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Disproportionality – Community Action Required.
Disproportionality - now there is a word for you. Governor Sebelius used it in a press release November 25. Maybe she is pulling for that Department of Education job in the Obama administration. Actually it is a word for a very real problem. The proportion of African-American children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems in Kansas do not reflect their proportion in the state’s population. The Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services (SRS) reports that while 6% of the Kansas population identifies themselves as African-American, 28% of those in the custody of the Juvenile Justice Authority and 21% of those in SRS custody are African-American (data is from the 2008 state fiscal year, http://www.srskansas.org/CFS/datareports09.html). That is disproportionality.The Governor’s press release announced that the Human Services Subcabinet would address this problem and ‘assure racial and ethnic equity is a standard outcome across all Kansas child welfare and juvenile justice programs.’ This is worthy goal.This disproportionality problem has been around for as long as African-American’s were eligible for child welfare services. It is easy to forget that there was a time that African-American families were not eligible for these services. As child welfare services have evolved over the years it has increasingly become a response to child abuse and neglect for all families.If African-American children were more often victims of abuse, there might not be a problem. However, a government study of the incidence of child abuse has found that African-American children are not disproportionaly victims of abuse (http://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/statistics/nis.cfm). There have three of these studies with the fourth currently underway. While I know more about child welfare than juvenile justice, I have been told that all youth break laws at about the same rate so disproportionality seems to apply to that system as well.So how did we get here? Efforts to address this problem suggest that we think about this in terms of decision points. A person in a community starts the process by deciding to call the child abuse and neglect hotline. The person answering the phone makes a decision to take the report and have it investigated. Someone decides to file a petition in juvenile court. It gets very complicated but you get the picture. The idea is that disproportionality can occur at any one of the decision points while not being present at another. The result is a larger proportion of children of a particular racial or ethnic group being in state custody. For example, in community ‘A’ there may be a relatively larger proportion of court petitions filed that ask that an African-American child be found to be a Children in Need of Care (CINC). Depending on the judges’ decision a larger percentage of African-American children may end up in SRS custody. In this same community there may be no disporportionality at other decision points.A key to diagnosing the problem is to look at every community and decision point separately. You cannot assume that all communities or decision points are the same.SRS did take their preliminary analysis a step further. They noted that statewide in SFY08, African American/ Black children entered foster care at a rate 3 times their presence in the general population. So at least part for the problem is that set of decision points that lead to placement in foster care. There is still a need to examine the decisions that lead to children exiting the system such as adoption or return home.SRS also identified those counties with high or extreme rates of disproportionality. Interestingly our neighbors Johnson and Shawnee counties are identified as showing extreme disproportionality for both 2007 and 2008. Fortunately Douglas County does not show up on the list. Once the specific decisions that lead to the problem are identified, strategies to bring balance back to the system can be developed. That topic is beyond the scope of this post. I wish the Health and Human Services Subcabinet well but they can’t fix the problem by themselves. Each community needs to work with SRS to get the data for each decision point and conduct their own analysis of the problem.