Reunifying Families, Part 2: Bias and disproportionality in the child welfare system

Mar 22 2017

By Steven Olender

In 2016, 53% of the children's cases that CASA of Travis County helped close ended in family reunification, up from 33% in 2007. In the second installation of this 3-part series, we explore the realities of the child welfare system and why reunifying families is our primary goal (Read Part 1: Realities of abuse and a belief in change and Part 3: The reality of life in the child welfare system and how we address it)

On a cursory glance, it can be easy to ascribe ill will to parents who are doing their best and failing. CASA's role is to look beyond that, to get to know who the children are and where they come from, and to evaluate each case on an individual basis. That requires valuing and really understanding the parents' perspective, where they come from, and what led to abuse and neglect. We need to know them well enough to make recommendations for a service plan that will help them succeed and to determine their fitness to reunify. In order to do this effectively, a CASA volunteer needs to enter without bias.

This is particularly relevant given the role that implicit racial or ethnic bias has played through the history and present of the child welfare system. Our system is plagued with examples of well-meaning individuals and groups damaging children and communities irreparably. Communities have been decimated as children were removed from their homes for little more than the color of their skin or because they were poor, and the forced removal of Native American children, in an attempt to "civilize" them by assimilating them into white culture, has devastated not only families and children but the very survivability of tribes.

And it persists today. Economic, social, and racial prejudice and inequality still impact the families that enter the system. The people charged with deciding their fates are still affected by implicit biases. Overwhelmingly, families of color are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) reports that in 2015 African American children accounted for more than 25% of all CPS cases, despite making up only 12% of children in the state. They also fare worse once in the system, being moved between homes more often, receiving fewer services and waiting, on average, two months longer to be adopted than their white peers. DFPS is embarking on major initiatives to mitigate disproportionality and bias in the system, but it still seriously affects families we serve.

On top of those biases, beliefs about families in the child welfare system are very often tainted by an attribution bias, the idea that our own actions should be ascribed to circumstances, but another person’s actions should be ascribed to their character. Much in the same way it is easy to believe that someone cut you off in traffic because he is an inconsiderate person, but when you cut someone off it was an accident and not definitive of who you are, it is easy to assume that parents in the child welfare system have a defect of character, not of circumstance.

When removal based on neglectful supervision is based only on one subjective view from one caseworker of one moment of a family’s life, and based on actions that do not rise to the level of criminal activity, we have to hold our understanding to a higher level than our assumptions and biases. Especially given the prevalence of racial bias and the history of how those biases have played out in our system, it is vital to ensure that we are not removing children from their families permanently based on a flawed and fractious understanding of a case.

We cannot decide, based on limited information, rife with biases, that a parent is permanently unfit, especially when circumstance plays such an important role. Setting the intention of the system toward reunification means entering the situation assuming that parents only suffer a defect of circumstance, not character. By actively challenging biases and making every evaluation on a case-by-case basis, instead of relying on assumption, we ensure appropriate care is taken to help families better parent their children.

“If you explore, if you talk to the parent, go into their home, interview them, you interview the school. You talk to the grandparents, aunts and uncles on both sides of the family and you find nobody, if you do your due diligence and you can tell me that you still think it is in the best interest of the child to remain in foster care, fine,” says AJ Renold, Director of Family Engagement. “But most people don’t do their due diligence and make sweeping judgments for families.” Entering the process with a goal of reunification ensures due diligence is paid. 

Read Part 1: Realities of abuse and a belief in change

Read Part 3: The reality of life in the child welfare system and how we address it