Why are Latinos so overrepresented in the state child welfare system?
Poverty, bias, language all cited as factors
LAST MONTH, workers from the state Department of Children and Families knocked on the door of Raquel, an El Salvadoran immigrant living in Worcester. DCF had gotten an anonymous call about a fight between her husband and her teenage son.
Since then, Raquel, speaking Spanish through an interpreter, said she has struggled to communicate with DCF workers, often because of the language barrier. DCF sometimes has an interpreter available, but not always. She had to pull her 17-year-old son out of his remote class to translate one meeting.
Raquel, who does not work, is home with her children, ages 17, 5, and 3, while her husband, a factory worker and the family’s sole provider, is banned from the house until DCF completes the investigation. Raquel says she is confused about the DCF process and feels like the language barrier is lengthening the amount of time the investigation is taking.
Raquel, who did not want her last name used, is one of thousands of Latino families struggling to navigate a state child welfare system that is disproportionately ensnaring members of their community – and that is not always well-positioned to serve them. Latino children are more likely than white children to have an open DCF case and more likely to be removed from their homes. In fact, according to the national research organization Child Trends, Latinos were more overrepresented in foster care in Massachusetts than in any other state.
This disparity has long been recognized by those within the child welfare system. But amid a national reckoning on race, advocates for children say there needs to be a broader conversation on why racial disparities exist in the system and how to address them.
Nelly Medina, a former foster child who is now an organizer for Jobs With Justice and the Worcester Education Justice Alliance, said there is a vicious cycle in which DCF is seen within the Latino community as an agency that will take their children –– so families will not turn to government if they need help. “Parents in our community are so afraid to get their children taken away again, they’re reluctant to reach out to supports who can help them maintain their children,” Medina said.
In Massachusetts, 19 percent of children are Latino or Hispanic, but 33.7 percent of children in the child welfare system are Latino or Hispanic, as are 31.9 percent of children taken from their families, according to DCF’s fiscal 2020 annual report. There are 13,800 Latino children with open DCF cases and 2,600 Latinos in out-of-home placements (living in foster care, a group home, or with a relative).
Latino kids are 2.9 times more likely than white kids to have an open case with DCF, and 2.6 times more likely to have an out-of-home placement.
While black children are also disproportionately represented in the system, the disparity is less. Black children, who are 8.8 percent of the child population, comprise 13.6 percent of those with open DCF caseloads and 14.3 percent of out-of-home placements.
DCF spokesperson Andrea Grossman acknowledged the disparity. “Hispanic/Latinx, Black, and other families of color have been historically overrepresented on child welfare agency caseloads nationwide,” Grossman said in a statement.
She said the agency has been taking steps to address the disparities. Last summer, DCF established a racial equity workgroup and steering committee focused on the agency’s policies, practices, work environment, and training opportunities.
“With many factors contributing to this disparity, the Department of Children and Families has been recruiting and hiring bilingual and bicultural workforce to increase the understanding of diverse populations and cultural differences,” Grossman said.
DCF contracts with outside community agencies to provide culturally competent services. For example, the agency contracts with Family Resource Centers, which provide services like food assistance, rental assistance, and parenting classes. According to the Family Resource Center Network, 45 percent of their clientele are Hispanic.
DCF is also involved with a commission exploring issues, including those tied to bias, surrounding mandated reporters. Mandated reporters are teachers, health care workers, law enforcement, and others who are required to report suspected abuse and neglect. Around 80 percent of DCF’s cases come through mandated reporters.
Susan Elsen, a staff attorney in the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute’s family and child justice unit, said the statistics show that the racial disparity in DCF starts at the front of the system, when families are first flagged for attention, usually by mandated reporters. The fact that the disparity persists and leads to Latino children being removed from their homes suggests that DCF also needs more interventions to help families once they enter the system. “We have to affirmatively do something to reduce the racial disproportionality as kids go through the system,” Elsen said.
There are many factors that contribute to families coming to the attention of DCF – abuse and neglect, but also poverty and, potentially, bias.
Federal data on child maltreatment for Massachusetts over the last four years finds Hispanic children are more likely to be victimized than children of other races. But the vast majority of maltreated children – nearly 90 percent – are victims of neglect, rather than abuse, a classification often driven by poverty. (The state also has broad laws meant to capture as many instances of maltreatment as possible – for example, it requires hospitals to contact DCF if they suspect a child is born with a drug dependency due to a mother’s addiction.)
DCF says more work needs to be done to understand the factors driving this disparity.
DCF data show that Hispanic children who are removed from their homes are reunited with their parents at rates slightly higher than white children. Advocates say this may suggest that Hispanic children are removed more easily, but after a more thorough court review, their homes are deemed safe to return to.
Lesli Suggs, president and CEO of the Home for Little Wanderers, a Boston-based agency that provides a range of child welfare services, said poverty is the number one risk factor for abuse and neglect and is often the reason children get reported to child welfare agencies. Children who are not well-fed or well-clothed, who do not have a stable place to live or who are left alone after school are the children who come to the attention of teachers. “What gets the attention of the system is often linked to resources and poverty,” Suggs said.
In Massachusetts, poverty is correlated with race. During the period from 2014 to 2018, 27 percent of Hispanics in Massachusetts were living in poverty, compared to 20 percent of blacks, and 9 percent of whites, according to a report from Impact MetroWest.
Both Suggs and the state-appointed Massachusetts child advocate, Maria Mossaides, said unconscious bias around race and poverty also likely plays a role.
“It’s fair to say that the institutional racism that exists within the broader society impacts people who are mandated reporters,” said Mossaides.
For example, Mossaides said, if a child falls out of a tree, breaks their arm, and goes to the emergency room, white parents from Weston are unlikely to be questioned about why the child was in the tree and not properly supervised. A black or Latino parent from Worcester or a non-English speaking parent is more likely to be questioned, and potentially reported for neglect.
“In a middle-class family, a kid falls off the bed, the presumption is it’s a horrible accident, they learned their lesson,” Mossaides said. “With poor people, there’s a sense of, you should have known better. There are different standards that apply depending on your financial circumstances.”
Mossaides, who leads a commission is examining the system of mandated reporters, said the commission is looking at things like standardizing training for educators that could address unconscious bias. It is considering developing ways a mandated reporter can contact an agency other than DCF – for example, sending a family whose child is hungry to an organization that can help them get food.
Elsen said cultural factors could also play a role in how DCF evaluates families. For example, the agency might impose space and room requirements, which would consider having a child sleeping on a living room couch unacceptable, even if the child is comfortable. Latino families may be more willing to rely on extended family or community to supervise a child, while DCF wants more supervision in the immediate household.
“Often, if you evaluate a family from a perspective of a white middle-class person and you haven’t been trained to understand the way another culture might operate, what their strengths are and how they do parenting, then you may just see differences as deficits, and you may not even perceive the strengths,” Elsen said.
If a report is filed, the DCF screener who decides whether to pursue the case has access to that family’s history with DCF, going back generations. “If you’re a black or brown family who may, due to poverty or other traumas, have come to the attention of DCF, that family history and all of its connections must be available to the screener,” Mossaides said.
Once a case is opened, the question becomes whether DCF can provide services to keep the family intact or whether it will remove a child from their home. Only one-fifth of the children DCF serves are taken from their homes, in a process that requires court approval.
One major problem identified in a recent report by the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a Boston advocacy organization, is that DCF has often not provided adequate language services to non-English speaking families. Documents are not always translated, and visits and meetings are not always conducted with an interpreter.
DCF said the agency has made progress in providing language services. “The department translates important documents, provides 24/7 telephone access to interpreters in dozens of languages, and matches families with culturally competent service providers whenever possible,” Grossman said.
Despite efforts by DCF, Medina said the perception in the Latino community remains that the agency is a threat, not a resource. “They don’t give us solutions,” Medina said. “They make us the problem, and we’re not.”
Medina, 40, entered the system at age 9 after her mother struggling with substance abuse left her and her siblings. She said her mother, a Puerto Rican teen mom, was never given the opportunity to obtain services like family therapy.
Medina said Latino families today are reluctant to call DCF even in cases when someone knows of abuse. “There’s no support for families, and the fear of having families ripped apart causes more trauma,” Medina said.
Medina, who has assisted DCF-involved families, said DCF may not help a family find money for food or clothing and might impose conditions without support to meet those conditions. For example, she said DCF recently gave a jobless woman 30 days to buy two beds for her kids – and it was Medina, not the DCF caseworker, who connected the woman to a program that gives a free bed to any family with a DCF referral. “They pay more in taking kids out and paying strangers to keep them than supporting the family to get back on their feet,” Medina said, referring to state costs for foster care.
If they are removed from their homes, Latino children can face additional cultural barriers.
Mike Dsida, deputy chief counsel of the children and family law division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said Spanish-speaking foster parents are in short supply, “so when a Latino child is removed from their home, they often lose their connection with their own language, culture, and family.” According to DCF data, both Hispanic and black children are less likely to be placed with relatives than white children.Elsen recalled one case where a young child was placed with a family who didn’t speak his language, and he started to lose his language. “How hard is that to try to reunify a child with his family when he’s losing his ability to talk to that family?” Elsen asked.
Medina recalled feeling like an outsider in her foster homes and being accused of theft in a school where she was the only Latina. Medina said today in her community, “A lot of families are stressed out, but they refuse to seek help because help equals DCF, DCF equals losing their children.”