Academic journal article Journal of Health and Human Services Administration

Social Service Availability & Proximity and the Over-Representation of Minority Children in Child Welfare

Academic journal article Journal of Health and Human Services Administration

Social Service Availability & Proximity and the Over-Representation of Minority Children in Child Welfare

Article excerpt

Imagine the following scenario:

A teacher accuses you of improperly disciplining your child to the point of maltreatment. A child welfare caseworker investigates the accusation, agrees and recommends that you attend a parent education class to learn more appropriate methods of discipline. A judge accepts the caseworker's professional judgment regarding the severity of the discipline and temporarily withdraws your custody rights and asks the caseworker to place your child in foster care until you learn more appropriate disciplinary techniques. You leave the court room, without your child and the rest of the morning you search for a parent education class to comply with the judge's orders. You determine that there is a class, offered at night, twice a week, for eight weeks and that you can be put on the waiting list to attend when a vacancy becomes available. You add your name to the waiting list but you are concerned that you have been put on a waiting list and that the agency is uncertain when you will be notified that you can enroll and complete the class. Yet, the indeterminate wait-time for service is not what worries you the most. What causes you more anxiety and apprehension about your ability to comply with the judge's orders is that--- you don't own a car and you have determined there is no city bus transportation to the agency address which is ten miles from your home.

This study was undertaken to determine the likelihood that such a scenario could happen in Black and Hispanic urban areas for which families have relatively high involvement with the child welfare system.


The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (AACWA, P.L. 96-272, 1980) authorizes States to be reimbursed by the Federal Government for expenses incurred while administering foster care and adoption services if States submit "reasonable efforts" plans for approval by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Reasonable efforts plans are state-specific (consult Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006 for a comprehensive summary of each state's reasonable efforts statues), but fundamentally, AACWA mandates that judges scrutinize the "reasonable efforts" of every case within 60 days of foster care placement to determine if reasonable efforts actually have been made.

There have been innumerable disputes over the term "reasonable efforts" (see Kosanovich and Joseph, 2005 for a comprehensive summary of class action lawsuits, settlements and consent decrees against child welfare agencies for failure to provide services) but the most cited legal interpretation of the policy is embodied SUTER ET AL. v. ARTIST M. ET AL. (No. 90-1488, 1992) which alleged that the Director of the Illinois child welfare agency failed to make reasonable efforts to preserve and reunite families. The suit further alleged that in failing to provide services, he violated [section] 671(a)(15) of the AACWA. However, the court ruled that Section 671(a)(15) did not confer private rights to citizens to litigate against the government for failing to provide services. Furthermore the court reiterated that AACWA only requires States to have an approved case plan.

Contrary to the AACWA legislation, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) requires agencies to make "active efforts" to provide remedial services designed to prevent the breakup of Indian families. Hence, the ICWA's "active efforts" requirement is more stringent than the AACWA's "reasonable efforts" requirement (for an exhaustive summary of court rulings which draw distinctions between "active and "reasonable" efforts standards, consult Andrews, 2002). Conflicting legislation and numerous court cases reveal a lack of both government and legal consensus regarding the provision of services to families. Additionally, the term "reasonable" inherently implies a level of individual discretion and its' intrinsic lack of specificity causes unease in parents, caseworkers, administrators and judges alike. …

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