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American Public Human Services Association
American Public Human Services Association
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Overview


This guidance defines racial and ethnic disparities and disproportionality and discusses the relationship between the two within the field of public child welfare. Because all critical areas of the Positioning Public Child Welfare Guidance (PPCWG) can play a role in eliminating disparities and materially reducing disproportionate representation, discussions about disparity and disproportionality are woven throughout all of the other thirteen (13) PPCWG chapters:

Administrative Practices Leadership Strategic Partnerships
 
Budget and Finance Practice Model
Strategy
 
Change Management Public Policy
Technology  
Communications Research
Workforce  
Information Management          


Why is this Critical Area Important to the Field of Public Child Welfare? How will Outcomes be Achieved for and with Children, Youth and Families?

  • All children, youth and families should have the right to fair and equitable treatment based on their identified needs: families should receive the kind of resources and services they need to be safe, well and in permanent homes.
  • Framing the relationship between institutional and structural racism and disparate treatment raises awareness about how and why disproportionality occurs in public child welfare and the role the system can play to eliminate disparate practices within the agency.
  • The issues of disparity and disproportionality hold particular significance for the field of public child welfare because of its historical and enduring pervasiveness throughout society and evidence of disparate child outcomes.
  • By systematically examining this issue so deeply embedded within our society, systems, and individuals, public child welfare agencies can help the field to target interventions that will eliminate public child welfare service disparities over time. This approach will, in turn, help to reduce the disproportionality observed in public child welfare.

Disparities in the Public Child Welfare System


At the public child welfare system level, disparities can be produced by the service strategy of an agency. The agency may lack culturally relevant policies, procedures, practices and decision-making. For instance, the agency may not have allocated enough prevention programs in high-risk areas of impoverished communities. The organizational culture of an agency may pose a barrier as well. If an agency observes disproportionality or disparity in its client population but lacks proactive leadership on the issue, the topic may be uncomfortable and challenging for staff to individually make sense of the issue to improve client service delivery.

The organizational capacity of an agency plays a key role in the agency’s ability to provide children and families with needed services. Data collection and analysis by race and ethnicity are critical components of organizational capacity. Agencies need specific, accurate data and data trends on children and youth involved in the system at all decision points, including referral, intake and investigation, reunification efforts, placement and pathways for exiting the system. Agencies lacking this type of critical data are unable to thoroughly examine their performance of service delivery to children, youth and families and are, therefore, in the dark concerning at which points disparities are occurring, causing the disproportionality that the agency is experiencing.

Another relevant organizational capacity issue pertains to the quality of the agency’s workforce. Biased decision-making of individual public child welfare workers and management staff contribute to disparate treatment. Or, staff that have not received adequate training may use a racially-biased framework or cultural misunderstandings in decision-making. Likewise, staff that lack guidance about what they can do individually to eliminate disparities may perceive that these issues are too difficult to address or that disparities are strictly a societal problem and not that of public child welfare. To this point, it is true that the issues of disparities are complex in nature with various culprits--however, individual workers can and do make a positive impact when they understand the powerful role they can play.

Disparities in Society and Other Systems

The public child welfare system is among many systems that may contribute to disparate treatment of families. Poorly resourced public education systems have also caused families of color to be denied opportunities for success in life and consequently perpetuate disparity. It is common for failing schools to be situated in poor urban settings where ethnic minority groups are the majority. These poor performing institutions tend to offer children an education that is poor in quality with diminished opportunity for attaining higher education and escaping the cycle of poverty.

The law enforcement system also shows a high incidence of minority disparate treatment, particularly among African American and Latino males. Parental arrests are a significant contributor to placement of children into out of home care.1 These arrests may not be equitable. Data show that for weapon offenses, whites and African American youth reported similar rates of carrying guns (5.5% whites and 6.5% African American), yet African Americans were arrested for weapons offenses at a rate twice that of whites (69 per 100,000, versus 30 per 100,000).2 Although these kinds of comparisons are difficult to interpret, if the same kinds of weapons and same kinds of activities with those weapons show that this is a reliable and valid comparison, then the discrepancy suggests that the probability of being arrested for a violent offense--given the same action--varies unfairly with race.3

Effects of Disparities


Disparate treatment yields negative outcomes for children, youth and families. Children grieve when they are separated from family and significant connections around which they have built their lives. They may also experience trauma, loss of identity or sense of connectedness to the family, community and school structures, including gaps in educational attainment that often result from moving around to multiple, new schools.

The family unit is also affected by disparate treatment. The family composition is designed to prepare children for civic life and self-governance. Families can lose this integrity and structure when they are faced with levels of state supervision. This effect on the family extends to the community level since communities are left dismantled when families are broken.

Disparate treatment has consequences for the public child welfare system as well and negatively affects the agency’s ability to perform. When children remain in care and do not exit in a timely fashion, agencies’ resources become stretched and limited. Child welfare staff are not used effectively (e.g., workers managing larger caseloads) when they could otherwise spend time and resources on other needed issues. At a fundamental level, jurisdictions not addressing this issue of eliminating disparities lose a critical opportunity to reduce the number of children in care. In fact, disparities may detract from permanency and child well-being goals and consequently may cause the agency to lose legitimacy in the community and among clients. Even state and federal stakeholders may deduce that resources are not being used appropriately and may take corrective action.

Approach to Dealing with Disparity and Disproportionality


Before beginning any approach, agencies should be aware that effectively addressing disparities and disproportionality begins with data assessment. Good data enable agencies to evaluate the occurrence and types of disproportionality in a jurisdiction. Public child welfare officials have a responsibility to understand the situation in their jurisdiction without relying too heavily on what is understood nationally. While disproportionality is a national problem, it is also very much a local phenomenon and must be examined with local conditions in mind. An agency’s data system, for instance, can reveal if an agency has a disproportionate number of Native American children entering foster care in a particular county; to this point, the data might also show that a large percentage of these admissions are Native American babies from a particular jurisdiction in the county. The more specific the data are, the better agencies are at identifying which disparities are contributing to the disproportionality they are observing, and the better they are at identifying opportunities to redirect their resources to eliminate the disparities.

Conversely, lack of data, or poor data leaves agencies tempted to guess about the problem, its root causes and any potential solutions for mitigating it. Agencies that lack data are encouraged to optimize internal resources to engage in and improve data collection efforts.

In addition to examining internal agency data, agencies may also gather data from external tools to gain a broad understanding of which disparities may affect families. Various tools have been developed to help agencies understand baseline data about the existence of disparity and disproportionality in their jurisdictions.

Approaches to eliminate disparities will vary across agencies since no two jurisdictions are the same.

Examples of efforts to address the issues have included:
  • gathering information about which disparities prevent certain groups from accessing, using or receiving needed services;
  • gathering information about and leverage protective factors from various cultures that prevent families from needing out-of-home placement;
  • examining how to make agency policies, regulations, training, supervision and approaches to service culturally and linguistically relevant for all families served by the system;
  • examining ways to target and minimize biased decision-making of public child welfare personnel;
  • focusing on forging strategic partnerships with local, regional, state and national agencies in education, juvenile justice, health and similar entities;
  • strategically redirecting more resources to the more needy communities (since agencies may find that equally distributing resources among communities may be a source of disparate treatment since some communities are more affluent than others and may require less services); as well as
  • structuring a comprehensive, systemic approach that combines several of these strategies since decision-making at all levels impact disparate treatment.

Eliminating Disparities and Reducing Disproportionality through Critical Areas


Addressing disparities and disproportionality in the public child welfare agency is work that collectively belongs to all members of the agency from caseworkers at the frontline to the agency director at the senior level. Each person will have a unique role to play and that role should be clearly defined. It is also recommended that the agency assign a person or team of staff to lead the charge and keep the effort organized and focused. Companion guides have been developed to illustrate the various roles that public child welfare agencies can play in eliminating disparities and reducing disproportionality.


Mary Williams, Director of the Office of Program Improvement at the State Director's Office of South Carolina's Department of Social Services, and Danna Fabella, Linkage Project Director of the Child and Family Policy Institute of California, share their experience in creating the guidance and also the importance of addressing disparities and disproportionality within public child welfare agencies.