September 30, 2009

Racism in the foster care system: No surprise?

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Just last week, InvestigateWest reported that Oregon officials were planning to reevaluate the state’s foster care system after some ghastly cases of neglect were made public. Now it seems they’ve decided to tackle yet another issue: how racism can influence caseworkers’ response to abuse reports.

The Oregonian has been closely following this story, with Michelle Cole reporting on this week’s announcement. It seems that a new report by Portland State University revealed that racial bias sways the way state child welfare officials  deal with suspected neglect. The study found that African American children and Native American children were much more likely to be pulled from their biological homes than Caucasian children, whereas Hispanic children were removed at much lower rates. African American and Native American children, on average, also spent greater lengths of time in foster care before being returned to their parents.

Multnomah County, right outside Portland, is one of three counties nationwide looking at why these statistics are occurring. But Multnomah County Circuit Judge Nan Waller told The Oregonian she wasn’t surprised by the results:

Let’s acknowledge it — sometimes racism occurs.

The most recent case to come into her courtroom involved a child who overdosed on cocaine while with a babysitter. His parent’s race — African American — and their history had authorities convinced they were drug dealers. Waller said state officials were “looking at (the parents) through a certain lens,” but she returned the child quickly.

Meanwhile, community perceptions were found to be just as racially disproportionate: children from black families were two to three times as likely to be reported to child protective services as Caucasians, while Native American children were twice as likely.

— Natasha Walker

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