April 01, 2012

Reducing Racial Disparities in Child Welfare: One County's Approach

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

When Eric Fenner became the director of Children and Family Services in Franklin County, Ohio he knew he had to do something about racial disparities in the child welfare system. By working closely with the community to learn its needs and engaging the agency’s staff to identify solutions, the agency lowered the number of African American children in the county’s foster care system:

  • In 2005, African American children represented 3,000 (47%) of Franklin County’s agency caseload.
  • By 2010, that number dropped to 1859 (41%).

Fenner shared the steps he and the agency took to turn the numbers around:

Identify the community’s needs.

Disparities in the child welfare system are complex phenomena that can’t be explained by a single factor. To truly understand what is driving the issue, go to the communities where your clients live to understand their needs and barriers to meeting them. Professionals tend to think we know what the needs are without talking to the people in the community.

In Franklin County, lack of access to quality treatment and services was contributing to disparities among African American children who entered care. Services for children were not located near families and were difficult to access. Service quality was also poor. A lack of high quality, accessible treatment and services influenced families’ child welfare system involvement.

Tap community resources and form partnerships.

Many African American families referred to the child welfare system in Franklin County were from poor environments with few resources. Community organizations often have similar aspirations for the children and families they serve as the child welfare system. Explore ways to tap these resources and connect your work.

In Franklin County, the agency reached out to settlement houses, which exist in African American communities. Settlement houses typically provide afterschool, recreation, and parent training programs. The agency worked with settlement houses to design services that would benefit most children who enter foster care and their parents. Because the settlement houses were within walking distance and were already known by the children and families they served, they were a trusted and accessible source of help. The agency saw improvements in families who accessed services and treatment through the settlement houses.

Engage frontline practitioners when identifying problems and solutions.

If you engage the people on the frontline—those who work directly with clients—when identifying the problems and solutions, it is amazing how far you can go.

Fenner’s agency developed several task forces headed by both African American and white agency staff to examine the issue. They operated under the premise that they could not be racist; they could have thoughts and beliefs about others, but could not act on them. The task forces helped identify community needs, reviewed data from past cases to identify trends, and worked together to identify changes in agency practice. The approach worked; staff felt empowered to help shape solutions to address the issue.

Examine racial bias in child welfare decisions.

Look for trends in how decisions are being made at each point in the child welfare case that could influence disparities. The findings might affirm assumptions or, as in Franklin County’s case, challenge them.

Franklin County’s task forces studied data from a single year, looking at each decision once a child welfare referral was made in a case. Key decision points included:

  • Was the case opened or referred to community services?
  • Was a court case filed, or was a case opened with ongoing services provided without a court filing?
  • Was the child placed in foster care, with relatives or friends, or not placed at all?

Surprisingly there was little variance in how these decisions were being made:

  • African American children were referred to the agency almost 2:1 to white children.
  • When a case was opened, an African American child was almost always rated at a higher risk.
  • When examining level of risk assigned to children, there was almost no difference in whether the caseworker was African American or white, a finding that ran counter to general beliefs in the agency.

Address racial bias in organizations.

If you do not address racial bias in organizations, it doesn’t matter what else you do. You will continue to experience overrepresentation and disparity. If African American workers see racial disparities as a white problem, and white workers see it as an African American problem, they will not be addressed. When both groups see it as a concern for all to address, that it’s a negative representation of the organization, that’s when change can start to occur.

In Franklin County, examining decision making helped the agency see it was not one group’s responsibility to change how decisions were being made in child welfare cases. Agency staff recognized it was something they were doing as an organization; it was something they had to work together to address.
Franklin County’s experience represents one county’s approach to addressing the overrepresentation of African American children in foster care. While the specific dimensions and needs will differ across jurisdictions, the basic approach of addressing the issue at the community level and working in a coordinated way at the organizational level may be a useful model.

Fenner shared these tips at the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago webcast, “Child Welfare, Race and Disparity: New Directions, New Opportunities,” held on February 9, 2012.

—Claire Chiamulera, CLP Editor.