then, of course, Blind Removal Meetings should have no effect on removal decisions at all.  On the other hand, if there is racial bias then Blind Removal Meetings should lead to fewer removals of Black children.

Prof. Pryce has the results:

In 2011, 57 percent of the kids going into foster care were black. But after five years of blind removals, that is down to 21 percent.

So add Blind Removal Meetings to the huge pile of evidence that yes, there is a serious and real problem of racial bias in child welfare.

Limits of Blind Removal Meetings

There are some limits to this approach.

● In many big cities, almost every child removed is nonwhite, so, presumably, there’s no way reviewers won’t know that much about the family.

● The CPS agency has to be willing to get serious about workers not declaring cases to be phony “emergencies” and needlessly removing children on the spot – before anyone has a chance to review them at all.  In New York City, for example, that probably happens in nearly half of cases, and maybe more.

● Blind Removal Meetings curb bias at one stage of the process – the decision to remove a child from the home. They can’t curb bias in who gets called in to child abuse “hotlines” in the first place.

● Blind Removal Meetings can curb racial bias, but not class bias.  In the case example Prof. Pryce uses at the start of her talk, we don’t know the race of the family, but we know the family is poor.

But in places such as Nassau County, Blind Removal Meetings are one way to curb the needless removal of African-American children.  And there are plenty of places across the country like Nassau County.

Unfortunately, Prof. Pryce leaves one question unanswered: Who was it in Nassau County who first thought up this idea that now seems so obvious – but obviously wasn’t?  Someone really ought to thank her or him.  UPDATE: Prof. Pryce got in touch with me to let me know that, as is now noted above the idea originated with Maria Lauria, the county director of children's services. So, thank you Ms. Lauria.