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Jan 20, 2009 / The Detroit News
A new study of racial disparities in the state foster care system found deep-seated bias among case workers and key policy makers has led to a disproportionately high number of black children being removed from their families and placed in foster care.
Researchers from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for the Study of Social Policy found that child welfare workers often believed black children would be better off away from their families and communities. Results were placed without comment on the state
"This is a national problem in virtually every state in the country; Michigan is not unique," said Frank Farrow, director of the center. "The issue is not whether there is a problem; it's what is Michigan or any state going to do about it."
DHS Director Ismael Ahmed released a statement to The Detroit News saying the state is committed to eliminating racial disparity in foster care.
"DHS is committed to being a national leader and reformer in the child welfare system," Ahmed said. "Overrepresentation of people of color is a national problem not only in the child welfare system, but also nationally in health outcomes and corrections.
"We will use this report as part of our ongoing and larger efforts to comprehensively reform the child welfare system for all children, and will focus on the impact of poverty, the provision of (an) appropriate support system, policy and adjudication."
The study was conducted in response to a report, ordered by the Legislature as part of its 2005 budget bill, that found although African-American children represent slightly less than 18 percent of all children in the state, more than half of the children in out-of-home care are African-American, or one of every 50 African-American children in the state.
The purpose of the Race Equity Review released Friday was to determine why more black children end up in foster care despite policies adopted in 2006 meant to ensure equitable treatment of children. The study revealed a gap between the state's written philosophy and the practices of caseworkers in the field.
Researchers found caseworkers often lack faith that black parents can meet the needs of their children. The study examined 60 individual cases in Wayne and Saginaw counties. Researchers also interviewed families and staff, observed caseworkers, sat in on team decision-making meetings and visited family court and juveniles in detention.
Decisions often were shaped on the assumption that children would be better off living away from their parents in safer or less impoverished neighborhoods -- a bias "reminiscent of the 19th century child rescue ideology that led to the separation of tribal and immigrant children from their families and communities," the report concluded.
Parents often were ignored or manipulated in planning meetings where decisions were made about placement. In one case cited in the study, a family planning meeting was held in hopes that the mother would show up with her baby, and then workers could take the baby away.
Caseworkers often fail to inform families of their rights at these meetings, and fail to tell them they are allowed to bring relatives, friends and other informal supports, the study found.
"It's a system that's incredibly disempowering to parents," said Vivek Sankaran, clinical assistant professor in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan. The report "is right on in the sense that once a child is removed we don't do a good job involving parents in key meetings or in the court process.
According to Sankaran, the study provided documentation of the ways in which caseworkers' attitudes can influence their judgments of parents and decision making about children's placement.
"If a parent said they didn't do drugs, for African-American parents (the case notes) would say, 'parent denies drug use,' where for white parents they would say, 'no evidence of drug use was found,' " Sankaran said.
The study made nine recommendations for correcting racial disparities in the state foster care system, including increasing accountability for outside agencies hired to provide child welfare services. Michigan also should cross-train judges and child welfare administrators on issues related to racial disparity.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Coalition on Child Protection Reform, said problems cited in the report lead to many black children being needlessly removed from their parents.
"Not only does that do enormous harm to the children needlessly taken," Wexler said. "It also wastes time and resources that should be devoted to finding children in real danger."
You can reach Karen Bouffard at (734) 462-2206 or email@example.com.