Child Welfare is Not Exempt from Structural Racism and Implicit Bias

Social workers and social scientists have a duty to educate, clarify and raise consciousness when empirically unfounded conclusions that can be harmful to marginalized populations are promoted as fact. Some may read Naomi Schafer Riley’s blog for the American Enterprise Institute – No, The Child Welfare System Isn’t Racist – and deem it as just another piece written from a shortsighted perspective steeped in white privilege. Others, however, may become even more convinced that implicit bias is an overused claim in child welfare and that racism is a thing of the past.

In response, we aim to push back on assumptions that stem from lenses tainted by privilege and facilitate cultural humility and compassion in discourse on this critical issue. We attempt to briefly address four of the main problems in the article that reflect a larger narrative that is intent on discrediting and denouncing the impact of institutional racism and implicit bias on black families in child welfare. We approach this as a serious matter because ideology of this nature can have a dangerous and detrimental effect when used to justify policies and approaches that disempower and penalize marginalized groups of people.

First, a fundamental flaw with the original article is that it restricts the definition of racism to overt and intentional acts and/or conscious thoughts held by individuals. It reinforces the misconception that racism is simply a problem of rare, isolated events and that it is most accurately understood as a relic of the past. It makes an erroneously and not so subtle jab that advocates of racial justice ignorantly equate racism and racial bias with “nosy white ladies who are interfering in the lives of black families.”

On the contrary, advocates of racial equity in child welfare understand that racism is not simply a matter of personal prejudice and hate but a multifaceted problem that is prevalent within and across systems. In addition, Riley notes that the reporters of the abuse are often black or part of a minority group. She writes that, “more often than not, it is black people concerned about the welfare of black children.”

But there is no evidence provided to support the implied claim that maltreatment allegations made by black people are a driving force in the reporting disparities. The error in this type of logic is that it assumes that acknowledging that there is racial bias in child welfare is synonymous with the claim that every holder of the bias is white. This is simply not true.

Overall, the Riley article would have benefited greatly from a basic understanding and application of the four levels of racism, as defined by The Center for Racial Justice Innovation:

Internalized racism lies within individuals. These are our private beliefs and biases about race and racism, influenced by our culture. Internalized racism can take many different forms, including racial prejudice toward other people of a different race.

Interpersonal racism occurs between individuals. These are biases that occur when individuals interact with others and their private racial beliefs affect their public interactions. Examples include racial slurs, bigotry, hate crimes and racial violence.

Institutional racism occurs within institutions and systems of power. It is the unfair policies and discriminatory practices of particular institutions – schools, workplaces, the criminal justice system, and yes, the child welfare system – that routinely produce racially inequitable outcomes for people of color and advantages for white people.

Structural racism is racial bias among institutions and across society. It involves the cumulative and compounding effects of an array of societal factors including the history, culture, ideology and interactions of institutions and policies that systematically privilege white people and disadvantage people of color.

Second, the undertones in the original article do not reflect the true nature of what our families and children experience. By misconstruing the stances of child welfare researchers, practitioners and consumers as mistakenly focused on the child welfare system as racist, Riley suggests that racism in the child welfare system is undeserving of focus.

Focusing on race or racism does not mean that other factors are not important or influential to the disparity that is occurring. Quite like the stances “Black Lives Matter” versus “All lives Matter,” race matters in child welfare and acknowledging and studying race does not mean that poverty, health inequities, domestic violence experiences and family structure issues are insignificant.

Race may not be the sole proprietor of the disparate outcomes minority children and families face, but it is a faulty literary contribution to assert that it bears no responsibility.

Third, the opinions of two black child welfare professionals appear to be used as an opportunistic attempt to validate the positions expressed in the article. A number of key insights potentially gained from the interview with the black professionals, both with extensive experience in Child Protective Services (CPS), actually go unacknowledged and unexplored in the original article. For example, the individuals interviewed expressed the following points:

  • All social workers in CPS agencies, regardless of their own racial background, “work in a system and tend to reflect dominant discourses of power.” If you are a child welfare worker, “you are an agent of systematic power.” As such, having the same racial/ethnic background as overrepresented children of color does not negate the role of implicit bias for child welfare workers, mandated reporters or community members.
  • Child welfare systems are not exempt from racial bias, just like other service systems that are characterized by disproportionality and disparity for black families. Implicit bias plays a role across systems (e.g. in hospitals and emergency rooms; schools; court rooms) as well as in child welfare systems.

The important systemic issues raised in these statements are not explored in the article. Furthermore, the anecdotal accounts of comments made to black CPS workers as reported in the article hardly speak to the nuances of attitudes around social service provision and interracial dynamics in black communities. The attempt to describe the perceptions that black families and communities have regarding the child welfare system appears disingenuous.

There is no intellectual curiosity applied to question the prevalence of such perspectives and what might be the root of such positions – for example, the historic and current experiences black families have had in child welfare interactions, their experiences when engaging in services, their perceptions of the motivations and efficacy of the system.

These dynamics matter, especially for vulnerable families who are resource-strapped. It matters for parents who may need help but may feel that systems are not for them or will respond punitively when help is needed and interpret requests for help as a failure on their part.

Continuing to address racial disparity and the subsequent disproportionality in the child welfare system is necessary, because it exists. Minority families have disparate outcomes in the child welfare system, which negatively affects the family and, ultimately, society. One of the key informants in Riley’s piece commented about this: “Racism exists inside our system – also in health care, mental health, and criminal justice.”

If there is racism embedded into systems that are tangential to child welfare, how is it that Riley claims that child welfare is spared? If the goal of the original article was to pontificate that racism alone is not to blame for these issues, then that’s a short order. There is no current evidence of any researcher or practitioner taking the position that racism is the only explanation for disproportionality and disparity.

Riley seems to want the conversation of racism within child welfare to be silenced. But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once stated:

Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular – but one must take it because it is right.

We must do all that we can to create a fair system, and that includes using an intersectional lens when examining outcomes across sub-populations. It does not mean avoiding a topic that creates discomfort. Perhaps when people commit to increasing critical consciousness, face personal discomfort and support anti-racist legislation and strategies, then real change can begin to permeate the child welfare system.

Jessica Pryce is the director of The Florida Institute for Child Welfare at Florida State University. You can view her TED Talk on Implicit Bias in Child Welfare and follow her on twitter @jesspryce.

Anna Yelick (Florida State University) and Reiko Boyd (University of Houston) also contributed to this op-ed.

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