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2001 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol.6, No. 2
May 2001

Overrepresentation And NC's Child Welfare System

An Interview with Chuck Harris, Chief of Children's Services, N.C. Division of Social Services

When people talk about the overrepresentation of African American children in foster care, they often think of it as a systems issue. To explore this situation at this level more fully, Practice Notes contacted Chuck Harris, who has been Chief of the Children's Services Section in the North Carolina Division of Social Services since 1994.

CSPN: Mr. Harris, what do you want to say to social workers and supervisors about the experience African Americans tend to have in North Carolina's child welfare system?

This is a major issue, a major challenge for our system, and something that should be a very, very high priority for us. I think there are a couple things that are important for us to do about this issue.

The first is to acknowledge the overrepresentation of African Americans in foster care. When we look at the data I think we have to conclude that there must be some important issue that must be resolved. We shouldn't be okay with the fact that we have this dynamic in our system. We must work on it at the family, county, and state levels. Our numbers in North Carolina have been improving (see Figures 1 and 2), but there is lots more to be done.

The second thing for me is really about how we approach any family that's involved with the child welfare system. For me it's an issue of respect. There are important differences among different types of families in terms of how they function, how they communicate. For workers the important thing is to recognize and appreciate those differences, and then to approach those families with respect, no matter what the circumstances.

And finally I think the child welfare system must take a hard look at itself.

CSPN: How do you think the child welfare system in North Carolina contributes to this problem?

In North Carolina I think what we've done, statutorily, is set the standard for abuse pretty high and the standard for neglect very low. When you couple that with all the research that shows that minority families, particularly African American families, are disproportionately represented among poor families, then it becomes very worrisome.

Under the North Carolina statute for termination of parental rights, we've got an important principle that in essence says "we will not terminate parental rights based solely on a family's poverty."

But we don't have anything like that when it comes to substantiating abuse and neglect. So when you put those things together, it makes me real worried that sometimes what we do is remove children from families primarily because the family is poor, and mired in poverty, with all that typically brings. So we bring a child into foster care and expect the family to get out of poverty before the children can be returned.

I think we've got to really take a hard look—and I'm talking about us here at the state level, I'm not being critical of county DSS social workers—we've got to take a hard look at the investigatory process and what kind of principles we can put in place to try and reduce the likelihood that kids are substantiated or enter foster care primarily because of family poverty. We need to look at the kinds of services that might keep those families intact and how to make those services attractive and accessible to these families.

CSPN: Are you doing anything now in this area?

We have been working with five counties to try to understand what a different kind of approach to the more poverty-driven kind of reports might look like. We're looking at what partnerships we might be able to form with family resource centers and others to respond to those reports in a way that might elicit better cooperation from families and in fact achieve better safety for children.

We're looking at a less investigatory kind of approach, one where we would not even be requiring that a case decision about substantiation be made. We hope to pilot this new approach in those five counties, look at their experience, and explore ways to apply what we learn there to our policy and our practice in general. As we do this we're going to be careful—we absolutely cannot take our eye off the fact that the thing we are focused on is child safety.

But to some extent we've gotten to a point as a system where we think the investigatory approach is always the best way to assure child safety. And I think the overrepresentation of African American children ought to make us ask ourselves—is this really the case? Are there situations where a different kind of approach might actually help us do a better job of assuring child safety?

I think that's the question we really need to be asking ourselves.