Ari Armstrong, Exclusives, Politics, Uncategorized

Armstrong: A look beyond just racial bias in child welfare story

Black children in Colorado are overrepresented in “hotline calls” to the “child welfare system” (protective services), and in cases “substantiated” by protective services as involving actionable abuse, and especially “teens who emancipate from foster care without ever returning to their families or being adopted.” Jennifer Brown reports these details for the Colorado Sun based on numbers from the Colorado Department of Human Services (DHS).

What is the explanation for this? According to Brown, the problem is racial bias. That certainly is plausible. Are some people more likely to report something they see to protective services if the family is black, even if they’d excuse the same behavior within a white family? Are some people who work for social services more likely to investigate a black family than a white family, and more likely to remove a black child from a family than a white child, under the same circumstances? Are some parents less likely to adopt a black child? The answer probably is yes across the board.

On this last point, a couple years ago Ronald Hall wrote for the Conversation, “Darker-skinned children are repeatedly discriminated against [nationally], both by potential adoptive parents and the social workers who are charged with protecting their well-being.” Hall, a professor of social work at Michigan State, presents concerning data about relative wait times for adoption and other matters.

Another wrinkle here is that some white parents face discrimination for adopting a black child. The conservative writer David French, who adopted a girl from Ethiopia, has written and spoken about this. Not only do some people assume a white person “cannot be a good parent to an African-American child,” he told NPR, but some people on the racist right launched vicious attacks against his family (see also his piece for the Atlantic). As a public intellectual French is more at risk of public attacks, but that doesn’t make his experiences less concerning. No doubt other multi-racial families also face discrimination.

It’s hard to see how government could fix the problem of racial bias at the level of people reporting families to protective services or the police. Perhaps a well-crafted public-education campaign would help.

At the level of case investigations, Brown reports, there may be a better solution: “The state is considering a change in policy, or perhaps in law, that would prohibit racial information from entering the database until after counties decide whether to investigate the report and after asking the family involved how they identify, [Minna] Castillo Cohen [of DHS] said.” Offhand that seems like a great idea. The state also “is putting more effort into keeping children, especially black and brown children, connected to their biological families,” Brown reports. Good.

Another issue that Brown discusses, drawing on an interview with Marina Nitze of the New America think tank, is that the effects of poverty often get a family thrown into the “abuse and neglect” category. Once protective services contacts a family for reported neglect it’s more likely to “find” additional problems. That’s a hard problem to fix.

Here is another potential source of disparity: It’s possible that, on the margin, cases hinge on a family’s perceived ability to hire an excellent attorney, gain the sympathy of elected officials, and otherwise defend themselves from allegations.

In her lengthy and detailed article, though, Brown neglects to consider another possible contributor to the problem: Maybe more black families than average are abusive. If that is the case, then we should not be surprised to find that black children show up disproportionately in hotline calls and case investigations. That wouldn’t explain the differences in children aging out of foster care, though.

It’s conceivable that racial bias contributes to part of the problem and that disproportionate abusiveness contributes to part of it. This is an empirical point worth investigation, not something that can be judged a priori. It’s worth observing here that Asian children are dramatically underrepresented in the stats; presumably we can’t chalk that up to racial bias.

Progressives should not be too hasty to dismiss the possibility of more abusiveness, which they could explain by reference to past and present injustices that have distressed many black families. As an academic study of a few years ago addresses the matter, “Higher rates of childhood maltreatment among blacks may be the result of aggregated risk factors related to poverty (e.g., mental illness, living in high-crime communities).” The Economic Policy Institute notes that highly stressed parents are more “likely to use corporal punishment to control their children’s behavior.” It would be helpful for an econometrician to run the DHS numbers controlling for poverty.

The aim of protective services should be to treat each case objectively, fairly, and compassionately, not to try to reach preordained racial outcomes. Taking a child unnecessarily from a home because the child is black is racist, and so is leaving a child with an abusive family because the child is black.

The bureaucrats charged with judging whether a child should be removed from an abusive home walk a razor’s edge. If they unnecessarily remove a child from a basically functional home, or if they leave a child in a dangerously abusive situation, they create the potential for catastrophe. A wrong decision in either direction can destroy a child’s life. It’s worth going the extra mile, and the extra marathon, to get it right.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism.  He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.

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