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Black History Month and Child Welfare

(February 3, 2023) Black History Month is an opportunity to understand Black history beyond stories of racism and slavery. It is a time to honor Black achievement and contributions as well as an opportunity to reimagine what possibilities lie ahead. To do this, we must first acknowledge that despite how far we have come, we still have a very long way to go. One particular area where a lot of change still needs to be made is the child welfare system.

The child welfare system, like many systems in the United States, suffers from the consequences of racism and inequality. Structural racism can get in the way of the intended process of this system and cause unintentional harm. A large percentage of children enter the child welfare system based on accusations of neglect. In many cases, signs of neglect are conflated with the consequences of poverty. The burdens of chronic poverty exacerbate other parental risk factors such as mental health conditions, substance use, domestic violence and criminal justice involvement. Low-income families often work longer hours, lack access to affordable childcare, and struggle to financially meet the needs of their children. It is important to recognize the intersectional factors that increase the vulnerability of some children and families.

Black History Month is a great time to ensure that there is a culturally competent workforce who can recognize family practices that may be viewed as abusive or neglectful by some individuals as a cultural component of these practices. Cases of neglect and maltreatment rely greatly on the discretion of social workers, law enforcement, judges, and attorneys. What may be cause for removal to one caseworker could be a referral to supportive services to another. The implicit bias of decision-makers can have a negative effect on children of color in child welfare. Black children are three times more likely to be the subject of a Childline investigation and three to six times more likely to be removed from their home (see “Child Welfare,” pg. 12). A first step to addressing bias is knowing your own biases, whether positive or negative. For example, working as a child advocate I have gone into homes where there were no beds or very little food in the refrigerator. Neither of these indicators of poverty equate to child abuse or neglect despite them being risk factors. The presence of poverty alone does not mean a child is unsafe, unloved, or that a parent lacks the capacity to care for his or her child.

It is important that child welfare workers receive training to foster a culture of respect both among the staff and for the families they are working with. The Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families has partnered with the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute (NCWWI) and the University of Pittsburgh as part of the NCWWI Workforce Excellence Initiative. This initiative “aims to transform the child welfare workforce system by attracting diverse, motivated, caring people who are committed to personal and professional development, family and community partnerships, and anti-racist practices.”

During Black History Month, we should honor the leaders and heroes that have gotten us this far while continuing to fight some of the same battles that have been ongoing for years. It is vital to ensure that all children have access to basic necessities like food, housing, education, and affordable health care, regardless of where they live or the color of their skin. There is no easy fix for the flaws in the child welfare system, but each organization and agency needs to evaluate their systems to identify where and how disparities are occurring and to ensure their practices use an anti-racist approach.

Heather Wilkes, Allies for Children Policy Manager