New coalition working to stifle institutional racism in Kansas foster care system

Project aims to build understanding rather than escalate blame game

By: - September 29, 2021 5:00 pm
Brandi Turner, the diversity, equity, inclusion officer at the Kansas Department for Children and Families, says the quest to undermine structural racism in the state's foster care system could trigger sharp reaction among people having their values debunked. (Screen capture DCF forum/Kansas Reflector)

Brandi Turner, the diversity, equity, inclusion officer at the Kansas Department for Children and Families, says the quest to undermine structural racism in the state’s foster care system could trigger sharp reaction among people having their values debunked. (Screen capture DCF forum/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The influence of institutional racism in the Kansas child welfare system can be depicted with statistics showing Black children were disproportionately investigated and removed from the home as well as reports demonstrating more rapid reunification of white children with their families.

Those numbers and the goal of a lasting shift from a state foster care system designed to control rather than support minority families inspired creation of the Kansas Racial Equity Collaboration.

Becci Akin, an associate professor at the University of Kansas and director of the foster care improvement initiative Kansas Strong for Children and Families, said racial disparities occur at many different decision points in the stat's child welfare system. (Screen capture from DCF forum/Kansas Reflector)
Becci Akin, associate professor at the University of Kansas and director of the foster care initiative Kansas Strong for Children and Families, said racial disparity occurs at multiple points in the child welfare system. (Screen capture of DCF forum/Kansas Reflector)

The collaboration’s online program attracting about 800 people Wednesday was sponsored by the Kansas Department for Children and Families; University of Kansas’ School of Social Welfare; CarePortal, which created the Global Orphan Project; Kansas Health Foundation; and Casey Family Programs.

“We have not focused enough on the harm Black and Brown families experience in the foster care system. This must change,” said DCF secretary Laura Howard, who is responsible for administration of the state’s privatized foster care program.

In Kansas, DCF reported in April that 6,895 youth were enrolled in foster care. Children and teens enter foster care when the family experienced crisis. Youth deemed unsafe to remain in the home or who experienced abuse or neglect were temporarily placed in foster homes. There is a shortage in Kansas of foster parents.

Organizers of the new collaboration developed a series of lectures that run into 2022 to help Kansans with a vested interest in child welfare. It’s an opportunity to bring new skills to the table to address the role of racism in foster care.

“By the end,” said Michelle Mohr Carney, dean of KU’s social welfare school, “participants will have a toolkit that will provide them ways they can address racial disparities and advance racial equity in the child welfare system.”

 

Inside the numbers

On a national level, 53% of Black families were investigated for abuse or neglect while 28% of white families were placed under a microscope.

Shanelle Dupree, the Kansas City director of the Kansas Department of Children and Families, shared optimism a new sense of collaboration can tackle racism influencing the agency's work with children in need of care. (Screen capture of DCF event/Kansas Reflector)
Shanelle Dupree, Kansas City director of the Kansas Department of Children and Families, shared optimism a new sense of collaboration could address racism influencing work on behalf of children in need of care. (Screen capture of DCF event/Kansas Reflector)

In Kansas, Black children were placed in foster care at twice the rate of white children. Another way to look at it: Black children made up 8.3% of the state’s population and 15.3% of children in foster care.

Shanelle Dupree, DCF regional director for the Kansas City area, said data suggested minority children had worse outcomes and experiences once placed under the umbrella of the state’s foster care program.

For example, Black kids could be expected to move to a new residential location 3.5 times per 1,000 days. White children were moved in Kansas at a rate of 2.7 times in that period.

Thirty-five percent of Black children, based on Kansas information from 2018, were reunited with their family within 12 months. Forty-one percent of white children returned home within a year.

“Racial disproportionality and disparities are occurring at many different decision point in our child welfare system,” said Becci Akin, an associate professor at KU and director of the foster care improvement initiative Kansas Strong for Children and Families.

 

Historical context

Samantha Mellerson, of the Haywood Burns Institute of Oakland, California, shared during the forum an overview of the historical context of racism in America. The institute exists to dismantle structural racism and build well-being in communities.

Mellerson said the theft of land and the physical and cultural massacre of Native Americans and the institution of slavery in the United States were relevant to discussions of White supremacy along with Eugenics, mass incarceration and Black Lives Matter.

Samantha Mellerson, of the Haywood Burns Institute, said discussion of racism in the Kansas foster care system would be more productive if people didn't concentrate on assessing and focused on building understanding. "We're all swimming in this," she said. (Screen capture from DCF event/Kansas Reflector)
Samantha Mellerson, of the Haywood Burns Institute, said discussion of racism in the Kansas foster care system would be more productive if people didn’t concentrate on assessing blame and focused on building understanding. (Screen capture from DCF event/Kansas Reflector)

She said the conversation in Kansas would be more productive if the emphasis wasn’t on rehashing who was to blame for the country’s infection of racism. Progress can occur, she said, when the goal of serious conversation remained on building understanding.

“We’re all swimming in this regardless of where we’re from, regardless of race and ethnicity,” she said. “We want to take away from this notion of blaming. This is something we are all immersed in and it will take all of us to understand it, recognize it and begin to unpack and dismantle it.”

She said some people experienced racism without recognizing it. She shared a photograph of an arched bridge made of stone with a maximum underpass height of nine feet. The low bridge was designed to prevent public buses serving Black or Brown passengers from making it down that road.

“Some of us can walk through with very little understanding or awareness of how low that bridge is or of the different ways structural racism manifests itself,” Mellerson said.

Brandi Turner, the diversity, equality and inclusion officer at DCF, said individuals could be expected to express irritation by the elevation of a discussion about the influence of institutional racism on foster care children.

“They’re fighting you because you’re debunking their values,” Turner said.

Abby Fye, a CarePortal regional manager, said the consequence of legislators, judges, attorneys, health professionals, activists and educators asking difficult questions about foster care and weighing uncomfortable answers could be a state better equipped to support Kansas families and children.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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