BY CHERYL SLAVIN
About 100 representatives of social service agencies, community organizations and clergy attended the Rockland County Department of Social Services conference last Thursday to learn more about the on-going issue of disproportionate representation of minority children throughout the social services system. Joyce James, an equity consultant and one of the original founders of the Texas state mandated Center for the Elimination of Disproportion and Disparity, was the main presenter.
“Our goal for this conference,” explained Barbara Gavin, Director of Rockland’s Child Welfare Services and one of the event organizers, “is to open up dialogue among all the different agencies and to engage the community in a conversation about racial disparities within the social services system.”
Racial inequity, as Joyce James explained, is not the same as racial inequality. It refers instead to the disproportionate representation of African-American children and their families throughout the social services systems such as child protective services, juvenile adjudication, special education, or health care. She approaches the issue by looking at data, which often displays an inequity between the size of a minority population as opposed to their numbers represented in social services. A quick glance at Rockland’s data bears her out.
Black children and families make up only 12.8 percent of Rockland’s total population, yet they constitute a whopping 31 percent of all Rockland’s referrals to the State’s Child Protective Services central registry. White families, on the other hand, make up about 64.4 percent of Rockland’s population, but account for only 39 percent of the case referrals. Hispanic children and families come in about even—16.3 percent of the population and 17.5 percent of the referrals. Of all the County municipalities, Spring Valley, which is heavily African- and Haitian-American, generated 298 reports last year of possible child abuse. Haverstraw, heavily Hispanic, generated 116 reports. The next highest amount was 67 in Suffern.
Even correcting for other factors such as single parent families and poverty, the data remains essentially the same. The question to ask, says James, is “why.” She answers that ingrained, institutionalized attitudes result in far more referrals for children and families of color than for others. It is important, however, when entering this dialogue, to differentiate between the behavior that resulted in the referral and the disproportion of referrals overall. She maintains that it is the institutionalized response to the behavior that heavily dictates whether a child or family ends up in foster care or juvenile court or is classified as a “problem.”
But, as P.T. Thomas, Rockland Supervisor of Child Protective Services, and the entire Child Welfare team are quick to point out, the primary goal of child and family services is always to ensure the safety of the child and the well being of the family in a permanent fashion. Therefore, the purpose of examining racial disparity within the system is not to excuse or ignore the unacceptable or dangerous behavior which resulted in DSS intervention in the first place. Rather, it is to examine and confront the often unconscious assumptions that result in disproportionate referrals.
As James also points out, there is no quick fix to the issue. The first call to action after examining the data is to openly, honestly and non-judgmentally examine internalized attitudes across all social services systems, as well as in education and health care, starting with leadership on down. She spoke of raising awareness of historical, political and social factors that have led to assumptions based on race. She also advocated for placing the burden of these assumptions more on institutionalized racism than on any one individual, and easing the burden placed upon families of color to explain the “why.”
Although James developed a model in Texas which has greatly reduced disparity of treatment based on race, the Rockland County DSS will most likely continue to develop its own model, according to Barbara Gavin. The department has already started to change the assessment and decision-making process for children referred to protective services.
“We map out the decision points,” explains Ron Figueroa, Coordinator of Community Resources and another of the event’s organizers. “Decisions regarding the welfare of a child are no longer ever made by just one person. We check how the situation was reported, by whom, what interventions are available or have already been applied, and we also partner closely with community based institutions such as churches and civic groups to get the most complete picture possible towards understanding what is needed.”