Our theme for the month of March is “Part Two.” Writers were challenged to choose a piece they’ve previously contributed to the post calvin and revisit it, perhaps writing a sequel or reflecting on how things have changed.
Someone posted a quote to my Facebook feed recently that said something to the effect of, “Social workers go into the same dangerous environments that police officers do, armed with nothing more than a pen, some paper, and a nametag.” As a social worker who has had to walk up to an uncountable number of strangers’ houses, in several of the “worst parts of town,” this little quote resonated with me in exactly the way it was designed to. And as a social worker who is frequently (erroneously) associated with the county Child Protection offices, I am easily as hated as the average police officer. I’m not as feared, because I’m not packing heat.
For weeks, that quote has been running laps in my head while I force myself to have an intellectual response instead of an emotional one. And while it was stirring in the background, I stumbled across an article from 1981 that had this to say about police brutality:
The most publicized type of police brutality is the extreme case of [African Americans] being killed by policemen. This phenomenon is important in itself, but it constitutes only a minor portion of all police brutality.
The article went on to talk about ways in which police officers in both the North and the South used their positions of power to brutalize the minority groups in their communities. Even with all the time that has passed since this article’s publication, it still speaks its truth into today.
But the police are not the only instruments of brutality that the government can use against its people. Guns are not the only violent instruments the government can arm itself with. The police and other government officials—for instance, county CPS caseworkers—removing children from their homes is also brutality. The policies that oversee that removal are also violent. And, like the killings of unarmed black men, that brutality and violence is levied disproportionately against African Americans, their families, and their communities.
When a report of child abuse or neglect is made, the intake worker who receives it has to decide whether it should be “screened out,” meaning no further intervention is currently necessary, or “screened in” for in-home services, mental health interventions, poverty interventions, or child removal. Intake workers use forms called risk assessments to do this: it’s a form with a bunch of yes-or-no questions and Likert-scale responses that quantifies the level of danger the child is in. If the level is below a certain threshold, the report is screened out.
This is one step in the process where racism can play an uncomfortably large role. If the intake person doesn’t know the answers to all the questions, or if the risk level is teetering on the edge between screening in or out, the worker has to make the call. If the child is African American and the worker doesn’t trust African American parents to raise their children, that child might be needlessly removed, or that family’s life may be harmfully disrupted. Once the system is involved with a family, it can feel like a roll of the dice is all that determines whether that family is treated with civility and respect by all the workers involved: many workers don’t have sufficient training to notice their own biases, not all counties or even all offices within a single county maintain the same standards and procedures, and all counties depend on resources that are outside their control, including funding, time, and good management. Dealing with CPS is never a pleasant experience, but for some people it can be extremely detrimental in the long run. And statistics show that African Americans, Lantinx, and Native Americans are sent through the ringer disproportionately more often than white Americans.
Even when the case is somehow clear cut and the important decisions are easy to make, the system is still racist. When a child is placed outside their home, there are a few options as to where they can go: there is mental health treatment, non-relative foster care, and kinship care. Because of child welfare legislation over the past few decades, kinship care is almost always legally preferred. The legislation states that kinship care is used to preserve the cultural and familial ties between the child and their original family, even if they can’t ever return to live with their parents. So many argue that kinship care is designed to counteract the racism inherent in the rest of the child welfare system.
But in Allegheny County, while there are dozens of different mental-health placement agencies and non-relative foster care placement agencies, providing for an ample amount of free market competition and a selection of services to their consumers—namely, the county and the families it serves—there is only one agency with a contract to provide kinship placements. One agency is responsible for 65% of the 1,501 children who are in out-of-home placements. 175 caseworkers and their supervisors are responsible for maintaining the needs of 976 children and their placement families. This pouring from an empty cup is the resource we give to children whose cultural and familial ties we want to protect. When you remember that black and multi-racial children make up less than 20 percent of the county’s child population, but make up 40 percent of the population of abuse reports and 50 percent of the population of children removed from their homes by CPS, it’s hard to pretend racism isn’t a factor here.
Allegheny County recently made national news for having the first predictive risk model that uses a data-driven algorithm to help determine whether or not a family under investigation needs to be screened in or out. The report on the two-years-long process of the algorithm’s development goes into the specifics of inputs and outputs and what everything means. The report is worth reading, because it’s clear that the people responsible for the legwork really put good effort in. All the public discourse on this new algorithm raves about how this will reduce racial discrepancies in referrals and removals, and that is heartening, however skeptical I might be about whether a computer program made by biased humans with biased data can somehow be unbiased.
Still, though, no one is talking about the racism that comes before and after a report is sent to the intake offices. No algorithm is going to teach mandated reporters that white families are just as dangerous as other families. No algorithm is going to put money in the budget to adequately train every social service worker on the necessities of self-inspection. No algorithm is going to give an underfunded, overworked kinship placement agency room to breathe and the resources necessary to really serve their clients.
So while it’s true that social workers, caseworkers, in-home services workers, family therapists, and all sorts of other well-intentioned professionals go into the same dangerous environments that police officers do, it’s not true that they walk in unarmed. And it seems to me that poorly executed bureaucracy is just as dangerous as a gun in the hands of someone who won’t admit their own prejudices.
Mary Margaret is a 2013 English, history, and secondary education grad who went rogue and became a Social Worker in Pennsylvania’s Child Welfare system. Specifically, she works as a caseworker in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network finding families for children and educating the masses about foster care, adoption, and permanency planning. She made it over the grad-school hurdle with gold stars and warm fuzzies and is on to the next big adventure: the unknown of adulthood. Her major writing dream right now is to finish her science fiction novel that explores the concurrent futures of child welfare and artificial intelligence.