Seattle Times, June 26, 2008: Editorial: Child-welfare disparities apparent, fixes vexing

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Washington state’s child-welfare system acknowledges its deeply rooted racial and socioeconomic disparities.

Acknowledging them is the easy part. Finding resolution is a vexing challenge for a system bent on improving outcomes, particularly among low-income and minority children.

We now have some answers thanks to the blueprint released by the Statewide Disproportionality Advisory Committee. Convened by the Legislature last session, the committee offers 100 pages of analysis and confirmation of biases throughout the child-welfare system.

At every juncture, African-American, Hispanic and Native American children fare worse than white children. In King County, African-American children are 8 percent of the population but half the number of kids languishing in foster care four years after initial placement.

A search for human error comes up mostly empty. Caseworkers challenged by large caseloads and compressed days are not deliberately unfair to minority children. The culprits are policies that fall heaviest on poor and minority families.

Here’s an example: Parents are required to meet certain standards, such as maintaining homes with electricity, telephone, water and other basic amenities. Poor families, more likely of color, have a harder time meeting the requirements and, when viewed by child-welfare officials, face steeper challenges proving their fitness as parents.

Another area where biases come into play is reporting violations. Sixty percent of the calls to Child Protective Services come from schools, clinics and other official agencies required by law to report suspicions of abuse and neglect. Minority and poor children are reported to CPS more often because they come into contact with government services more often.

Known as visibility bias, the statistics make it appear families of color have a higher incidence of abuse or neglect, when no such correlation exists.

Our problem mirrors a national predicament. Nearly 60 percent of the children in foster care nationwide are of color.

The Department of Social and Health Services is computerizing child-welfare decisions to eliminate the potential for bias. Improved caseworker training makes sense.

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