Thursday, March 17, 2022

Ending anti-Black racism in child welfare and juvenile justice systems

Ending anti-Black racism in child welfare and juvenile justice systems

Sherri Simmons-Horton is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Social Work at UTSA. She specializes in race disproportionality in child welfare and juvenile justice systems.


EXPERT VOICE

JULY 15, 2020 — We all have heard the names: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks. Graphic images and video of their murders have awakened overdue conversations about anti-Black racism in law enforcement. But these stories are not new to the Black community. These names, and scores of others, represent persistent anti-Black racism sewn into the fabric of America.

The demand for change in racist law enforcement practices has brought attention to racism in other structures, including child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Responsible for the protection and rehabilitation of children, these systems are coming under scrutiny in how their practices and procedures target Black children and families.

As a Black child welfare and juvenile justice researcher with over 25 years of experience practicing in, studying and witnessing these systems, I can say with confidence that anti-Black racism toward Black children is nothing new. The moment for change is now.


“I can say with confidence that anti-Black racism toward Black children is nothing new. The moment for change is now.”



Decades of child welfare and juvenile justice research highlights racial disparities among Black children. In child welfare, Black children are more likely to experience racial disparities across key decision points, including child abuse reporting, investigation and removals, and they are least likely to be reunified with parents. In the juvenile justice system, Black youth are five times more likely to be detained or committed compared to white youth, and four times more likely to be certified to adult courts.

The American juvenile justice system was established during the early 1900s for protection and rehabilitation of wayward and unsupervised children. The population of Black youth, largely located in the South, remained enslaved. Despite laws changing over time, Black youth were denied access to reformatory institutions, and it would be a decade later before special sections were made available for Black children. Still, “Black Codes” forced Black adolescents into incarceration for behaviors, only deemed criminal, because of being black.

Little has changed since the juvenile and child welfare systems were established. Current policies embodying the targeting of Black children are damaging to the Black family. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, federal legislation focused on unrelated adoption, requires courts to terminate rights of parents with children in foster care within less than two years. Providing financial incentives to place children in adoptive homes, the legislation fails to invest in parental rehabilitation. The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act of 1994 abandoned the policy of matching Black children with Black families and financially sanctioned states that included race as a factor in matching families to children.

In the juvenile justice system, an amendment made to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 mandated juvenile justice jurisdictions to reduce disproportionate numbers of Black youth in all processing stages or face fiscal penalties. Improvements have been made in tracking racial disparities yet race bias in arrests, adjudications and sentencing continues.

Through the lens of slavery, child welfare and juvenile justice systems have policies and practices with unreasonable expectations, pointed to Black families. But a reckoning to address anti-Black racism in these systems is fast-approaching. The time is now for these systems to look internally at their “well-meaning” policies, destructing the Black family.

Child welfare professionals oblivious to or unconcerned of possible systemic racial bias are unlikely to address disparities as they are occurring. Involvement of concerned community members of color in key staffing decisions creates opportunities for objective, in-depth decision-making. Zero-tolerance policies in schools are a primary source of juvenile intakes, targeting Black children. Further, juvenile courts must evaluate adjudication and adult certification decisions, disproportionately placing Black youth in detention centers, residential treatment facilities and adult prisons.

The time is now for professionals committed to well-being of children to undo racism imposed on Black children. Ignoring systemic race problem in child welfare and juvenile justice systems is unacceptable. The reckoning for ending racially biased practices will come. The lives of Black children matter.

Sherri Y. Simmons-Horton



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