Black Experts Tackle Problems of Child Welfare

Article excerpt

WHY ARE BLACK children over-represented at every level of the child welfare system - in child-abuse reports, in foster care, in juvenile detention centers?

Forty experts on child welfare gathered in St. Louis for three days this month to confront this question, which is usually just whispered about.

Billed as the first African-American Child Welfare Summit, the invitation-only meeting brought together about 40 of the best minds in the child-saving business - academics, directors of giant state agencies, administrators of children's homes, people from think tanks. By design, all of the participants were black.

"Many of the communities in which African-American children live are not healthy," said Joyce Johnson, the spokeswoman for Black Administrators in Child Welfare, which sponsored the meeting. "As African-Americans in child welfare, we have a responsibility to figure out what supports they need, so that we don't continue to just put more and more children into foster homes."

The meeting was held at the Annie Malone Child and Family Services Center, a 107-year-old agency that provides residential care for abused and neglected children and help for troubled families.

Among the statistics that gave urgency to the meeting:

Only 15 percent of children are black, yet they are involved in 28 percent of allegations of child abuse or neglect.

In 1990, black children constituted 40 percent of the 400,000 children in out-of-home placements, such as foster care. The number grew 83 percent between 1982 and 1990.

Forty percent of black children live in poverty, as against 13 percent of white children.

Each year, 11 percent of black 15-to-19-year-old girls become mothers, compared with 6 percent of their white peers.

The consensus among the black experts was that black children may be over-represented in the child-welfare system not because of the seriousness of their needs but because their lives are being viewed through a culturally biased lens.

"Right now, the decision to remove a child from his family can be fairly arbitrary, based on which worker from what background visits at what time of day," said Sheryl Brissett-Chapman, who runs the Baptist Home for Children and Families in Bethesda, Md. …