Panelists: ‘Affirming Black Children’ in welfare system requires reforms

During a panel discussion hosted by Erikson Institute, experts considered ways to improve a system that, in many states, primarily serves families of color.

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While working to create a child welfare system that supports positive outcomes for black children and families, it’s also necessary to provide the types of resources and support that keep children out of the welfare system in the first place.

That was the message a panel of experts delivered during a recent panel discussion organized and hosted by Erikson Institute. Held in April, “Affirming Black Children: A Child Welfare Lens” was the first discussion in a series that promises to focus on how institutions, including the foster care and education systems, support — or fail to support — black families and children.

“What will it take to proactively create state welfare systems that strengthen black families?” said Erikson Assistant Professor Tonya Bibbs, PhD ’14, who moderated the discussion. “How can we create developmentally informed welfare systems that can provide for the needs of black children? What would it take for the system’s workforce to be informed about how to support black families?”

The panel featured three experts whose work is deeply connected with state child welfare systems:

  • Andria Goss, MS ’02, program director of Erikson’s Early Childhood Project with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services
  • Patricia Martin, presiding judge in the Child Protection Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois
  • Molly McGrath Tierney, MEd ’97, director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services and founder of Erikson’s Early Childhood Project

Each panelist shared her personal experiences working with families and professionals in the child welfare system and addressed aspects that need improvement as well as areas where they have seen success.

Since beginning her career in 1995, Goss said, she has noticed an increase in the severity and complication of child welfare cases.

“It’s like peeling away an onion, each layer revealing deeper pain and trauma,” she said.

Most of the time, these cases involve black families, who are disproportionately impacted by issues such as inadequate education systems, lack of suitable housing options, and insufficient access to quality jobs, all of which exacerbate family challenges. Living in such conditions denigrates the quality of life for black families, and some adults turn to alternative economic options, such as the drug trade and prostitution, which can lead to encounters with the child welfare system.

In Baltimore, McGrath Tierney has looked for patterns in child welfare cases to help her find solutions. Over the years, she said, she came to see that child welfare in her city is almost exclusively an issue for black children and families.

Under the leadership of this Erikson alumna, the city of Baltimore has focused on early interventions to prevent children from being separated from their families. Signs like chronic absenteeism at school can point to deeper troubles that can be addressed before children are placed with foster families.

Over the past decade in Baltimore, Tierney said, the percentage of children in foster care and child welfare institutions has dropped significantly, and 40 percent of those who are in the foster care system go home to their parents within 90 days, with no return to the system.

“In the eyes of the law, I’m their mother,” she said. “I’m responsible for them. I take that very seriously.”

Martin shared experiences in which she has come into contact with families across multiple generations in court, indicating that the current child welfare system hasn’t helped improve life for many families. She said she thought about how a completely different system could function and provide better support.

“What would our system look like if the child remained in the home? What would our system look like if the bulk of the time, the mother was under court supervision and the court worker could track improvement?” Martin posed to the group.

She suggested that “coaches” could work with parents on issues like drug addiction and child-rearing. “Then, when the hills and valleys of life happen to us — which they do — parents know where to go to get help.”

A second event in the “Affirming Black Children” series will take place in the fall and focus on early care and education.