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Children's Voice Article, January/February 2003

Balancing the Scales: Targeting Disproportionality in Child Welfare & Juvenile Justice

By Michelle Y. Green

Second of two articles

Latino parents, in a family conference with a Spanish-speaking intake officer, learn the conditions by which their son can avoid incarceration and come home. A young offender, waiting for his court date, connects with healthy activities in his community while being monitored by a neighborhood accountability board. An African American child in foster care is assured a permanent home in her own community within one year.

The facts are well established: Juvenile crime is decreasing significantly, but the number of juveniles in confinement continues to climb. The juvenile justice system confines far more minority youth than can be justified by their offense rates. And African American children show up more often and languish far longer in child welfare systems than do white children, despite lower incidences of abuse and neglect by race.

Communities nationwide are grappling with these stark facts, but several are addressing the problems of disproportionality with promising results. Three different communities show what is possible using a mix of strategies that includes interagency collaboration, systems rethinking, accurate data collection and analysis, cultural competency, and community involvement.

Less than a System

In 1992, the Annie E. Casey Foundation launched the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), awarding $2.25 million over three years to five urban jurisdictions. "The foundation historically has had a commitment to juvenile justice reform, particularly as it relates to kids placed out of home," says Bart Lubow, Casey Foundation Senior Associate. "We saw there was a major crisis emerging in juvenile justice, defined by overcrowding. That, combined with a significant overuse of detention, was the first step in a slippery slope."

Casey is now involved in what Lubow calls the "dissemination and replication phase" of JDAI. "We've disseminated the strategies used in the JDAI sites; replication is aimed at creating a growing mass of places that implement these changes and demonstrate their efficacy." Replicating JDAI's success on a statewide scale--as is now being done in Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, New Hampshire, and New Mexico--has never been done before, Lubow says. "It presents a challenge all its own."

Inspired, in part, by the interagency collaboration and data-driven policies that had so radically transformed previously funded work in Broward County, Florida, JDAI sites have sought to demonstrate that communities can improve their juvenile detention systems without jeopardizing public safety.

"Multnomah County [Portland] came into the process in a pitched battle--a lawsuit over overcrowding," says Vincent Schiraldi, President of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, DC, and coauthor of the Casey report Reducing Racial Disparities in Juvenile Detention. "The state had passed a draconian ballot initiative for the punitive treatment of offending adults and children that whipped up public sentiment."

Yet the community had several advantages. Following the passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act's disproportionate minority confinement (DMC) mandate, Oregon already had been targeted as one of five places to study, and considerable work was under way. Today, as a result of focused, sustained attention, Multnomah has emerged as a national model in reducing racial disparities in the juvenile justice system.

In 1990, Latino youth in Multnomah were more than twice as likely as white youth to be detained (34% versus 15%). Asians, African Americans, and Native Americans were detained 47%-60% more often than white youth. Common to other jurisdictions, Multnomah's juvenile justice "system" was a group of autonomous agencies, each with its own funding pools, policies, procedures, and philosophies.

"It was a misnomer to call it a system," Schiraldi says. "Multnomah had to get system players to work together to be more than a sum of their individual parts."

An earlier attempt to do just that--a DMC Committee--failed after several changes in leadership and other factors produced few results. Once leadership stabilized and JDAI efforts began, however, a more effective policymaking collaborative rolled up its sleeves and got to work. At the outset, the cross-agency team--judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, detention counselors, school officials, and researchers--decided to make the questions surrounding the disparate treatment of minorities integral to all of its discussions.

"And by getting data that showed disproportionality at every step of the way," Schiraldi says, "they were able to pinpoint exactly what they needed to do."

The team worked more than a year to develop a risk assessment instrument (RAI), which, according one team member, "was not to eliminate the use of detention, but rather to make sure the 'right kids' were detained." For example, the RAI replaced the criteria "school attendance" with "productive activity," recognizing that many youth of color might not attend school but were working or in training programs. Because "good family structure" might show bias to minority youth who might not come from traditional nuclear families, the RAI asked if an adult were willing to ensure the youth's court appearance. The RAI eliminated the term "gang affiliation" altogether. "Prior arrests for car theft is pretty objective," Schiraldi explains, "but labels like 'gang affiliation' often get kids of color in trouble."

Each step along the juvenile justice continuum was examined through the filter of disparate treatment, whether by chance or by choice. Given the data that minority youth generally experienced more restrictive outcomes when represented by over-burdened public defenders, the county hired four part-time trial assistants to aid in discovery and identify appropriate community-based programs and resources. The county con-tracted with local providers to establish a series of detention alternatives--from shelter and foster care to home detention--which diverted youth from being returned to custody for violating their terms of release. It infused resources into the commu-nity to help replace the supervisory functions of parents, such as day and evening reporting centers.

The county developed and implemented a sanctions grid--a range of options that line staff can use for youth who violate probation. The grid allows discretion according to the seriousness of the violation and the youth's risk status, allowing detention only when other sanctions have been tried first. Decisions to detain youth who violate probation must be approved by the supervisor and an alternative placement committee.

Multnomah initiated pretrial placement planning to improve case processing and reduce unnecessary detention. Arresting officers complete reports the same day juveniles are charged. County probation staff distribute police reports, RAI scores, and discovery to attorneys and prosecutors the following morning. By 11:30 am, representatives from probation, prosecution, and defense meet to discuss the juvenile's level of risk and alternatives to detention. At a 1:30 detention hearing, the probation office makes a recommendation to the court, which is usually accepted, for detention, an alternative, or release. A pre-trial placement coordinator does daily quality control checks to make sure youth are processed without delay and staff apply the RAI uniformly.

"Multnomah forced itself to play by its own rules," Schiraldi says. "They appointed case facilitators to expedite the process, with high-level staff overseeing risk assessment scores done by probation officers.

What were the results of these and other reform strategies? In 1994, there was an 11 percentage point difference between African Americans (24%) and whites (13%), and 10 percentage points between Latinos (23%) and whites, in the likelihood that an arrested youth would be detained. By 1995, with the new RAI in place, the gap for both African Americans and Latinos, compared with whites, dropped to 6 percentage points, despite a voter referendum mandating that all youth be held before trial and be tried in adult court for certain crimes. By 2000, the gap dropped to 3 percentage points for blacks (12%) and 2 percentage points for Latinos (11%), compared with whites (9%). Between 1994 and 2000, the number of youth admitted to detention dropped by half for both African American and Latino youth.

So who pays for all this? "It costs about $50,000 a year to keep a kid locked up," Schiraldi says. "Do the math. When you have 33 kids locked up instead of 96, that's a lot of money." In Multnomah, the Casey Foundation helped seed the program, and the county gradually picked it up. Schiraldi stresses the key is pooled funding by community and agency stakeholders who are engaged in designing and implementing the plan.

"The JDAI experience tells communities there is a way through this," Schiraldi says. "You now have a pretty good package to take to your state or foundation to get started. You can tell them, 'There's gold at the end of this, we have a good plan, but it's going to cost a little money to get there.'"

Slaying the Hydra

In a community where Latinos comprise one-third of the youth population but two-thirds of the detention population, it was clear where the work surrounding disproportionality needed to begin in Santa Cruz County, California. In the early 1990s, Californians expressed heightened fear about youth crime and immigration. Proposition 187, which disqualified undocumented residents from attending public schools or using public hospitals, exacerbated conditions for Latino youth. In this turbulent climate, Santa Cruz County, 85 miles south of San Francisco, began its JDAI experiment. John Rhoads, then Santa Cruz's chief probation officer and now a Casey Foundation consultant, had watched JDAI efforts in Multnomah County with keen interest. He also brought with him several years' experience as deputy chief probation officer in Sacramento County--another JDAI site. Convinced the problem was beyond the scope of a single agency, Rhoads co-convened a task force with the county's Latino Strategic Planning Collaborative and Latino Affairs Commission.

When the task force started looking for problems, they found them. The 42-bed detention facility was overcrowded 365 days a year. Children of color ages 10-17 represented 64% of those detained in the county's secure juvenile detention facility on any given day, but only 33% of the general population. Minority youth experienced a protracted release process for drug treatment facilities--languishing sometimes five to six months before placement. And although Santa Cruz had risk-based detention criteria, the measures weren't applied uniformly or objectively.

"There were many heads to this hydra that needed to be cut off…to move toward fairness," says Judy Cox, now county chief probation officer, and local project coordinator for JDAI in 1997. "No one strategy would reduce this problem, because it's the result of a lot of factors."

Among the justice agencies participating in the task force, only the probation department embraced reducing DMC as a key organizational objective. Under Rhoads's leadership, the department began the deliberate process of uncovering what was causing children of color to be treated unequally. "It was like peeling an onion," Cox says. "We measured who was brought to our front door by ethnicity and found that something in our decision-making processes and practices was exacerbating the problem."

The department appointed a work group to develop a plan to address DMC. It mapped key decision points and examined data on arrests, booking, detentions, and program placements by ethnicity, and reviewed outcomes to mark progress or areas for improvement. What they found, how the department responded, and how well they've succeeded demonstrates the power of a single agency to effect widespread change.

The department appointed a cultural competence coordinator to oversee reform efforts and develop an agency cultural competence plan. Caseloads were inventoried to determine the cultural and language profiles of clients. Finding that 46% of the juvenile caseload was Latino, the department made shifts in recruitment, hiring, and training. Now, 44% of juvenile probation officers are bilingual, 33% are bicultural (Latino-Anglo), and staff receive ongoing cultural sensitivity training.

In tandem with other stakeholders, the department developed objective criteria to rid its RAI of racial bias. Thus, the decision to hold a child in secure detention is now based on quantifiable risk factors, such as severity of the current offense or past record of delinquent acts, rather than subjective judgments.

Family involvement has also helped reduce DMC. Customer surveys, information sessions, and written materials help families understand agency processes and programs. Parents sit on planning councils and serve as advocates who connect with other families going through the system. A bilingual, bicultural specialist conducts family conferences to help develop service plans. And families take part in cultural celebrations at juvenile hall, day treatment programs, and other site-based programs.

To guarantee court appearances and ensure medium-risk youth did not reoffend while in the community, the agency collaborated to provide wraparound services and detention alternatives--such as electronic monitoring, culturally based programs for first-time alcohol and substance users, school-based and residential drug treatment programs, peer courts, neighborhood accountability boards, youth development services, and family preservation programs--all of which helped reduce DMC by eliminating gaps in services to youth of color.

To what degree has the sustained work of this one agency made a difference? The percentage of Latino youth in secure detention dropped from 64% in 1997 and 1998 to 53% in 1999 and to 50% in 2000. During that time, the average daily population in juvenile hall fell from 62 to 34, and the average length of detention from 27 days to 9 days. The percentage of Latino children committed to the California Youth Authority in Santa Cruz County plummeted from 84% in 1998 and 1999 to 33% in 2000--the precise number of Latino youth in the general population.

Families for Kids

As the juvenile justice system strives to reduce DMC and promote equitable treatment for all, so the child welfare system has the Herculean task of reducing the disparate treatment of minorities within its ranks. Foster care is one example.

Nationally, children of color comprise 63% of children in the foster care system, nearly twice their representation in the gen-eral child population. And minority children stay in foster care longer than do white children. In 1999, African American children comprised 15% of the U.S. child population but 45% of children in out-of-home care. When children need out-of-home care care, most African American children (56%) are placed in foster care, while most white children (72%) receive services designed to keep them in their own homes.

The experiences of children of color in North Carolina's foster care system paralleled those of children nationwide. African American children constitute approximately 28% of North Carolina's child population, but six years ago accounted for 55% of children in foster care. But the Families for Kids (FFK) initiative, and an aggressive, statewide agenda to reverse the status quo, are making a difference.

"The disproportionality we were experiencing in North Carolina was a result of poor system performance," says Chuck Harris, chief of the Children Services Section, North Carolina Division of Social Services (DSS). "We had a number of kids growing up in foster care. Much of the disproportionality was around African American children, the largest minority in the foster care system by far."

With a three-year, $3 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, DSS elected to participate in FFK in 1995. Part of a national initiative by the Kellogg Foundation to eliminate the backlog of children waiting for permanent homes, FFK was designed to promote adoption and reduce the amount of time children spend in foster care. Its goals are:
  • accessible support for all families,
  • a single coordinated assessment process,
  • one case manager or casework team per family,
  • stable foster care placement, and
  • a permanent home for every child within one year.
Working in partnership, DSS, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work, and the North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute conducted 11 community forums across the state to identify systemwide barriers to permanency and decide what needed to be accomplished. Although reducing disproportionality was not a stated goal, stakeholders acknowledged that discrimination against minorities did exist in the system and that reform was needed.

"We began with a vision of what our system ought to be and a challenge of what we could achieve," Harris says. "It was a vision that was very hard to argue against."

DSS selected eight counties as lead sites, chosen on the basis of size, demographic diversity, and willingness to embrace innovative means to improve outcomes for families and children. By 1998, three more counties had joined the reform effort, and 76 had accepted DSS's challenge to reduce the backlog of children who had been in foster care for more than 12 months.

"We agreed long-term foster care was not a permanency option in this state--end of discussion," Harris explains. "We took it out of our policies and forms as an option. It had become a default for 'We don't know what to do.'"

Making effective use of system performance data was key to their efforts. "The way we were collecting data really didn't allow us to measure the performance of the system," says Adolph Sim-mons, DSS System Performance Coordinator. "When we began this process, we were unable to provide county-specific data to describe the experiences of children who enter foster care. Devel-oping the capacity to collect and analyze meaningful data on the performance of our system has greatly improved our ability to identify our strengths and target our improvement efforts."

Performance teams allowed county DSS agencies to better understand the data. Performance coordinators helped counties monitor system performance and gather information on staff-worker ratios, patterns of initial placement, length of stay, children's experiences in nonfamily settings, reentry, and stability of placement. When FFK funding for the performance coordinator positions expired, several countries began funding the positions themselves.

A statewide database enabled counties to follow each child who came into their care each step of the way. Detailed reports allow DSS to monitor progress to reduce disproportionality. A probability of placement report allows all 100 county DSS offices to assess the likelihood that an African American child reported to them will come into foster care. County departments can compare data with other counties and the state as a whole.

In January, each county must account for its foster care backlog. "We've made having a backlog a bad thing," Harris insists. "We have taken the position that this is an embarrassment for our system, and it's not okay. Each year, every single front-line worker and supervisor signs a statement saying we will make this a priority this year."

County departments that make significant progress are recognized with awards and written letters to county commissioners and board members. Staff are encouraged to create personal expressions--poems, narratives, artwork, and music CDs--that share why permanency is important for children. Counties regularly engage communities with meetings and celebrations.

What was the effect of FFK on children of color? Within eight months, lead counties had reduced the number of children in their backlogs by 5%. And African American children represent a smaller proportion of children being placed statewide: In FFK counties, about half of the children initially entering out-of-home placement in 1995 were African American, compared with slightly more than 40% of the children in 1998. Length of stay in FFK counties also decreased for black children: In 1994 an estimated 60% were still in placement one year after custody; by 1997, the percentage decreased to about 45%. "Statewide, we have made good progress reducing disproportionality in the foster care population...but we still have work to do," Harris says. Only 39% of the children who entered foster care last year were African American.

A second round of the FFK initiative, called FFK2, is under way in North Carolina, garnering the support of old and new partners, including CWLA. "It takes a concerted effort, with explicit goals to measure and a willingness to adopt a philosophy that, as a system, we want to learn and do better," Harris says. "Despite critics who say the foster care system is in chaos, that it's unmanageable, the truth is, you can manage it."

Michelle Y. Green is a writer/editor for the Human and Civil Rights Department of the National Education Association, Washington, DC.


Download a copy of the Annie E. Casey Foundation report, Reducing Racial Disparities in Juvenile Detention, at

Learn more about Families for Kids online at
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