County officals say: Foster care reflection of institutional racism
Mike Herzing and Pam Watkins, two bureaucrats, sit in a sunlit conference room in the new Guilford County Department of Social Services building on the old campus of Cone Mills in northeast Greensboro. They soberly appraise a county map stuck with tiny pins to represent each case of child neglect the department has handled in the past year.
The pins are concentrated in a thick seam east of US 29 down across Interstate 40 and continuing east of Randleman Road, areas identified by the 2000 Census as having a comparatively high African-American population. Two other Census maps show that residents in these neighborhoods earn comparatively less income and complete comparatively fewer years of education than residents of areas with more whites. The correlation is virtually identical in High Point.
For at least six years now, county officials have expressed alarm about the disproportionate number of black juveniles placed in foster homes by the Department of Social Services, which is popularly known as DSS. The most recent statistics available, from June 2004, indicate that black youth make up about 65 percent of the department’s caseload. Blacks made up only 30 percent of the county’s overall population, according to the 2003 Census count.
‘“White children don’t stay in our system as long,’” said Herzing, assistant director of child welfare at Guilford County’s DSS. ‘“Infants tend to stay in a long time. When you get to be twelve to eighteen, you tend to stay in our system longer. But the five-to-twelve range is when white children tend to get out pretty soon, but not African-American children.’”
Black juveniles’ share of the foster care caseload is down from about 75 percent in June 2000. DSS officials are uncertain why the percentage has dropped, said Watkins, program coordinator for special initiatives.
‘“This disproportionality has been with us for many years,’” Herzing said. ‘“It’s a tough issue to talk about. It’s deeper than what some people are willing to talk about because it’s institutional racism.’”
Herzing and Watkins, who is the department’s program coordinator for special initiatives, view the overrepresentation of black juveniles in the foster care system ‘— while necessary for addressing cases of serious neglect and abuse ‘— as a component of a system that generally works to African Americans’ disadvantage.
In a May 4 interview they said that conclusion has led them as DSS employees to examine whether their agency treats black families different than white ones, and to shift DSS focus from punishing families for neglect to offering support services to keep them together.
The two have also become fervent believers in a worldview advanced by the New Orleans-based People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond that holds that white people and minorities alike perpetuate a racist system by acting out attitudes of racial superiority in the case of the former and attitudes of inferiority in the case of the latter.
‘“Race is a social construct, but it’s real in the way we relate to each other,’” said Herzing, who is white. ‘“Our government [during the time of slavery] made sure these definitions were legislated, that we look at African Americans as a class that’s not human or lower than us. That leads to a lot of stuff. These institutions keep this cycle going ‘— of poverty, poor services to African Americans, discriminatory banking practices’….
‘“I’m part of this system that does harm to African Americans,’” Herzing added. ‘“African Americans are six times as likely to be in our system. Eighty-one percent of the juvenile arrests in Greensboro and High Point are African Americans.’”
Data collected by DSS sheds little light on whether the department is itself responsible for the high number of black youth in foster care. Black youth are reported to the department by the police, public schools, other agencies and anonymous reporters at a rate higher than their share of the population. Yet, with the exception of eastern Guilford County, DSS investigations into child abuse and neglect do not result in increasing percentages of black children entering the foster care system.
Herzing said he believes the problem of overrepresentation is located in the reporting phase, over which DSS has little influence.
Watkins, who is black, said she disagrees, and suspects that DSS’ assessment and investigation of families referred to the agency may play a significant role in perpetuating black overrepresentation. Participating in the People’s Institute’s two-day ‘Undoing Racism’ workshop in November 2004 reinforced that conclusion.
‘“We were able to look at how we related to our clients, how we treat our white clients differently than our African-American clients,’” she said of the workshop.
While pointing to data indicating that black children fare worse than their white counterparts in education, law enforcement, social services and health care, Herzing and Watkins struggled to give concrete examples of ways in which county government employees carry out racist practices.
The two participate in a 12-member committee of DSS employees that meets once a week to discuss the disproportionate placement of black juveniles in foster care. They said they hope more DSS employees will participate the Undoing Racism workshop and view a PBS documentary, Race: The Power of an Illusion, so that a critical self-examination will take place throughout the agency.
DSS employees sit on the Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee, which also includes police, school employees and juvenile court counselors, that is examining links between local agencies in perpetuating racism.
Sgt. Mike Lloyd, head of the child victim squad, represents the Greensboro Police Department with Assistant Chief Pam Bellamy. Lloyd said May 12 that he doesn’t believe the disproportionate number of black juvenile arrests reflects racist attitudes on the force.
‘“I don’t see that,’” he said. ‘“We’re driven by what curbs the offenses, not the attitudes of the offenders.’”
Lloyd said school resource officers ‘— police officers assigned to patrol schools ‘— try to keep arrest rates down by dealing with juvenile infractions in an informal manner.
‘“Instead of charging the kid with vandalism they have the kid stay after school and clean the vandalism so they don’t have to file a report,’” he said. ‘“Their first inclination is not to first arrest that juvenile; it’s to calm them down. If the child is so out of control that the officers can’t gain compliance verbally then they have to make an arrest. That’s the last thing they want to do.’”
Pauline Brown, supervisor of school social workers for Guilford County Schools, is also a member of the Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee. She declined to comment on the public school system’s part in referring black juveniles to the DSS.
Although the exact causes of black juveniles’ overrepresentation in the system remain murky, DSS is already taking initiatives to create alternatives to foster care for clients in all racial groups.
The department received federal funding in January to offer rent assistance and social services to families reported for child neglect. This approach is based on the belief that most families want to take care of their children, and will do so if they have the economic means. Watkins and Herzing hope by providing support services they can avoid taking children away from their families.
‘“Underlying this is the philosophy that families should be treated with respect,’” Watkins said. ‘“We’ve been trained to treat families with suspicion.’”
DSS also received funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore to do better community outreach in its handling of child abuse and neglect investigations.
The foundation granted the five largest counties in North Carolina ‘— Cumberland, Durham, Mecklenburg and Wake, in addition to Guilford ‘— a total of $282,000 from January 2003 to March 2004, said spokeswoman Gretchen Test.
‘“One of the strategies from the Family to Family grant we received from the Casey Foundation is that we bring in the parents, people who support the parents and other agencies, and we talk to the family about how we’re contemplating placing the child in foster care,’” Watkins said. ‘“A lot of times a grandparent will step up and say: ‘I don’t want the child to be placed with someone outside the family. I’m willing to take responsibility.””
The underlying factor of poverty that results in black youth’s overrepresentation in the foster care system is difficult to grapple with, said Greensboro City Councilwoman Claudette Burroughs-White, who previously worked as a juvenile counselor and probation officer for Guilford County. Since 1997, she has held a position on the Governor’s Crime Commission.
‘“It’s very hard to turn around those dynamics of neglect, delinquency and undisciplined behavior,’” she said. ‘“A neglected child tends to neglect his or her child. I’d like to see more resources allocated in the area of prevention and training families.
‘“[Local government agencies] certainly have been sometimes designed to perpetuate racism,’” she added. ‘“It kind of just makes us look down on the have-nots and to have the same expectations of them as we have of ourselves. And it just doesn’t work that way.’”
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