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Ohio Agencies Look to Reduce Racial Bias in Child Welfare

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Tuesday, July 7, 2020   

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Racial inequalities in the children-services system are not a new problem, but recent civil unrest around the country is helping to shed light on the issue.

Compared with their White peers, Black children are more likely to linger in foster care, less likely to find a permanent home and more likely to be placed in an institutional setting. Robin Reese, director at Lucas County Children Services, said they are focusing on prevention as they work to reduce disparities.

She explaind it starts with leadership and the creation of a workplace culture that allows open and honest conversations about race and culture.

"We have had a lot of dialogue about these issues," Reese said. "And the fact that people are open to hear some of the things that families have been trying to tell us for years is exciting, and I have great expectations."

Reese said transforming the child protection system is an integral part of reforming society to be more equitable and just.

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University researches and conducts trainings on understanding and mitigating implicit racial bias. Coordinator of Public Engagement Lena Tenney said communities of color tend to have a justified distrust of the child-welfare system as a whole, not just a specific individual who is doing a home visit.

"It's much broader and it goes back to decades of racism in the system," Tenney said; "including the fact that it originated by removing indigenous children from their homes and cultures and trying to make them White - for lack of a better term."

Tenney said addressing implicit bias involves considering what can be done as an individual professional, paired with developing institutional accountability.

"What policies, practices, norms, standard procedures are contributing to those inequities? And how can we change them in order to not only hold the institution accountable, but to limit the degree to which individuals can accidentally perpetuate bias in their day-to-day?" She said.

Reese said Lucas County is reviewing practices from the caseworker level to the director level.

"We are examining cases as they come through the front door all the way to the point where there might be a placement or custody," Reese said. "And there's a check and balance at every level to ensure - or to at least examine - whether race has played into it."

The Public Children Services Association of Ohio, which represents county children-services agencies, also is examining ways to reduce racial inequities, including diversity-training, programs that keep families together and investment in hiring front-line workers from communities of color that can move into leadership roles in what have been primarily White-led agencies.


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