The child protective services sector already struggles in many ways relating to child safety, permanency, well-being and equity. A system that already had issues with demystifying dependency court hearings, reunifying families, strengthening parenting capacity and prioritizing equity is now carrying an even heavier weight: the strain from the coronavirus. This pandemic has shifted our world as we know it — how it has impacted our child protective service agencies is yet to be fully known.
The health disparities among black people have been prevalent, but this pandemic has thrust this awful reality into the mainstream media. Recent data is showing how COVID-19 is infecting and killing a disproportionate number of African Americans. Not only is this disease shedding light on an issue which should be among this country’s top priorities, it is also creating debilitating economic circumstances for families of color.
In September of 2019, there seemed to be a positive shift in unemployment among African Americans — it had reached an all-time low 5.5 percent. Then the pandemic turned the world upside down, and as recently as last week, 26 million people have filed for unemployment benefits in the United States, increasing the unemployment rate for African Americans to 19 percent.
During the great recession, the unemployment rate for African Americans was 16 percent. Economists believe with certainty that black families will suffer the most dramatically during the looming recession.
Several media outlets have reported that CPS cases have decreased during the pandemic, but are convinced that more children are vulnerable to abuse due to less visibility in the community. Let’s keep in mind that neglect has been the most common form of maltreatment for years; according to the most recent federal data, nearly 61 percent of maltreatment victims suffered from neglect only.
Imagine the financial strain that black families, who were already materially strapped, will face in the wake of COVID-19. Our child welfare system has rarely been pre-emptive or preventive. We are a skilled workforce regarding intervention and case management; we are task masters. But this time it is vital that we prepare our workforce in advance to lead with empathy, humility and a heart for justice during such a dark time in our world.
We can’t settle for intervening. We have to be ready to consider the predictive, unique and unprecedented need among black families. If the presumptions are true, then there is neglect occurring that we do not know about. What will our posture be when we meet these families? It’s a balancing act to have gratitude for our frontline and first responders while also holding them accountable to a higher standard of decision-making.
It is not news that black families suffer from multiple layers of inequity in our society, which is only going to be addressed by bravery and humility from those few who hold the majority of the power in our country. That unequal distribution and possession of power, erected by systemic racism, has contributed to disturbing trends of overrepresented black youth in our foster care system. There is a dire need to address this trend nationwide, but addressing it in light of COVID-19 is going to require an even braver approach.
Here are five considerations for partnering with black families who come into our system post-pandemic:
- Black families very likely could have lost a loved one (family or familial-kin) to COVID-19 or know someone who has died. Consider the grief process and meet the parents where they are.
- With the impact on African American employment, be sure to have early meetings with economic resources and local departments of labor surrogates so that you can more effectively aid a struggling family.
- Black families may re-enter our system after having just been reunified. Consider their harried process to reunification in the midst of COVID-19. It was likely tenuous and fragmented, and the parenting recovery and capacity may have suffered due to the pandemic.
- For non-black investigators and caseworkers: The cross-racial and cross-cultural work that it takes to listen with humility and hear with empathy the story of black parenthood in this country is not linear. It is understood that you must address the case allegations/details, but in light of COVID-19 and how it has ravished black lives, your role as an active listening partner will be vital.
- Let’s commit as a system to prioritizing family connection, by exhausting all relative and kin options before we separate another family.
Black youth are disproportionately represented in our foster care system and sadly, we now see disproportionate numbers of black people becoming unemployed and contracting the coronavirus. These are complex problems with various explanatory factors, but that is not an excuse for failing to address them. We cannot keep viewing the most intractable issues plaguing our country as too hard to conquer. We can do hard things.
Jessica Pryce is the director of the Florida Institute for Child Welfare.