There is broad consensus that racial disparities exist at every decision point in the continuum of child welfare services. A multitude of guidance and resources exist to help child welfare systems use data to examine these inequities and work to address them. While this approach is well founded, agencies will miss the mark if the data they’re relying on is not based on meaningful discussions with families.
The problem is that everything we know about these inequities in child welfare, including whether they are getting better because of our interventions, relies on data that is very likely to be inaccurate. While there are a variety of reasons for this, one is whether child welfare staff gather racial and ethnic information from the families themselves rather than basing it on assumptions made from physical characteristics. Discomfort or unfamiliarity with the topic, fear of being seen as biased, lack of time, or lack of awareness of its relative importance can all stand in the way of an open and in-depth conversation with a family about their identity. While caseworkers may be uncomfortable asking these questions, one study found that asking families and young people about their identities can open the door for meaningful conversations about the supports they need.
The discomfort with this topic is not surprising. Like most people—regardless of their profession—child welfare staff often arrive at their role with little to no experience in openly discussing race or ethnicity. And they are unlikely to learn how in their initial training. A review of pre-service child welfare training content or competencies in 10 states1 indicates that while cultural competence is a frequent topic, only one out of 10 trainings included any questions about race or traditions, and none addressed the “how” of asking them. There’s also a scarcity of resources or guidance for child welfare agencies to turn to in order to build staff competence in this area. With the notable exception of work on this topic by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, most research, guidance, tools, or frameworks to support equitable outcomes in child welfare are silent on the topic of the data collection process itself.
But there are some first steps agencies can take—and they don’t have to start from scratch. Here are three ways child welfare agencies can begin:
1. Give child welfare staff the language to talk to families
While scripted language will come across as “checking the box,” providing examples of how to raise the question—and, more importantly, how to explain why they’re asking and what they’ll do with the information—will go a long way in breaking down one barrier. Developing shared language and guidance for staff will provide a foundation for open conversation.
2. Elevate race and ethnicity topics to the same level of importance as other critical assessment topics, and give workers a chance to practice them
Most child welfare training programs include simulated interview activities to help workers develop their skill at gathering information about key assessment topics and co-planning with families. Including questions about identity along with the questions about safety, risk, needs, and protective factors would normalize the topic for child welfare staff and create a sense of individualized support for families. Supervisors can encourage the development of these skills in their staff by incorporating them into their regular coaching.
3. Embed the practice of asking about race and ethnicity into existing continuous quality improvement activities
By including the topic in existing consumer and staff surveys and case review interviews, families and young people can provide critical feedback about whether and how they were asked identifying questions and how they perceived the conversation, and staff can provide ongoing feedback about their preparedness for the discussions and challenges they’re encountering. Mid-course corrections can then be made.
Improving the ability of child welfare staff to ask families about their race and ethnicity is only one small piece in a much larger set of activities needed to ensure accurate data collection and the appropriate use of that data to address deep-rooted inequities. However, the longest journey starts with a single step—and without confidence in the data, it’s hard to know which direction to head. ICF is helping child welfare agencies answer these questions so all children, young people, and families will experience equitable outcomes.
1. Training materials reviewed from the following sources: https://live-ua-socialwork.pantheonsite.io/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Child-Welfare-Competencies.pdf; https://flcertificationboard.org/wp-content/uploads/CWCM-Core-Competencies-and-Blueprint-1.pdf; https://flcertificationboard.org/wp-content/uploads/CWPI-Core-Competencies-and-Blueprint-1.pdf; http://220.127.116.11/CWTI_StudentGuide/index.htm#t=1_Introduction.htm; https://socialwork.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/2022-05/2016-2017_course_catalog_rev_9_30_16.pdf; https://www.ncdhhs.gov/divisions/social-services/county-staff-information/training#ChildWelfare-992; jfs.ohio.gov/static/OFC/AppD-Training-Plan.pdf; cwtraining.oucpm.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/CORE-COMPANION-GUIDE-Remediated-9-20-23.pdf; https://drive.google.com/file/d/1cTaysiB2Ejv4G37ZFQSOOLGrazwOUBXU/view; https://www.pacwrc.pitt.edu/pcwc/Competencies.htm; https://www.dfps.texas.gov/Child_Protection/Practice_Model/practice_guides.asp↩