Race-blind decision-making could reduce racial disparities in child welfare system

Pilot project in New York shows the pronounced effect it could have

THOUGH THEY ARE certainly helpful for raising broader awareness of the issue, I don’t need reports or articles like the recent piece in CommonWealth to tell me that black and Hispanic families are overrepresented in the state’s child welfare system. I can just look at the youth my agency serves. Over half are racial minorities, even though only 40 percent of children and teenagers under age 18 in Massachusetts identify as such.

Statewide, these disparities are deeply troubling. Over 33 percent of children in the state’s child welfare system are Hispanic even though they comprise just 19 percent of children. Just over 13 percent of children in the child welfare system are black even though they make up just 9 percent of the children in the state.

The overrepresentation of racial minorities in child welfare programs is not unique to Massachusetts. Black children account for about 14 percent of all children in the United States, but make up 23 percent of all those in foster care. Among children entering foster care, American Indian/Alaska Native children are represented at 2.7 times their rate in the general population. In Minnesota, where just 1.7 percent of children are American Indian/Alaska Native, they make up 27.2 percent of all those in foster care.

Racial disparities persist throughout the child welfare system, from initial reports of neglect or abuse to out-of-home placements. Black parents and guardians are nearly twice as likely to be investigated for alleged child maltreatment as white parents and guardians. Asian, Hispanic, and black parents and guardians are far more likely to be reported for physical abuse than white parents and guardians.

It’s well documented that racial bias is a significant contributing factor to these disparities. Due to its unconscious nature, implicit bias is incredibly hard to eliminate through training alone, and it doesn’t just affect case workers who are white. High caseloads coupled with the need to triage complicated cases without much time for deliberation can create conditions in which implicit bias is difficult to mitigate, regardless of prior training or the life experiences one brings to the job. As a former area director for the Department of Children and Families, I made decisions that altered the trajectory of a child’s life based on information that was often incomplete and devoid of nuance. Despite our best intentions, implicit racial bias is powerful and can affect the decisions even of someone like me, a man of color with years of experience and training in child welfare.

So how should child welfare agencies approach this problem? An experiment by the Office of Child and Family Services in Nassau County, New York, is instructive. In 2009, New York’s Office of Children and Family Services provided grants to 13 county child welfare offices in the state to fund new strategies to reduce the overrepresentation of black children in foster care. Nassau County officials decided on a simple approach: race-blind decision-making about removing children from their homes.  

To run the experiment, Nassau County began determining out-of-home foster care placements only after a family’s race or ethnicity was removed from the case file. They also removed family names and addresses from case files because such information can provide clues about race and ethnicity. Instead, decisions about whether to remove a child from a home or provide in-home services to help stabilize the family were made solely on the basis of information about current allegations, past allegations, and risk factors like mental health, substance abuse, parental stressors, and the number of children in the family.

It didn’t take long before they saw a drop in the number of black children removed from their homes due to allegations of abuse or neglect—and the numbers were significant. In 2011, 57 percent of the children placed in foster care by Nassau County officials were black—even though black people accounted for only about 13 percent of the county’s overall population. Five years later, after continuously running the race-blind removal experiment, just 21 percent of children removed from their homes were black.

The ongoing results in Nassau County were so effective that in 2020, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a directive ordering all child welfare offices in the state to adopt race-blind decision-making processes when considering whether to remove a child from their home.

The experiment forced Nassau County child welfare officials to confront their own racial biases, however well-intentioned they are about protecting children. One agency administrator told researchers that race-blind decision-making has brought objectivity to what traditionally has been a subjective task. “This particular field is very, very subjective because it’s a very emotional field. There’s no one that doesn’t have emotions around child welfare,” said the administrator. “And it’s very hard to leave all your stuff at the door when you do this work. And I don’t know that everyone is very good at it.”

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Another agency staffer acknowledged how preconceived notions about where someone lives could affect decisions about foster care placement: “Once you hear certain towns, right away, automatically you think the worst of that particular community,” the person said. “And it’s probably about six towns that I can think off the top of my head that they think is like, ‘Oh my God.’ So I think that the name and the address have a lot, and also the next part of it is the presentation of the [case]worker.”

Sometimes the most effective solutions to problems are the most obvious. Race-blind foster care placement evaluations would be a good example. The practice will not fully eliminate racial disparities. But there is little doubt they can be a powerful tool in creating a more equitable child welfare system that responds appropriately and effectively to the needs of the children and families it serves.

Shaheer Mustafa is president and CEO of HopeWell, Inc., a Dedham-based agency that provides intensive foster care to families in Massachusetts and Connecticut.