Racial disproportionality is well documented in the child welfare space. We know the problem well. In fact, investigating families of color and removing their children operates like a bad habit that we are willing to acknowledge but just cannot seem to find a way to fix.
One reason we cannot fix it is that our systems are built to address crisis moments rather than root causes. This is how bias and inequity become institutionalized in our public systems and their work. They ignore, or do not fully comprehend, that historical and structural constraints block many Black and brown people from equal access to opportunity — often starting at birth.
By the time these children become adults, many are in crisis, living in under-resourced communities, hanging on by their fingertips. Recovery for them is difficult, elusive and complicated. The result is a child welfare environment that is inclined to see their behaviors and ways of life as not being in the best interests of their children, creating an environment that is all too willing to expect, and then accept, that these families are not capable of protecting their children.
The default to fixing what ails these adults is to investigate them for not thriving, while having little or no appreciation for the considerable efforts they make just to survive. Our public systems fail to effectively support families while they are in the shallow end of the needs continuum — where issues of race inequity, and the disproportionality it fuels, are most actionable and their remediation most impactful.
Rather, public systems wait on a crisis, hoping that the serious misalignment between what families of color need when they are in crisis and how we currently intervene on those needs will somehow produce a good and fair outcome. That lack of alignment opens the door to the injustice we see in how these families are treated.
Our child welfare systems demand an immediacy of response that doesn’t allow time for understanding, much less intervening on, root causes. Instead, the system reacts to this dilemma by over-investigating Black and brown families and then “rescuing” their children.
While we desperately need to fix how public child welfare systems function, public systems alone cannot get the job done. Why? Because the rules driving public systems are designed to target the individual — rather than the lack of resources and under-investment that contributes to adult “failure to thrive” in many Black and brown communities.
By the time child welfare intervenes, we are already operating in rescue mode. This is the ultimate equity dilemma staring most public systems in the face: moving beyond rescue to root causes. Because rescue, by definition, must wait on crisis and failure and, for people of color, that is an ever-present reality.
Nowhere is this dilemma more evident than inside the child welfare system, which desperately needs to heal itself from the inside out. However, rooting out the inequities facing families of color inside the child welfare system will never be enough so long as the inequities and disparities they live with, and that ultimately drive them to child welfare’s front door, remain unchanged.
Think of this in the economic terms of supply and demand. Currently, most of our public systems like child welfare are designed to intervene on individuals’ needs; the demand side of the equation) and not address historical and structural deficiencies (the supply side) inside the communities where these individuals live.
This is what that looks like in the communities where Black and brown families struggle to thrive:
- We give you food stamps, but who assures there are stores in your community where you can buy healthy food?
- We give you a housing subsidy, but who assures there are safe places you can rent with that subsidy?
- We enforce job search activities as a condition for receiving unemployment and other benefits, but who assures that there are employers in your area that are willing to hire someone with your background?
The supply side problem is two-fold. On the one hand, government alone does not have a strategy that is broad and deep enough to intervene before you are in crisis. On the other hand, the infrastructure inside many communities of color is neither robust enough nor well organized enough to intervene effectively and consistently with struggling adults and their families.
We need a supply-side strategy that includes both government and community. Inside the child welfare system, this strategy may initially mean restructuring the space right in front of the child welfare front door by mobilizing internal responses and resources in ways that divert and connect struggling families to supports. This strategy ultimately requires building those community supports in tandem with the people and places that see these families every day and understand their lives and challenges. It will mean mobilizing a community infrastructure that currently is more inclined to see itself as mandated reporters, rather than mandated helpers.
To thrive, these families need us to replace the vicious cycle of unequal opportunity, deprivation, isolation and stress with a virtuous cycle that offers them relationships, connections, information and access to quality education, jobs, health care and child care. Many of these families are not well because no one but them owns their wellness.
It will not be enough to fix child welfare systems unless we are simultaneously working to fix the communities where the people they serve live. This must take place as a ground game, working with communities from the inside out, and that requires public sector leaders who are willing to show up differently in local communities, putting their leadership on the line on behalf of these under-served communities and their families.
Disproportionality in our child welfare system is a national problem rooted in historical and structural sins of our nation. But as public sector leaders, we can hasten the day the burden of those sins is lifted from our children by showing up differently in the ways we help the adults in their lives not just survive but thrive.