By Imani Evans, Special to the NNPA from The Dallas Examiner –
No one will ever pretend that the Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) has an easy job. As an agency charged with protecting minor children from abuse, neglect, and exploitation - and empowered to remove children from homes, if necessary - DFPS will always be a political hot-button. Concerns about equity, fairness, and effectiveness have always dogged the agency, which is why it's not surprising that certain state legislators, notably State Senator Royce West, seek to make DFPS reform part of the legislative agenda for the 2011 session.
Last month, West, in conjunction with the DFPS in Region 3, sponsored a town hall meeting at Head Start of Greater Dallas to solicit comment and raise public awareness of racial disparities within the foster care system - DFPS' domain. The issue at hand is emotionally charged: the overrepresentation of children of color in the foster care system in Dallas County. Despite being 20 percent of all children, minority children are 42 percent of confirmed victims of abuse and neglect, 50 percent of children removed from homes, and 42 percent of children waiting adoption at the end of the year.
The speakers at the town hall included Audrey Deckinga, assistant commissioner for Child Protective Services, and Joyce James, director of the recently established Center for the Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities, a division of the Texas Health and Human Services System.
"The purpose of the meeting was to revisit the community and the issues that had previously been brought out in a town hall meeting about five years prior, when the work began," said Sheila Sturgis Craig, Disproportionality Project Manager. "And Senator West wanted to have folks really come back out and talk about what unfolded as a result of the efforts that had been made around addressing disproportionality."
According to Maxine Jones Robinson, DFPS Disproportionality Specialist for Region 3 which includes Dallas and Tarrant counties, "African American children are overrepresented in the child welfare system and there are many, many causes for this. When you see the numbers, they are continuously going up, but if you look at Anglo children's numbers, they are constantly decreasing."
Last month’s town hall meeting also served as a progress report of sorts for the DFPS Disproportionality Project, which was created as a result of DFPS' effort to understand and remedy the issue since submitting two reports to the Legislature in 2006. The first report was a study of the problem, the second a remediation plan. As part of the effort, DFPS formed an advisory board consisting of community leaders, educators, service providers, and judges.
"We're trying to bring people to the table that our families often have some kind of contact with," said Robinson of DFPS. "For instance, oftentimes our families come into contact with public housing and with the food stamp system. They come into contact with the judicial system. They come into contact with law enforcement. Oftentimes, the same families that we're serving are also being served by these other entities and so we have found that there are many, many causes for the disproportionality."
Recognizing this interconnectedness between the concerns of DFPS and the practices of other institutions that Black families interface with is a central feature of the remediation effort.
"It is not just a Child Protective Services problem. It's a problem that occurs in the juvenile justice system, the health care system, the school system, etc. There are many systems where African American families have disparate outcomes as a result of their interactions with those systems," Robinson said.
According to Craig, the town hall meeting was successful. It touched on issues such as support for caregivers, the challenges faced by prospective foster and adoptive parents who are African American, and airing community concerns. Although disproportionality on the whole has not decreased in Dallas County, according to Craig, although there has been a reduction in removals. Craig attributes this to intensified efforts to work with birth families in the interest of keeping children in their homes.
The DFPS analysis also emphasizes the multifaceted nature of the problem, defying one-size-fits-all solutions. For example, Robinson points out that families served by DFPS are often younger, less educated, and mired in poverty, all variables that co-mingle with race. Reporter bias, as shown by caseworkers unable to clearly distinguish between neglect and poverty, also plays a role.
In its totality, the situation may be best described as the vexing result of systemic weakness combined with the failure of some front-line CPS workers to take stock of their own cultural prejudices, or lacking guidance on how to do so.
"We're looking at our policies and practices to make sure that any policies and practices that we have that create a disparity between groups we bring to the attention of our leadership in Austin so that we can look at possibly trying to change," Jones said. "Some things we can't change because they're legislatively mandated. That's why we're working with legislators as well so they can have a good understanding of disproportionality, cultural differences and disparities."