Child Welfare? First Check Your Privilege

As part of our Missing and Exploited investigative work, Asia and Jenina reached out to a few friends that work as child advocates and in social services. We heard about Semaj Crosby. A 17 month old who had allegedly been visited by DFS hours before she disappeared. She was later found dead in her home. The day after she was laid to rest, the home where she was found was burned to the ground.We realized that we could not ignore this tragedy, and certainly not with the story about Semaj making headlines less than a week after that of the murder of 8 month old Janiyah Saltmarshall. We asked the question that is asked too often but rarely answered, and never satisfactorily, “Who is protecting Black girls?”

Semaj and Janiyah, your lives mattered.

Author: Latrice Rose

I am not here to convince you that racial bias exists in the child protection spectrum.

That’s evident; a quick Google search will show that.  With this piece, I will attempt to assist Black parents in navigating the child welfare system, already stacked against them, as well as, making sure those reporting abuse of African American children, and those making decisions about removal and placement (often in predominately white families) do so with cultural competence.

There are ways in which Black families and the Black community can work towards advocating for themselves. Unless you are living under a rock, you are probably aware of the gut wrenching story of the death of Semaj Crosby, the infant from Illinois recently found dead in a home visited by child welfare case workers only days earlier.  The home was given a clean bill of health and no safety concerns were noted.  Yet viewing the pictures of the home, one can see that parts of it were so cluttered with food and clothing that there was no walkway. One could see heavily soiled floors and walls. On seeing these images of Crosby’s living conditions, my heart sank and my head when into a tailspin.  Tears fell and anger swelled within me, thinking of the multiple ways we allowed this baby to slip through the cracks.

I initially took a very academic approach to this writing by looking at statistics and studies that document the pervasive racism in the child welfare system. However, none of the information I read dealt with “reporters.”

What is a reporter?  A reporter is someone who reports child abuse and neglect to the appropriate authorities. The Federal Government lists the following as professionals who are required to report suspicion of maltreatment:

  •  Social workers
  • Teachers, principals, and other school personnel
  • Physicians, nurses, and other health-care workers
  • Counselors, therapists, and other mental health professionals
  • Child care providers
  • Medical examiners or coroners
  • Law enforcement officers

Reporters need to check their class and race privilege when reporting abuse and neglect. I’m not completely sure how to make this happen, but it certainly needs to. The easiest way to make this happen is on a one-on-one level. Reporters shouldn’t be reporting in a vacuum; they should contextualize their work. Hopefully, professionals who wish to be culturally competent will make it practice to consult colleagues before reporting abuse and/or neglect.

Medical professionals are the top reporters of child abuse and neglect. This makes training medical professionals along with teachers, court personnel, and other mandated reporters critically important. Curriculum developers and community advocates can make these a part of their teachings and providers can take the opportunity to ask about and listen to the unique personal stories of bias their clients experience. Reporters need to contextualize all situations when sharing these cases with each other and reporting them. They need to understand their own biases, stemming from class and race privilege.

Also, social workers should check their colleagues. With first-hand experience, I can attest to the egregious racist and classist language I’ve heard. One example: A child welfare social worker who advocated for a Black child not to return home and remain with a foster parent. They did so because the Black biological mother was in poverty and the white foster parents were well-off financially, and the social worker argued that the foster parents could “really take care of them. They are even taking them to Disney World.” Although the biological mother had completed parenting classes, had appropriate placement for the child, and had completed all mental health and alcohol and drug treatment mandated by the court, the person in charge of recommending placement to the court punished the Black mother for living in poverty.

Since Black people are more likely to live in poverty, this favoring of wealth invites systemic racism. In this light, we can see how important checking our privilege is. We are also responsible for checking others in the field.

The system fails Black parents, communities, and children in so many ways.

Black children are more likely to be removed from their home, less likely to receive in-home services, more likely to be living in poverty.  They are also more likely to be in the child welfare system as compared to white children.  According to 2014 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, African-Americans make up only 13.8 percent of the total population but, they are 24.3 percent of total child welfare cases in this country.

This over representation becomes concerning given the National Incidence Studies of Child Abuse which notes there is no relationship between race and the incidence of maltreatment.  This means that Black families are unfairly cited more often than white families regarding maltreatment and that Black parents will have to navigate the child welfare system at a much greater frequency than white parents.

Therefore, it is more important for Black parents to arm themselves with information.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Understand the removal order and petition to make sure that it is accurate and legal.
  2. You have the right to a lawyer to navigate the court process.
  3. If any allegations lead to criminal charges, parents will need to be present in criminal court as well.
    • Parents should make sure that they are aware of all court dates.  This is particularly important at the first court date after removal (pre-adjudicatory hearing) as parents and lawyers are both part of making recommendations on the treatment plan and placement of the child removed.
    • At this time, parents can advocate for their child to be returned to them if possible, or advocate for them to go to home of a friend or family member they feel could appropriately care for them.

I am a dedicated advocate who has worked in Human Services for the past 18 years in various capacities from Child Services case manager to nonprofit administrator.  Home visitation, mandated reporting and the child welfare system are not foreign to me. Although I left work with children services over a decade ago, I still work with vulnerable adults and families and am privy to the systemic abuses they face both at the hands of their abusers, and from the very system meant to protect them. Self reflection of individuals and the system at large will go a long way to bring equity to actually doing good work to protect children.

Latrice Rose is a  41 year old social work professional who has spent her career working in the non-profit realm advocating for children, the elderly and the physically or cognitively disabled. She hails from the Midwest and has degrees in Psychology and Public and Non-Profit Administration.


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