EPISODE 20: The Only County Where Child Removal Is Race-Blind

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When decisions about whether to remove a child from a home are race-blind, fewer Black children end up in the system. 

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Transcript


Straw media, Russian ways to fuss. We all have biases and it's part

to manage. You know, things
that emerge within us when we are exposed

to certain things or when we were
already dealing with things in our own personal

lives, and our values are build
conflicted. This is Lucas grinlely from next

city, a show about change makers
and their stories. Truth is, there

are solutions to the problems oppressing people
in cities. If you're listening, I

hope it's because you want to spread
good ideas from one city to the next

city. Let's start in a classroom
where author else Beth leacock, is talking

to students about her illustrated history book
journeys for Freedom, a new look at

America story. This is a story
of part of American history that affected a

lot of people in the S and
S, and I maybe it's late I

don't know how long this went on. There was something called an orphan train.

The orphanages and sometimes just kids off
the street who weren't being watched or

they were in the wrong place at
the wrong time. Occasionally we're put on

trains and the train hold cars of
babies and they were taken out west and

wherever the train would stop, people
farm families would come out and if they

wanted it, they would look at
all the kids and if they wanted a

kid, they could choose a child. These orphan trains ran for fifty years.

To some historians, the orphan trains
are reminiscent of a time after the

end of slavery when poor black children
from the south were sent to live with

wealthier white families in the north.
The notion was the new families were somehow

better equipped to raise the children,
who commonly became indentured servants in the household.

If you hear someone say the Child
Welfare system has racist roots, this

is part of what they're talking about. Many of these kids had parents alive,

including many of the children on those
socalled orphan trains, and the system

decided the best way to help would
be sending them to live with someone else.

Fast forward to the present day.
Black Americans comprise about thirteen percent of

our country's population, but twenty five
percent of children in foster care in Nassau

County, New York, the Department
of Child Services. They're decided to find

out what happens when decisions about whether
to remove a child from a home are

race blind, would fewer black children
end up in the system. First here

is reporter Steve Volk to help us
understand the problem. Steve is an investigative

solutions reporter at resolve Philly who we
partnered with at next city to produce this

series of stories. I want to
start with the story of Kaisha Lamb,

which is someone who's based in Philly, but the solution then we go to

in Massa County, New York.
So what is it that we have to

learn from the story of Kacia Lamb? Kaisha had an event, I guess

that happens to a lot of parents, where one of her children rolled out

of bed and showed no immediate ill
effects but over the next several days started

to favor one of his arms and
started to show like increasing signs of pain,

and so she took the baby boy
to the hospital and when she got

there they ordered a full skeletal survey, the medical staff did, and they

found another like out a line,
essentially in an x Ray, that looked

somewhat suspect to them. It might
have been consistent with a broken bone and

the baby's leg, which would not
have been consistent with the fall that Kaisha

had described. And so they told
her that they were required to call dhs

and they did so and dhs came
in took both her kids. There was

this two thousand and ten study in
the journal Pediatrics that you cited that said

black families that have infants, who
do not have government health insurance, they

went under greater testing for these skeletal
surveys then did white families. How should

we interpret that? Yeah, well, so the thing they didn't have to

do was sort of the full skeletal
survey, right, but black families are

much more subject to having these surveys
ordered when they come in reporting routine injuries

than are, you know, white
parents, and so, you know,

they even explain to her, apparently
that night that they would be able to

take a subsequent x Ray in a
few weeks to determine if this was even

a break or just kind of a
sign of how the boys bones were growing.

That line could just be, you
know, what's there, right,

and so they would look for signs
of new growth. And in fact,

and this is where things get really
Harry, I think, for Kaisha,

or increasingly so, because she was
in great deal of distress having the kids

taken at all, but she was
being told the whole time, well,

let's see what the next x ray
shows. So they get the next x

Ray and the next x Ray doesn't
show any new bone growth, indicating that

this was not ever a broken bone
in the first place. And so what

they did find, which was a
break in the baby's right arm, was

consistent with the fall she had described
and one would think right that she would

get her children back immediately. But
that's not what happened. Dgs kept her

kids and wanted to put her through
a series of other kinds of like measures

and aspects of the system to assess
her mental health and whether or not the

is any kind of domestic abuse in
the house. And this is something that's

commonly reported in in the system that
you know. DHS comes in for one

reason, they're investigating some kind of
abuse. They don't find evidence of the

abuse, but they find these other
things which one wouldn't think would be,

you know, equal to separating a
family, but they separate the family.

Your sources, when they were not
in the disparity, they compared this to

policing broadly like that. precition sparities
and policing. What is it that they're

getting at with that? Well,
if you look at studies of traffic stops,

right, black monerists are more likely
to be stopped than white motorists and

they're more likely to be searched.
But when white motorists are stopped in search

they are more likely to have a
legal contraband. And this is neatly paralleled

really in in this medical setting,
in child welfare, because again, black

families more likely to undergo these full
skeletal surveys, for instance, you know,

even as opposed to white families with
similar injuries to their children. And

yet white families are more likely,
if they're reported for signs of abuse,

to be determined to be guilty of
abuse. And so when I say guilty,

by the way, that's not a
judicial context. It's the child welfare

systems finding, which is very different, and then a criminal court. It

suggests that when they're looking in a
white family there are acting on real indicators

of potential abuse and that's why they
find it more often when they actually look

that deeply at white families, whereas
with black families they're reacting at least in

part the fact that they're black.
So one of the solutions to this is

what's going on in a ssau county
with these blind removal hearings. Can you

explain what applying removal hearing is and
how it would have any effect? So

if an emergency and if a removal
is not conducted in an emergency situation?

Right, so the case worker has
gone there and didn't find that the child

was in such imminent danger that they
had to remove them immediately, but it

still thinks they need to be removed. Right, they're being abused. There's

some kind of meeting that takes place
between the worker and their supervisor and perhaps

some other staff as well. Right. And so what they did in Nassau

County is they changed the the information
that shared at this meeting to remove anything

that might be suggestive of the race
of the family involved. So that's the

ZIP code, that's, of course, the address, that's the names of

people involved, anything that that might
suggest race. And they call these blind

removal meetings, with the idea being
that if you are blinded all this stuff

that might tell you of the black
person or white person involved, what decision

would you make? HMM, and
the result was fewer black children moved from

their families. Yeah, fewer black
children removed from their families over the years.

That number has it first the difference
was unbelievable. Steve Folk reports that

before blind removal meetings began in Nassau
County, the population there was thirteen percent

black, but black children meanwhile represented
over half of the youth and foster care.

After the break, will learn how
things changed quickly. Welcome back to

next city. Nassau County. Wanted
to know if racial information is redacted at

child removal meetings, will that result
in fewer black children being separated from their

birth parents? We're about to talk
with Jessica Price. She was the researcher

whose job it was to determine whether
the experiment had worked. Her Ted talk

about the blind removal meetings being used
in Nassau County has more than one million

views. Here's the moment when she
reveals the results. Blind removals have made

a drastic impact in that community.
In Two thousand eleven, fifty seven percent

of the kids going into foster care
were black, but after five years of

blind removals that is down to twenty
one percent. You can hear the woman

in the audience say Wow, today
Jessica price is the Executive Director of the

Florida Institute for Child Welfare. I
would actually working at the universe city at

Albany when I conducted the blind removal
study, and it all started because there

was a grant provide it to several
areas of New York state, a grant

that was given to folks who were
interested in doing a workaround racial disparity and

race equity, and Nassau County received
that grant and it was my job at

the time to travel around New York
state and do a case study, so

to speak, of what you do
with the grant money. What did you

change? How has there been a
culture shift in your organization around race disparity,

and Nasau County emerged in that research
as an exemplar because of the the

innovation really, that to say,
we want to make this decision solely based

on safety and not based on,
you know, things like how tired a

case worker might be that day or
you know how often you've seen the same

person come in the system. I'm
often due to environmental or contextual things that

are going on in that family and
neighborhood. I'm not too sure. So

maybe you can clarify that the the
overall number of children who were removed from

their homes declined for across all races. Right, but did it reduce the

disproportionality of black children being more often
taken away from their homes? It did,

it absolutely did. And the important
thing to consider what the data,

because the data was being tracked by
Nassau County themselves. It was a the

state was tracking their data, which
prompted them to invite me in to do

interviews and focus groups on, you
know, your perception, as in the

case worker, director supervisor, perception
of how blind removals had impacted their organizational

climate and culture. So the important
thing to know about the data that they

tracked is that it ebbed and flowed. You know, when they started out

their pilot, you know they had
a certain number of black children being removed

from their families and they did this
pilot for five years and it went it

went down and then sometimes it went
back up and then it went down again

and then back up and then it
ultimately at the end of their pilot,

it had decreased by nearly fifty percent, and I think it's important to talk

about that because I don't want people
to think that blind removals is going to

be this automatic decrease in numbers,
because it could be disappointing for them.

So there's not a guarantee that it
will be a steady decrease, but it

is a guarantee. I'm putting quotes
around Heure and see that the folks who

are having their children removed their those
decisions were made based on a safety concern.

Yeah, could you talk for people
who don't maybe appreciate fully why it's

so important to keep a child with
people who already love them? The the

effects of not going into the foster
care system versus staying with your family?

Absolutely, one of those things is
the continuity of that relational connection. There

are so many psychologists and Phinicians that
could talk about this more eloquently, but

there's some how to research about attachment
and children who are separated from their family

and placed in, albeit well being, foster homes deal with attachment disruption.

Research has found that they are are
emotional and behavioral issues that start almost immediately

upon family separation because of the trauma. And then there's this pipeline that is

emerging in the research around children getting
placed in the home of a foster parent.

Some reformists are reframing that terminology as
stranger care instead of foster care because

white literally, it's a stranger to
these children and they're leaving these foster homes

and the pipeline is going into the
juvenile justice system. So there's research on

attachment issues, behavioral and emotional disruptions
and disturbances, and then the pipeline into

the jubinal justice system, and those
three aspects are absolutely diminished and less likely

if a child is kept within the
home of a family member who they already

know and care about. As long
as we're talking about numbers, here's another

important one to know. Those who
work in child welfare talk often about a

goal set by Casey family programs,
which has called for producing the number of

use in foster care by half in
Nassau County. That is exactly what happened.

By two thousand and nineteen the number
of children in Nassau counties foster care

system, regardless of race, had
to kind by sixty percent. In my

opinion, I believe that if we
shift are thinking around removal, the byproduct

will be less children being taken across
the ethnicity board. I believe that and

research, you know, continues to
inform this. Poverty is a huge issue

for families and we know that all
though children of color are disproportionately impoverished,

there are children across the racial spectrum
that live in seemingly intractable poverty. So

a lot of families coming to the
system because of neglect. So I believe

that if we shift our mindset forward, support community strengthening and encouraging kinship care

and kinship connections, I do believe
that this could decrease the numbers of children

coming into care overall. To think
it makes me wonder is, do investigators

feel like they really have enough options
for truly supporting a family who is in

need, who's facing severe poverty,
and they know, you know, the

choices between removing the child or helping
the family, and do they feel like

they can't help the family enough?
Is that part of the reason that then

we just take children away? anecdotely, I heard investigators in case managers say

that very thing. You know,
they they didn't want to admit that,

but they've say of things like,
you know what if our communities, you

know, have long waiting lists and
you know people are dealing with unstable housing

and you know, if I leave
the child in the home there's this risk

of something might have, you know, happening. So they want to take

the child out of the home and
it's pretty heartbreaking for me to hear folks

say that because they feel like their
hands are tied, so to speak,

and I always try to get folks
to think about that front end. How

do we transform prevention so that a
child is not even coming into the system

or that we're not getting as many
reports to the system? You know,

some people are trying to reframe mandated
reporters to mandated supporters. If you suspect

job abuse and it's around things like
mental health, their poverty, how can

we equip mandated supporters to support that
family instead of calling in a very intrusive

and long investigation? So that was
also a long answer to yes, I

think a lot of times there are
enough community resources, but I also don't

want us to get hung up on
that because I don't want us to continue

to make these risk aversive type of
decisions where I'm doing this because this might

happen, especially with this intergenerational trauma
that we're causing with families. I want

us to transform the discussion around instead
of feeling like our hands are tied.

HOW DO WE UNTIE OUR HANDS?
How do we get families that help they

need, not continue to separate them, because we're not getting to the front

end of prevention and community resources.
So why hasn't this practice has been implemented

in more cities? What is holding
people back from taking steps that are for

sure going to result in better protection
for children? We'll get into it after

the break. Welcome back to next
city. Brand removal meetings have been successfully

implemented in Nassau County in New York. Will we see it implemented in other

cities? So it is currently being
implemented in grand rapids, Michigan, and

Los Angeles County is also initiating a
pilot this year in one of their units.

As you know, Los Angeles has
the largest child Bol for agency in

the country. So they, yes, want to roll out blondermovals for the

entire county of La but they are
going to pilot it in one unit,

which is exciting for them. And
I often tell people we need more research,

we need more folks that are adaptive, innovative and want to create evidence

around this model. So those the
two that I know of, but I

can honestly say a lot of people
reach out with interest, but I think

that it's not as easy or straightforward
to get this going in places, I've

realized, even though a lot of
people think it's relatively simple. Let's dig

into that, because that's really interesting. It does sound like, Oh,

it's simple, that the process is
simple, but even in Nassau County and

the stories that we had published when
the idea was suggested, people had pushed

back against it as well. Are
you calling me racist, and is that

part of what slows people down from
adapting it? Is this defensiveness, I

guess. Yeah, what I went
into Nassau County and did interviews with the

case workers and focus groups that that
really emerged as a concern. They said

at the beginning of this I didn't
want to do it. I felt like,

you know, it was this pejorative
type of thing that we were being

punished or called racist, and over
time it seemed they started to catch on.

There was a couple of quotes that
emerged folks saying, you know,

I did realize that, you know, my biases would emerge when I heard

of certain neighborhoods and heard a name
that I had a case on a year

ago. So yeah, I think
it started to become they started to adjust

better to it after they gave it
a chance. So yes, that was

a long answer to say. That
is one of the questions or the concerns

or the pushback that I get folks
that are saying, you know, we're

not racist, we're making decisions based
on safety, you know, we're not

using our biases to do this.
And my answer to that, and it's

a short answer right now, but
it's obviously more complicated. But my short

answer to focuses. We all have
biases and it's hard to manage, you

know, things that emerge within us
when we are exposed to certain things or

when we're all already dealing with things
in our own personal lives and our values

are feeling conflicted. I feel like
this is going to come up not only

in child welfare but in basically every
system in which we recognize that the system

is racist or as racist foundations that
then to fix it. People are going

to feel like we're going after them
individually. Instance. The reaction always is,

well, I'm not racist, so
why would we need to change this

and I wonder if people really are
coming out of Nessau counties recognizing the ways

in which they had inherent biased,
because sharing that realization would maybe help other

people feel like, you know,
less attacked about wanting to fix these systems

that they're put in. I don't
know how you feel about it. I

do agree with that and I we
did a Webinar, a closed Webinarar,

recently with the pilot team in La
County and I had I had some folks

from grand rapids hop on and do
just what you talked about, discussing how

it has truly transformed the way they
talk about families and the level of discussion

they have. It's much more strength
based. It's much more what can we

do to keep this family together,
even if that means the child may not

be in their family of origin,
but there would grandma, older sibling,

cousin, uncle, maybe even a
teacher. You know, we're trying to

reframe placement. You know, if
we get to a safety decision, you

know we want folks to ask who
already loves this is child. We have

these couple more cities that are trying, at Los Angeles to be a huge

one and then what are you hoping
will come out of it? What would

you hope will be found so that
then it can go more places? I

mean maybe it doesn't work every place, I don't know. I would make

that assumption, but more places for
sure. And the are there other things

that need to happen, maybe systemically, to enable this to work in other

places? Absolutely. I often tell
people that this is a piece of a

puzzle right, it's not the silver
bullet, so to speak, and there

needs to be a big effort in
prevention, which is what Nassau County did

as well. They were in the
community creating partnerships and relationships with clinicians and

therapists and addiction specialist. They were
out there doing their provinction work as well,

I'm you know, with the goal
of not just sending a family to

someone but saying, you know,
I know this person at this facility,

they know you're on the way or, you know, doing one of those

soft handoffs where you're not just saying
here's a list of things you can go

do yourself. But there was a
big push for that. So I always

encourage folks to do the front in
work as well. And then of course

there's always going to be an importance
of what are we doing for families that

stay together after a blind removal meeting? You know, in a blind removal

meeting, if we decide as a
team this family should stay together, now

we have to work overtime to get
them what they need. So now we

have to also think about if we
decide to keep them together, what can

we do? So when folks reach
out and say I really want to do

blunder movals, I absolutely ask them
what are you already doing? Because if

the answer is not much, then
I don't recommend doing blinder movels because I

think people get really stuck on a
certain strategy and don't work on this comprehensive

approach to race equity and child safety. So I wanted to offer that out.

I also, you know, someone
asked me recently with a great question.

They said, is there any reason
not to do this? And I

love that question with it is there
any reason why we should not do blinder

movals? And it took me aback
for a moment but then I reiterated sort

of what I just said. I
said the what I would say for folks

who are asking is their reason not
to do this? My answer is,

if you haven't thought through that front
end, prevention effort and work, and

then the back end, what do
you do if a family stays together?

Because to what end if we keep
double the number of families together that we

otherwise would have taken apart, if
we're not strengthening them and building capacity and

getting them the help they need?
We can't have a bag of honor saying

that blind re moveals kept this many
families together. I think the next thing

is and what happened with those families? How are they doing? Are we

helping them stay together even longer?
I we hope you enjoyed this episode of

next city, a show about change
makers and their stories. Together we can

spread good ideas from one city to
the next city. Thank you for listening

this week. Thank you to Steve
Volk, who is investigative solutions reporter with

our Partner Resolve Philly. Thank you
to our guests, Jessica Price from the

Florida Institute for Child Welfare. Our
audio producer is Silvana Alcala. Our scriptwriter

is Francesca Mamlin. Our executive producers
are Tyler Nielsen and Ryan Tillotson. By

the way, next city is a
news organization with a nonprofit model. If

you like what we're doing here,
please consider pitching in to support our work.

Visit next city dot Org, slash
membership to make a donation, and

we'd love to hear any feedback from
our listeners. Please feel free to email

us at Info at next city dot
Org and, if you haven't already,

subscribe to the show on Apple,
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Next City
Join Lucas Grindley, executive director at Next City, where we believe journalists have the power to amplify solutions and spread workable ideas. Each week Lucas will... View More

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