Statistically, the most likely profile of a neglectful or abusive parent is a 30-year-old, college-educated white woman who has a job. Yet in Maryland, African-American children are far more likely than their white counterparts to be removed from their homes by child welfare officials because of maltreatment.
A recent study by Advocates for Children and Youth, a group that lobbies for children's issues in Maryland, found that while African-Americans make up only a third of the state's children, they constitute nearly three-quarters of the children removed from their homes, and are five times more likely than white children to be placed in group or foster home care. Yet rates of maltreatment among black and white families are virtually identical.
This week, ACY will ask Gov. Martin O'Malley to issue an executive order that begins to address these disparities. The order would direct the state Department of Human Resources to identify specific sources of bias within the current child welfare system and to retrain child welfare workers in family-centered practices aimed at keeping more African-American children in their homes. The advocates want to redirect funds not being used for foster families toward a team approach to resolve problems that affect the entire family and ensure that they get the services they need.
Most Maryland children who come into contact with the child welfare system do so not because of physical or sexual abuse but because of neglect - a catch-all category that can be highly subjective depending on whether the individual reporting the incident is a social worker, police officer, teacher, pediatrician or relative. Family involvement meetings are designed to help parents or close relatives deal with the immediate problems that brought their children to the attention of welfare workers and thus reduce the need to remove children from their homes.
Help may take the form of housing assistance, job counseling, nutritional guidance or treatment for substance abuse, and that would require other agencies to staff and buy into this approach, coordination that could prove difficult without the governor's insistence. Experience in other states has shown that such interventions can be an effective alternative to immediately initiating procedures to separate children from their families.
Rather than dismantling families when crises arise, Maryland needs to find better ways to help them solve their problems so that both parents and children can get on with their lives.