Wednesday, September 16, 2020

An epiphany at Chapin Hall? That depends on whether the noble words in a commentary by its director are backed-up by action

          At first the commentary in The Imprint by Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago since 2013, might seem like just another in a long line of “well, what do you know? There is racism in child welfare!” commentaries from organizations that understand it’s the right p.r. move at the moment. 

             After all, it begins like pretty much all the others:             

Inequities have shaped our country since its founding. Centuries of discrimination have inflicted deep wounds, with disparate rates of COVID-19 infection and brutal policing being current symptoms of that troubled history. Outrage over these symptoms has sparked an examination of bias in our criminal justice, health care, education and financial systems. To that list I would add one other: the child welfare system.

             But here’s what makes this one intriguing.  Less than a decade ago, Chapin Hall did examine bias in the child welfare system – and found that there was none!  Now, not only do we have Samuels’ commentary, it also appears that the 2011 document denying the role of racial bias in child welfare has disappeared from Chapin Hall’s website.

             So is Bryan Samuels about to lead Chapin Hall in a new, better direction? The signals are mixed.

             For decades, Chapin Hall has been a bastion of 19th Century-style “child saver” ideology and advocacy dressed up as “scholarship.”  You can read some examples of their track record here and here.

             But Chapin Hall has probably been at its worst concerning the whole issue of race.  They worked hand-in-glove with Elizabeth Bartholet, one of America’s most extreme advocates of a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, to discredit the whole idea that there is racial bias in the child welfare system.  Two years before Samuels arrived there, Chapin Hall co-sponsored the stacked-deck conference discussed here.   Then one of their “scholars” co-authored an Issue Brief, issued in the name of Chapin Hall, whose thrust is 180 degrees from Samuels’ recent column.

             Let’s compare:

            In his recent commentary Samuels declares:

 [J]ust as we are overdue in revamping our criminal justice system, we are delinquent in addressing the institutionalized racism and bias that pervades our family and child well-being systems.

             But in the Issue Brief, Chapin Hall suggests there is no such bias. The Issue Brief ignores or misrepresents the abundant evidence of racial bias in the child welfare system. Here’s a summary of what Chapin Hall left out.

              In his recent commentary Samuels says:

             The systematic separation of children of color from their parents – without regard for the lasting trauma it entails –is a thread that runs through our nation’s history from slavery to Native American boarding schools to present day child welfare practice.

            This has been perpetuated by the misconception that we are nobly “rescuing” children from dangerous situations. On the contrary, research suggests that many children who spend time in foster care are more likely to experience negative outcomes than their counterparts who were not removed from their families.

             But in the Issue Brief, Chapin Hall suggests there hasn’t been enough of that “noble rescuing.”

             According to the Issue Brief, Black parents are “significantly” more likely to abuse and neglect their children – and, if anything, even more Black children should be taken away.  As the Issue Brief notes with approval:

 One speaker summarized: “African American children are at least as likely to be underserved as overserved” by current removal rates.

             In his current op-ed Samuels writes:            

Bold policy and legislation are needed to create and sustain a vastly different system that coordinates among multiple agencies to prevent trauma rather than create it, and to strengthen family and community capacity to ensure children are safe and thriving. This will require that we de-scale existing infrastructure and dismantle racist practices in favor of a new way to work.

             But the Issue Brief dismisses the notion of radical change and denies that there are “racist practices” to dismantle.

             So, will the real Chapin Hall please stand up?

             The good news is that when I went looking for the Issue Brief I couldn’t find it anywhere on the Chapin Hall website.  Perhaps my search was insufficient, or perhaps it was an accidental oversight the last time the site was updated.  But other documents from 2011 and earlier still are there.  (It’s readily available elsewhere for those who want to search for it; I prefer not to link to documents permeated with racial bias when it can be avoided.)

             The bad news is that the old Chapin Hall, blind to racial and class bias and blind to the harm of needless removal, was very much on display just two years ago.  Shortly after the high-profile death of a child “known to the system” Chapin Hall was commissioned to do a review.  A foster-care panic already had begun – and the slipshod quick-and-dirty review threw gasoline on the fire.

             Now, we’re seeing the results.  Between fiscal years 2018 and 2020 the number of children torn from their homes in Illinois has skyrocketed 30%.  The 17% increase in 2019 alone was the second highest increase in the country that year.  In fact, even as the number of children taken over the course of a year nationwide approaches a 21-year low, the number taken in Illinois has hit a 21-year high.

             Of course Chapin Hall wasn’t solely or even primarily responsible for that. But they had a chance to be a genuine scholarly voice of reason, and instead made everything worse. 

             All of the noble sentiments in Samuels' column are contradicted by what those who work for him have done in the past – and still are doing.

             So which is it going to be?

             If Samuels really means what he says, there are two things he could do right now:

             ● Formally and publicly apologize for co-sponsoring Betsy Bartholet’s whitewash – in every sense of the term – of racial bias in child welfare and formally withdraw the Issue Brief.

             ● Withdraw the poorly done, ill-though-out Illinois “review” and start over – this time with a review built around enacting the very reforms Samuels himself calls for.