Our fellows gathered in Montgomery, AL, on January 22, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for our first quarterly training and development convening of 2019. It was a fitting time and place to continue an ongoing conversation among fellows, faculty and guests about the impact of our nation’s history of racial injustice on today’s child welfare systems.
A cornerstone of the weeklong training was an afternoon devoted to visiting the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Dr. Carol Spigner, professor emerita at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and former Associate Commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, helped to prepare fellows for this experience.
Dr. Spigner presented a brief history of child welfare, with particular focus on the treatment of children and families of color. She then led fellows and guests in a nuanced discussion of how this history has influenced today’s child welfare systems.
This connection between history and present-day practice is essential for fellows to fully grasp the systems they are entering. Dr. Spigner noted, “This history is alive today. We are not just fighting what’s in front of us. We are fighting 200 years of patterns, philosophy, ideology, and practice.”
Dr. Spigner ended her presentation with a slide that showed children and families of color at the center of an array of systems with unequal and unjust impacts—including education, housing, and criminal justice. She encouraged fellows to think not just about families’ individual strengths and needs but also how all of these structures present systemic barriers to their success and well-being.
Foster America’s Founder and Executive Director Sherry Lachman re-emphasized this point in her introduction to the fellows’ afternoon at the Legacy Museum, citing the “conveyor belt” that moves disproportionate numbers of youth of color from our nation’s child welfare system into the criminal justice system. She noted that upwards of 70 percent of youth in the justice system have experienced the child welfare system.
“We can’t fix mass incarceration and the disproportionality in that broken system until we hit pause on the child welfare system’s conveyor belt to incarceration, and until we examine who winds up on this conveyor belt to begin with, and why,” Lachman said.
But it is not enough simply to diagnose inequity; we must actively work to dismantle it. At the convening, fellows presented updates on how their work is actively addressing systemic inequality. For example:
Minnesota’s state child welfare system has the most disproportionate outcomes in the country for Native American children, and an early data walk exercise organized by Foster America faculty made this painfully clear to Cohort 2 fellows Ryan Borowicz and Jennifer Worden. As a research analyst for the state, Borowicz includes race and equity measures in every dashboard his team creates. He is now part of a team examining racial differences at each decision point across the child welfare spectrum. In her fellowship role, Worden was asked to draft a statewide prevention plan; after an extensive listening tour, she successfully proposed making reduction of disproportionality for African American and Native American children in out-of-home care one of the plan’s two primary aims. Today, she is helping the state build capacity to benchmark and measure progress toward this goal, while local teams develop and test on-the-ground strategies to achieve it.
In New York City, improving racial equity has been an explicit goal for fellows placed at the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). Cohort 2 fellow Sheela Bowler was tasked with completing an equity assessment mandated by Mayor de Blasio. As Bowler completes her fellowship, Cohort 3 fellow Danielle Maniscalo will carry this work forward as a consultant within ACS’s new Office of Equity Strategies. One of the office’s early challenges is to embed equity-focused measures into agency structures and systems in a way that creates institutional accountability beyond the current administration.
Solutions that effectively counter bias and dismantle racism are not easy to design and implement, particularly as structural inequality is deeply embedded in every facet of our system and lives. Our fellows have already demonstrated that they have what it takes to be successful in fields ranging from technology and data analytics to human-centered design. Trainings like the one in Montgomery are essential, however, to ensure fellows understand the historical context of child welfare and grow increasingly comfortable having uncomfortable conversations about race and equity.
It is equally critical for fellows to listen deeply to our jurisdictional partners, before jumping in with new ideas. That’s why they work closely with content experts on the ground, who are best positioned to understand root causes and posit solutions. Within that context, as newcomers with perspectives from other sectors, fellows are well positioned to begin asking questions that help those steeped in “how things have always been” envision new ways that the system can change for the better.
We believe the potential for change is enormous, as each new cohort of fellows learns from those that precede it, and the Foster America movement gains momentum.
For now, Maniscalo notes, “Once you have seen the data, you can’t ignore it. We’re starting with a lot of data collection and embedding disproportionality into our daily conversation in a way that creates institutional accountability, so that we can’t shy away from it.”
At Foster America, we’re counting on it.