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← To transform child welfare, take race out of the equation

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Showing Revision 7 created 08/21/2018 by Oliver Friedman.

  1. I want you to imagine that you are
    a Child Protective Services worker.
  2. And you have to respond
    to a report of child abuse.
  3. You walk into a home, unannounced,
    unexpected, certainly uninvited.
  4. The first thing you see is a mattress
    in the middle of the room, on the floor.
  5. Three kids lying on it, asleep.
  6. There's a small table nearby
    with a couple of ashtrays,
  7. empty beer cans.
  8. Large rat traps are set in the corner,
  9. not too far from where
    the kids lie asleep.
  10. So you make a note.
  11. A part of your job is walking
    through the entire home.
  12. So you start with the kitchen,
    where there's very little food.
  13. You notice another mattress
    in the bedroom, on the floor,
  14. that the mother shares
    with her infant child.
  15. Now, generally, at this point,
    two things may happen.

  16. The children are deemed unsafe
    and removed from the home,
  17. and placed in state custody
    for a specified period of time.
  18. Or the children remain with their family
  19. and the child welfare system
    provides help and support.
  20. When I was a Child
    Protective Services worker,

  21. I saw things like this all the time.
  22. Some far better, some far worse.
  23. I asked you to imagine
    yourself in that home,
  24. because I wonder what crossed your mind.
  25. What guides your decisions?
  26. What's going to impact
    your opinion of that family?
  27. What race, ethnicity,
    did you think the family was?
  28. I want you to realize
    that if those children were white,

  29. it is more likely that their family
    stays together after that visit.
  30. Research done at
    the University of Pennsylvania
  31. found that white families, on average,
    have access to more help and more support
  32. from the child welfare system.
  33. And their cases are less likely
    to go through a full investigation.
  34. But on the other hand,
    if those kids are black,
  35. they are four times
    more likely to be removed,
  36. they spend longer periods
    of time in foster care,
  37. and it's harder to find them
    a stable foster placement.
  38. Foster care is meant to be
    an immediate shelter of protection

  39. for kids who are at high risk.
  40. But it's also a confusing
    and traumatic exit from the family.
  41. Research done at
    the University of Minnesota
  42. found that kids
    who went through foster care
  43. had more behavioral problems
    and internalized issues
  44. than kids who remain with their families
    while receiving help and support.
  45. The scenario I mentioned earlier
    is not uncommon.

  46. A single mother,
    living in low-income housing
  47. with her four children.
  48. And the rats make it
    almost impossible to keep food,
  49. let alone fresh food in the home.
  50. Does that mother deserve
    to have her children taken from her?
  51. Emma Ketteringham,
    a family court attorney,

  52. says that if you live
    in a poor neighborhood,
  53. then you better be a perfect parent.
  54. She says that we place unfair,
    often unreachable standards
  55. on parents who are raising their kids
    with very little money.
  56. And their neighborhood and ethnicity
  57. impact whether or not
    their kids are removed.
  58. In the two years I spent
    on the front lines of child welfare,
  59. I made high-stakes decisions.
  60. And I saw firsthand
    how my personal values impacted my work.
  61. Now, as social work faculty
    at Florida State University,

  62. I lead an institute
  63. that curates the most innovative
    and effective child welfare research.
  64. And research tells us that there are
    twice as many black kids in foster care,
  65. twenty-eight percent,
  66. than there are in the general
    population, 14 percent.
  67. And although there are
    several reasons why,
  68. I want to discuss one reason today:
  69. implicit bias.
  70. Let's start with "implicit."

  71. It's subconscious,
    something you're not aware of.
  72. Bias -- those stereotypes and attitudes
  73. that we all have
    about certain groups of people.
  74. So, implicit bias is what lurks
    in the background
  75. of every decision that we make.
  76. So how can we fix it?
  77. I have a promising solution
    that I want to share.

  78. Now, in almost every state,
  79. there are high numbers of black kids
    going into foster care.
  80. But data revealed that Nassau County,
  81. a community in New York,
  82. had managed to decrease
    the number of black kids being removed.
  83. And in 2016, I went
    into that community with my team
  84. and led a research study,
  85. discovering the use
    of blind removal meetings.
  86. This is how it works.

  87. A case worker responds
    to a report of child abuse.
  88. They go out to the home,
  89. but before the children are removed,
  90. the case worker
    must come back to the office
  91. and present what they found.
  92. But here's the distinction:
  93. When they present to the committee,
  94. they delete names, ethnicity,
    neighborhood, race,
  95. all identifiable information.
  96. They focus on what happened,
    family strength, relevant history
  97. and the parents' ability
    to protect the child.
  98. With that information,
    the committee makes a recommendation,
  99. never knowing the race of the family.
  100. Blind removals have made
    a drastic impact in that community.
  101. In 2011, 57 percent of the kids
    going into foster care were black.
  102. But after five years of blind removals,
    that is down to 21 percent.
  103. (Applause)

  104. Here's what we learned
    from talking to some of the case workers.

  105. "When a family has a history
    with the department,
  106. many of us hold that history against them,
  107. even if they're trying
    to do things differently."
  108. "When I see a case from a certain
    apartment building,
  109. neighborhood or zip code,
  110. I just automatically think the worst."
  111. "Child welfare is very subjective,
    because it's an emotional field.
  112. There's no one who doesn't have
    emotions around this work.
  113. And it's very hard to leave
    all of your stuff at the door
  114. when you do this work.
  115. So let's take the subjectivity
    of race and neighborhood out of it,
  116. and you might get different outcomes."
  117. Blind removals seem to be
    bringing us closer

  118. to solving the problem of implicit bias
    in foster-care decisions.
  119. My next step is figuring out
  120. how to use artificial intelligence
    and machine learning
  121. to bring this project to scale
  122. and make it more accessible
    to other states.
  123. I know we can transform child welfare.
  124. We can hold organizations accountable
  125. to developing the social consciousness
    of their employees.
  126. We can hold ourselves accountable
  127. to making sure our decisions
    are driven by ethics and safety.
  128. Let's imagine a child welfare system
    that focuses on partnering with parents,
  129. empowering families,
  130. and no longer see poverty as failure.
  131. Let's work together to build a system
  132. that wants to make families stronger
    instead of pulling them apart.
  133. Thank you.

  134. (Applause) (Cheering)