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Joyce McMillan said she can never forget the night her nearly 2-year-old daughter came home, after spending most of her life up to that point with a foster mother.
“When I picked Kaylah up that night, I can remember the gut-wrenching screams like it was yesterday,” she said.
McMillan acknowledges she had been using what she calls an “illicit substance” when Kaylah and her older daughter, Courtnie, were removed from their home. But she said her daughters, now 15 and 24, were not in imminent danger, which is the legal standard for taking children from their homes. McMillan, a single mother, believes the city was so quick to separate her family because she is black.
“I actually know someone that was not of color who was abusing medications,” she said, “and her children were not removed. So I think they pick and choose when they allow families to stay intact.”
That racial disparity is on display in New York City. According to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, which oversees foster care, in 2013 black children accounted for nearly 60 percent of the 11,511 kids in foster care; the city’s population is 25 percent black. Just over 34 percent of the children were Hispanic, and 5 percent were white.
Critics argue that racial bias plagues the child welfare system at many levels.
“Bias is everywhere,” said Sandra Bernabei, the president of New York City’s chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “You will see disparities in all points of entry that children of color are taken in at higher numbers. They stay longer. They are placed in long-term care longer.”
She said that bias exists at schools and in hospitals and is demonstrated by police, who by law must report suspected abuse or neglect of children. Case workers and judges then decide whether to remove the children from their families.
“The classic [scenario] is that when a call comes in, it is already predetermined that the child will be removed, and how will we know that?” she said. “When a call comes in a white community, they will go out and investigate. If a call comes in for a community of color, they will put a car seat in the car.”
Gladys Carrion, the commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, said that she could not comment on specific cases but that there are multiple factors contributing to the disparity.
“One is that … poor families in this city and across the country are subject to more surveillance and oversight. I think the other is really racism. I think we should be honest about that.”
“I don’t think anyone would say there is intentional racism at work here, but we certainly see the net result,” she added.
Carrion said the agency’s new staffers, including social workers and case planners, must go through anti-racism training. She acknowledged, however, that more must be done to “move the needle” of anti-bias consciousness.
“I don’t think we’ve moved it a hell of a lot, quite frankly,” she said. “Oh, my God, everything takes a long time. These are large bureaucracies. In large bureaucracies, change is difficult.”
She added that her agency also needs to work more closely with its partners in the child welfare system. “We don’t do this work by ourselves,” she said. “We need to look at the entire continuum in the system — how we train our mandated reporters, how we train our police, how we train our investigators … and how we work with the judiciary.”
‘Bias is everywhere. You will see disparities in all points of entry that children of color are taken in at higher numbers. They stay longer. They are placed in long-term care longer.’
National Association of Social Workers
Judge Edwina Richardson-Mendelson is part of that system. As the head of New York City’s family courts, she requires training for new judges to help ensure that decisions are made without bias. She believes everyone has implicit bias, or an unconscious bias that can affect attitudes and decisions.
“You don’t have a situation where judges or attorneys are coming into court and saying, ‘I’m going after this family because they’re a person of color,’” she said. “But … it’s disturbing to recognize that there are [racial] disparities, which is why so much effort goes in to address them.”
McMillan said more effort must be made to help parents like her keep their children at home instead of removing them too quickly.
“I know now that there were treatment centers they could’ve offered,” she said. “There were even centers for mothers and daughters or for families. And none of those were given to me as an option or an opportunity to keep my family intact.”
She said Kaylah and Courtnie returned home from foster care after she got “clean” on her own. About 13 years later, she said the experience continues to hurt her family. “The bond between [Kaylah] and me is still fragile,” McMillan said. “And for her, she’s in and out of therapy.”
Courtnie, now 24, has fared better, perhaps because her foster placement was with her father. She finished college and is working in Manhattan. But she feels her family was unfairly separated.
“Ripping kids from their mother or their home or any family they’ve known is not the answer,” she said. “It’s an extremely traumatic experience. And I don’t want that for anyone. I pray that it changes.”