Monday, April 09, 2007

Poverty a bigger factor than race in terms of losing custody of children

Kids' removal from homes eyed
State takes high number of blacks
Yetter, Deborah. Louisville Courier-Journal, March 31, 2007, pg. A1.

Concerned about the disproportionate number of black children in state care, Kentucky officials are launching a project to determine why so many are being removed from homes and what can be done about it.

About 19 percent of the 7,000 children in state care are black, yet African Americans make up only 7.3 percent of Kentucky's population.

"This is an opportunity to make a difference and do what's right," said Tom Emberton Jr., who oversees the state social-service system for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

African-American lawmakers from Jefferson County — which has the highest rate of black children removed from homes because of alleged abuse and neglect — welcome the initiative. More than half the Jefferson County children in state care are black, although African Americans make up only 19 percent of the county's population.

"The numbers are disturbing," said state Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville. "We must find out exactly what's going on and how to correct it.

Neal said he believes there is "clearly a racial component" but said the issue probably is more complex — involving poverty, housing, services for families such as counseling or drug treatment and other issues.

State Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, said he is concerned about the problem, particularly in Jefferson County.

"The numbers are staggering," he said. "This is a very serious problem, and we have to find out the reason for it."

Emberton said that's what the state intends to do in coming months. It has identified 11 counties with the highest rates of black children in state care and will spend about $500,000 over the next year to try to find out why.

At the same time, the state is launching more training and education on possible biases by those involved in child welfare and how to overcome them.

Benita Hollie, an African- American single mother from Lexington who is fighting to regain her two children, said she supports the plan. Hollie, whose children were removed from her custody three years ago, said impoverished parents — especially African Americans — are at a disadvantage in the child-welfare system.

Hollie said she asked a relative to care for her children while she was recovering from injuries in a car accident and they were removed after child protective workers investigated. The state, citing confidentiality laws, has declined to comment on her case.

"It's like you're set up for failure and more so if you are African American," she said. "If you don't have money or clout, anything can happen to you."

Hollie has joined Women in Transition, a Louisville-based group working to persuade the state to examine its child-welfare system. In particular, the group wants the state to look at how it treats poor single parents.

Emberton said he heard some of their concerns when members of the group spoke at a series of task-force meetings in Frankfort over the past several months. He hopes the state's project will address issues such as whether decisions are being made "simply because a family is poor."

Kentucky's effort mirrors national concern
The Child Welfare League of America and the Annie E. Casey Foundation are among the groups that have called on officials to study the imbalance and address the causes.

The Child Welfare League has reported that black and American Indian children are placed in foster care more often than white children, although research shows no direct link between race and child abuse or neglect.

Black children also remain in foster care longer and are less likely to be reunited with their families than whites, it said.

The Casey Foundation reported that children removed from homes are more likely to drop out of school, suffer mental health problems and wind up in the juvenile or adult correctional systems.

Kentucky would like to avoid such problems by not removing children from homes whenever possible, Emberton said.

"We want to keep children with their families," he said.

Jennifer Jewell, coordinator for Women in Transition, said she hopes the state takes an in-depth look at the complexity of the issues poor families encounter in trying to retain custody of their children.

For example, if a parent lacks stable housing, the state might refuse to return children to the parent — even if all other problems have been corrected. The catch, Jewell said, is that a poor parent receiving "Section 8" federal housing assistance loses it once the children are removed from the home.

That forces the parent to find substandard housing, double up with relatives or possibly become homeless — and authorities then refuse to return the children because the parent lacks a suitable home. And, the parent can't get the Section 8 subsidy back because of a long waiting list — in the thousands — in Jefferson County.

"Housing is a huge issue," Jewell said. "It's all poverty-related. People need to start connecting it to the larger issues."

Hollie said her problems date to her first court appearance over the state's plan to remove her children. She couldn't afford a lawyer, so she went alone — and lost.

State law doesn't require a judge to appoint a lawyer for poor parents until after the initial hearing to decide whether to remove the children from the home. Advocates, including Women In Transition, are seeking to change the law to require a lawyer be appointed immediately for parents, but that proposal failed in this year's legislative session.

"If I had the money to pay for a good attorney it never would have happened to me from day one," Hollie said. "If you're poor, you're just up the creek without a paddle."


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