WHP: PA officials work to address racial disparities in Child Welfare

Nationwide and in Pennsylvania, there are racial disparities in the child welfare system, meaning kids and families of different races or ethnicities could have different experiences in the system.

A 2021 Racial Equity report from DHS says, “Black children represent 35 percent of Pennsylvania’s foster care population, despite accounting for just 13 percent of children in Pennsylvania.”

The report continues to say that racial disparities can often be found at the point where families first come into contact with the child welfare system.

“In Pennsylvania there are significant racial disparities in the number of suspected child abuse and neglect reports that are received by the county children and youth agencies and ChildLine, Pennsylvania’s child abuse hotline. Notably, Black children make up 14 percent of the total child population in Pennsylvania but represent 21 percent of potential victims of abuse in child protective service reports,” the report continued to say.

“I think a lot of it is still institutional racism and biases we have to address, but we acknowledge it now,” said Pennsylvania Representative Donna Bullock, who is also the chair of the Children and Youth Committee.

“Those families are more likely to be reported for child abuse than other families and that parent is more likely to have an indicator of child abuse report that impacts the family long term because now that parent can’t get a job, they can’t support that child on a school trip,” Bullock said. “What are the root causes of overreporting families of color and overlooking other families who may be at risk?”

Decisions made in the Child welfare system can have long lasting impacts on children and their families.

“Agencies are starting to look at how do we address it over training and identifying those institutional biases and actually identifying some of it in the systems,” Bullock said. “Like how we decide scoring for example, of a child being at risk and how those factors are. If a child lives in a certain zip code and that is a zip code of color, those are things we need to start looking at and really looking at why we say a child is more at risk than another child.”

In Pennsylvania’s state-supervised and county-administered child welfare program, there can be differences in how a county handles or investigates a case.

“When it comes to child welfare cases, I think discretion is important because even when you come up with a system to check off boxes or determine this child is more at risk, you’re going to miss something and there is a human part to it which you can identify,” Bullock said. “You can have a scoresheet for example, you can have some system that allows for guidance, but I do believe sometimes you see something that doesn’t fit in a box. You don’t want to miss an opportunity to save a child’s life and that is the hardest part of the job.”

DHS has been working to address this issue for years. In the 2021 Racial equity report, DHS said they have focused on the training and curriculum provided to mandated reporters and those working in the child welfare system, there has been collaboration between courts and CYS agencies, case reviews, and they mention a focus on “diligent recruitment of potential foster and adoptive families that reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of children in the state…”

The 2021 report also mentions an internal workgroup that was created to “engage OCYF staff in identifying systemic changes to reduce disparities and improve outcomes for children and youth. Some of the key areas of focus proposed by the group include increasing culturally relevant prevention efforts, building partnerships and opportunities within the community and increasing cultural competency for responding to crises. The workgroup will devote significant time to review of existing and new data to further conduct analysis of apparent inequities and further identify root causes.”

A 2023 DHS progress report noted, ” DHS is committed to reviewing data across the full spectrum of child welfare services to gain a better understanding of racial disparities in outcomes related to safety, permanency, and well-being of children and collaborating with stakeholders to address racial disparities across the system.

Through the workgroup they worked to identify areas in child welfare service where changes in policy and practices could reduce racial disparities.

According to the report, the workgroup offered recommendations including, “Enhance mandated reporter training and increase public awareness of the impact of implicit bias; Develop training for staff who receive child abuse reports; Develop an OCYF statistician position to improve capacity to use current, specific data to inform decision making; Continue to integrate equity work, provide feedback, and make recommendations regarding the trauma-informed care work through collaboration with the HEAL PA Racial and Communal Trauma workgroup; Improve data collection and analysis to establish baseline measures for race and equity and improve consistency in child welfare data sources so that similar/same definitions are utilized for each race/ethnicity category. Develop training, tools, and technical assistance for CCYAs to improve data collection for race to ensure we are able to use data to learn from counties who are reducing disproportionality and to provide technical assistance and support for those where data reflects an increase; and Identify effective strategies to strengthen decision making during CPS and general protective services (GPS) investigations.”

In a statement, a spokesperson from DHS said, “The Department of Human Services (DHS) is committed to racial and ethnic equity in all that we do, to treating all people with respect and dignity, and to continually improving our processes and protocols around racial disparities and biases. We believe Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare System should serve every Pennsylvanian safely and effectively. DHS remains committed to reviewing all data across the full spectrum of child welfare services to better understand racial and ethnic disparities in outcomes related to safety, permanency, and well-being of children, and collaborating with stakeholders to address disparities across the system.”

They continued to say, “DHS received ARPA funding to assess and expand mandated child abuse reporter curricula and address reporting racial and ethnic biases specifically, and disparity generally in the child welfare system. This work is being done in partnership with Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare Resource Center (CWRC) and the Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance. In 2023, DHS and CWRC provided county children and youth agency caseworkers and supervisors with access to trainings.”

Additionally, since 2021, DHS has included statewide race and ethnicity data for substantiated victims and perpetrators in annual child abuse reports.

From WHP, January 4, 2024

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