Saturday, December 17, 2011

DSS finds disproportionate contact with blacks - North Carolina

By Melody Guyton Butts

DURHAM – African-American children are nearly four times more likely than the general population to be the subjects of child abuse or neglect reports in Durham County and more than seven times more likely to be placed in foster care, county Department of Social Services officials reported this week at a DSS board meeting.

“Our system is overloaded with contact with African-American families as opposed to any other family in Durham,” said Toina Coley, an in-home services social worker who serves on a committee looking to tackle the issue of disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in agencies across the county.

DSS decided to look at its DMC numbers after the N.C. Central University Juvenile Justice Institute, through a grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission, issued a report on disproportionality within Durham County’s juvenile justice system.

That report found that in fiscal year 2006, African-American youths were 3.2 times more likely than the general population to have a court petition filed. In 2010, that number skyrocketed to 7.22 times more likely.

Coley dissected local DSS numbers from fiscal year 2011, finding that African-American children were the subjects of child abuse or neglect reports at a 3.78 higher rate than the general population. Disproportionality in the child welfare system hovers around 4.0 through investigations, case substantiations and in-home services – until spiking to 7.54 with initial entries into foster care.

That’s something DSS officials want to address, and the solution starts with awareness of the problem, said Catherine Williamson-Hardy, assistant director of customer accountability with the agency. From individuals reporting abuse or neglect to the social workers investigating it, everyone has cultural biases, she said.

“It’s not about sugarcoating it and pretending we don’t have them – it’s about being aware of them so that we can manage them,” she said.

Just as with race playing a role in which new mothers are drug-tested at the hospital, a school teacher might be more apt to make a report about a black child not dressed for cold weather than a white child, Williamson-Hardy gave as an example.

Awareness is beginning to take hold within DSS, suggested John Holtkamp, the agency’s assistant director for family safety and permanency. “There was just kind of a murmur that went through our people” when the DMC numbers were presented at a division meeting last week, he said.

“Most of them don’t know. You work day by day,” he said. “No one’s intentionally doing this.”

Coley’s data collection suggests that disproportionality isn’t a currently significant concern for the Latino community, as the reports rate was 1.39, and the initial entry into foster care rate was 0.0. But Holtkamp worries that it might become an issue in the future, as juvenile justice system officials recently reported a growing DMC for that population in their system.

Dean. F. Duncan, a professor at the UNC School of Social Work, examined DMC data from across the nation and across North Carolina in a 2009 report, looking at 2007-08 data. He found that North Carolina’s DMC with regard to African-American youths in foster care (2.07) was below the U.S. as a whole (3.32). However, in that same report, he noted that Durham was one of just two counties in North Carolina – the other was Mecklenberg – with DMCs with regard to child protective investigations of black children greater than 4.0, and among 11 counties with DMCs with regard to black youths in foster care greater than 4.0.

Reached this week, Duncan said he no longer had access to the exact figures for counties and that he hasn’t revisited the data since the 2009 study. His analysis then led him to believe that factors of poverty played a large part in African-Americans’ DMC, and he cautioned against assuming that it’s only a race issue.

Holtkamp noted that Arnold Dennis, executive director of N.C. Central’s Juvenile Justice Institute, has also suggested that poverty contributes to DMC. He cited Dennis as having suggested that family-of-origin issues, like child-rearing practices and family support, and policies and practices of systems of intervention, like DSS and law enforcement, play a part.

The DMC committee of which Coley is a member was launched early this year, and its focus is now on spreading awareness of the issue, she said. The committee is looking to reach out to other parts of the community, like faith-based organizations. Committee members are also looking at hosting some sort of community meeting to help spread the word.

Stan Holt, chairman of the DSS board, asked that the board be briefed on possible solutions to the disproportionality problem at its February meeting.

It must be understood that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing disproportionality, Duncan said.

One method might be prevention programs, although there’s not a “major funding stream” for that, he said. Preventing abuse and neglect isn’t the work of DSS alone – it requires the partnership of the whole community, from schools to faith-based organizations to mental health agencies, he continued.

He’s pleased that Durham is looking to address the issue.

“There’s a need to come up with very tailored solutions,” he said, “and be able to track it over time to see if we get the outcomes we want to achieve.”


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