The Case for Race-Blind Foster Care Removal Decisions

Jessica Pryce, director of the Florida Institute for Child Welfare. Photo: Pryce.

Latagia Tyronce’s two children were playing and one, a toddler, was burned by a blow-dryer. Despite the support of the children’s grandmother, and the compelling evidence that this was an accident, Ohio’s Lucas County Department of Children’s Services removed Tyronce’s children and she was arrested for felony child endangerment.

What if the decision to remove and/or arrest were made blindly, without knowing that Tyronce was a young, black mother? It is a question that might make white people uncomfortable, but one that weighs on the minds of black and brown families throughout the country. Would I be judged the same if the “jury” could not see anything but relevant facts?

Tyronce was also removed from her mother when she was a child. As a 5-year-old, Tyronce was left at home watching a movie while her mother went to purchase groceries from a nearby supermarket. Tyronce recalls that after the removal and reunification, two years later, her mother was never the same.

When Tyronce’s daughter was accidently burned, her history with the system was an indictment. There is strong evidence that suggests that when a family has had history with child protective services, and they are also minority and low-income, they are much more likely to have higher risk assessment scores, have their children removed, and wait longer to reunify.

I have traveled around the country discussing the blind removal strategy that is being utilized in Nassau County, New York. It is a new strategy created by the director of child welfare in Nassau County, New York. Through partnership with the state’s Office of Children and Family Services, Nassau County was awarded a Disproportionate Minority Representation (DMR) Grant.

Blind removals occur when a committee of child welfare professionals convene to determine if a child will be removed from their family home. What makes it a blind removal is that the caseworker who has already seen the family and conducted an initial assessment of risk will present the facts of the case but never mention demographics or neighborhood. All identifiable information on the case file is removed and the discussion focuses on what has occurred, relevant history, and family capacity and strength. After the presentation of the case, the committee makes a recommendation about removal.

Tracking this process for five years rendered pretty staggering results. In 2010, 55.5 percent of the removals made in Nassau County were of black children. By 2015, after utilizing blind removals, it went down to 29 percent. Just last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) proposed to implement the blind removal strategy statewide.

The blind removal process crowds out a lot of subjectivity – it only has room for relevant history. And the evidence suggests that a lot of moms like Tyronce would have seen a different outcome under that approach.

There is opposition to this method. Below I seek to address the most frequent arguments that I have received.

What about culturally informed and tailored services? How do we adequately understand a family without knowing their demographics?

This is a pertinent issue, because we all know the importance of not providing generic and cookie-cutter services to families who have unique needs. But demographics for families are only blinded during the removal stage. Removing a child from their family is traumatic and damaging, no matter the cause.

For analogy sake, foster care has been likened to chemotherapy: it can be lifesaving when a child’s well-being is in jeopardy, but it’s inherently toxic and should only be used as a last resort. Therefore, the assumption for blind removals is this: demographics are not necessary when determining a safety threat to a child. Once removal decisions have been made without knowledge of demographics, the blinders come off, and culturally appropriate decisions should be made going forward.

This is unnecessary. Our workforce is not racist.

Implicit bias is an insidious and nearly untraceable result of systemic racism. Discussing race equity and blind removals is not an attack on individuals. It’s an attack on the bias which lives in us all, and a condemnation of the structural racism which oppresses black families.

The intractable issues of racism and discrimination have been persistent in our country. We have read about bias in the criminal justice system, we have witnessed the subjectivity within interactions with law enforcement, we’ve seen the stark differences in healthcare access and outcomes, and we’ve learned of the differences in our foster care system.

So, no, I am not saying that the employees are racists and hate black families. But I am saying that we all work in a system that is inherently racist and being operated by policies that have historically excluded and ostracized poor families of color, especially those who are black.

There is no time for that. What if there is an emergency?

Child protection work is fast-paced. Decisions are often hurried. Petitions are quickly formatted and signed. Children are hastily placed in foster care. With the compelling evidence of the trauma associated with child removals, I think we owe it to our families to slow down this process.

Will there be times where emergencies happen? Yes. Which means, there may not be time to assemble a blind removal meeting. But, the vast majority of our cases, nationwide, are neglect-related. I believe that there is more time than we think. I certainly wish I had taken more time when I was a caseworker. Time to consider the long-lasting impact of my decisions, and time to think of creative ways to support, strengthen and keep families together.

This is yet another color-blind process which strips away the humanity of our families. How will we ever eradicate racism if we put blinders on?

Let’s remember the purpose of blind removals. Blind removals were implemented in order to create a place where discussions were focused on the most relevant and essential information when deciding whether to separate a family. This strategy is to nullify the impact of racism, classism, sexism, etc., through a blind procedure. It does not equate to typical color-blind policies, which operate under the premise that race does not matter, and all people are the same and should receive the same treatment/services.

Those approaches often perpetuate inequalities. For example, financial institutions which create color-blind/race neutral policies where in order to receive a home loan you must meet particular criteria. Everyone, no matter their race, must meet the criteria to get the loan. Due to systemic and historical disadvantage that has thwarted the ability of African Americans to meet that criteria, the inequality gap widens under such policies. The blind removal strategy in child protective services does not operate under the assumption that race does not matter, it operates under the guiding principle that in the decision to separate a child from their family, there needs to be clear evidence that the child is in danger in their parents’ care.

We should work with individuals on the bias that they carry. And we should make efforts to dismantle racism. But, I still make the case to protect the integrity of a family by creating a blind assembly of professionals who desire to make decisions without the influence of their personal values and opinions.

Jessica Pryce is the director of the Florida Institute for Child Welfare.

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