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Black Hoosier children top the nation for likelihood of DCS investigation

Photo caption: The Indiana Department of Child Services investigates nearly four out of five Black families for child maltreatment. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Results prompt calls for reform

By Whitney Downard, Indiana Capital Chronicle

Nearly four out of every five Black Hoosier kids will be at the center of a maltreatment investigation during childhood — higher than the state’s 54% rate for white and Hispanic families and above the 53% national average for Black families.

Indiana also has the third-highest rate for white children in the country – one of only three states with over a 50% cumulative risk.

The figures come from a national analysis that measures the likelihood that a hypothetical cohort of children will experience a child maltreatment investigation, a confirmed maltreatment case, foster care or the termination of their parents’ parental rights.

In contrast to previous research, the paper not only studied differing rates of child welfare system contact by state but also broke it down by race. Authors found that Black children in nearly every state were more likely to become involved with a child protective agency investigation while Asian children had the lowest risk, according to data spanning from 2015 to 2019.

“Although there are commonalities across jurisdictions and agencies receive substantial federal funding, the child welfare system is largely decentralized and operates primarily at the state and local levels,” the report said.

States typically take different approaches to child welfare and have different definitions of who is considered a mandated reporter and what constitutes child maltreatment — which can include abuse or neglect. Researchers used a “synthetic cohort” to measure the cumulative risk of child welfare contact at any point before the age of 18, rather than conditional risk.

Researchers with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Rutgers University, Princeton University, Washington University in St. Louis, Yale School of Medicine, Columbia University and Duke University contributed to the paper, titled ‘State-level variation in the cumulative prevalence of child welfare system contact, 2015–2019.’ Research was supported through a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development through the National Institutes of Health and Casey Family Programs.

The Indiana Department of Child Services didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Other findings from the study

Over one-third of children nationally will experience a maltreatment investigation, but the likelihood varies considerably by race. Indiana’s Black children faced the highest singular risk in the country at 79%, followed by 73% cumulative risk for American Indian/Alaskan Native children in Alaska.

In neighboring Kentucky, the majority of children in all but one ethnic group – Asian or Pacific Islander – were likely to undergo a maltreatment investigation.

As for cases of confirmed maltreatment, Indiana ranked second-highest for cumulative risk for confirmed maltreatment for all children, with 22%.

Kentucky ranked the highest for confirmed maltreatment cumulative risk, with 27% of all children likely to experience maltreatment. Pennsylvania children had the lowest risk, but unlike other states its policy for maltreatment didn’t include neglect until relatively recently, deflating their numbers.

As a whole, roughly one in nine children will experience a confirmed maltreatment case, with an increased risk for Black children.

Indiana ranks in the top half of states where the cumulative risk of foster care placement for children is 10%, even though nationally an estimated 5% of children will ever be placed in foster care.

White children and American Indian children have a 9% risk, compared to 7% for Hispanic children and 2% for Asian children. Black children have an 18% risk – the second highest rate in the country, behind West Virginia’s 32%.

In the last category analyzed, Indiana fell into the lowest segment, with just 2% cumulative risk of parental rights being terminated, a requisite step to start the adoption process. West Virginia again had the highest overall percentage at 8%.

But for Native American families and Black families in Indiana and several other states, the risk of parental rights being terminated was more than double that of white families.

Study takeaways prompt calls for reform

Authors emphasized that more analysis needed to be done to determine causes but said that their publication demonstrated state-level differences for children of color.

“Within the same state, children of different racial/ethnic groups had dramatically different risks of experiencing each event. Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children experienced exceptionally high cumulative risks of involvement with the child welfare system relative to white children,” the report said.

Other weaknesses included children who may have moved across state lines and been counted twice in different jurisdictions as well as only counting parental rights terminations associated with foster care.

But advocates pushing for change within the child welfare system pointed to the analysis as evidence for reform.

Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, called child protection agencies “state family police,” saying that despite two decades of work, child abuse fatalities have only grown. At times, Wexler said, family poverty is “confused with neglect” and disproportionately targets the poorest, especially Black families and Native families.

“Of course, some of the difference may be due to better detection — but at a minimum there is no evidence that a system built on horror stories did a damn thing to stop the horror stories,” Wexler wrote earlier this month. “More than two decades of inflicting ever more misery upon ever more impoverished families, especially impoverished families of color, did nothing to make children safer.”

Wexler pointed to a pullback from child welfare agencies during COVID-19 and an influx of government aid, primarily in stimulus funds, enhanced food benefits and eviction prohibitions. During the pandemic, even when many were unemployed, childhood poverty and food insecurity decreased.

But Wexler said governments appeared unwilling to dedicate any of the $33 billion in child welfare funding to the family aid programs from the pandemic that helped. He argued that the system, as it functioned now, didn’t prevent the abuse it targeted.

“Before another generation of Black children and Native children has to endure the almost-guaranteed trauma of an almost-guaranteed investigation by the family police, should we shift the burden of proof from the reformers and the abolitionists to the defenders of the status quo?” Wexler said. “Shouldn’t we demand the opponents of real change have to prove that what they have given us for decades is better than the alternative?”

This article originally appeared on Indiana Capital Chronicle.

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