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New Study by the UCLA Pritzker Center Examines Blind Removal, Anti-Racism in LA County Child Welfare

By Joanie Harmon
LA County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell (third from left, upper row) served as keynote speaker to discuss "Beyond Blind Removal: Color Consciousness and Anti-Racism in Los Angeles County Child Welfare," a new report by the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families. Full caption below.

Report shows continuing disproportionality of Black and Brown children in the system, despite decrease in referrals and removals.

A new report, “Beyond Blind Removal: Color Consciousness and Anti-Racism in Los Angeles County Child Welfare” was recently released by the Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families at UCLA. The report is based on a motion authored by LA County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell in 2021 to pilot blind removal – the practice of child welfare workers making decisions without considering family demographics such as race or income level – in the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). While the Pritzker researchers found that the numbers of referrals and child removals were falling, the disproportionality of Black and Brown children in the system remains.

The UCLA Pritzker Center gathered on March 8 at Mudtown Farms, a community garden in Watts, for a discussion on the report’s findings with Supervisor Mitchell as keynote. UCLA Professor of Education Tyrone Howard, who serves as co-director of the Pritzker Center, led the conversation with Tamara Hunter, DSW, executive director, LA County Commission for Children and Families; Brandon Nichols, director, DCFS; and D’Artagnan Scorza (’13, Ph.D., Urban Schooling), executive director of Racial Equity, LA County.

Taylor Dudley, JD, executive director of the UCLA Pritzker Center, welcomed 120 guests, including Wasserman Dean Christina Christie, Audra Langley, Pritzker Center co-director, Todd Franke, Pritzker Center leadership team; and members of the DCFS staff. Representatives of UC Berkeley Social Welfare were also in attendance.

“Everyone here can agree that L.A. is home to the best things in the world… and yet as everyone in this room also knows, L.A. is home to the largest foster care system in the country,” she said. “This is especially problematic for Black families who are referred, investigated… removed and disproportionately represented in foster care in higher rates than any other demographic.

“At the UCLA Pritzker Center, our work is to ask, ‘Why?’ We do this work hand-in-hand with faculty, staff, and students, community researchers, people with experience; with different degrees, with different training, with different backgrounds; expertise in law, medicine, public policy, social work, mental health, education, and more,” said Dudley. “For our center, justice for children and families is a 360-degree effort, rooted in research, education, and partnership. This event is one such example of bringing together university partners, state and local government, advocates, philanthropy, and the community for a collective and perhaps uncomfortable conversation about the single most pressing issue facing our child welfare system today: racism.”

The Pritzker Center report examined blind removal implementation in the West Los Angeles and Compton-Carson regional offices of DCFS, and showed that the practice revealed how race plays a role in decision making and that its structure, coupled with increased awareness of race, catalyzed practice changes. Descriptive analyses of administrative data in the report demonstrated that Child Protection Hotline referrals to both offices declined over a five-year three-month period, but racial disproportionality persisted. Parallel analyses showed that fewer children were removed from families by each office over the same period, yet racial disproportionality persisted with Black children overrepresented in removals in both offices and Latinx children overrepresented in the West LA office.

Nichols said that in the last couple of years, the number of children removed from families has gone down from 22,000 to 15,000, as well as the number of children in congregate care (group homes), which has decreased from 5,000 to 230. He noted that these children are not merely warehoused but are served by mental health professionals who address trauma. However, Nichols stated that Black families are still affected by their race and the conditions of the communities where they live.

“There’s some promise, but we still operate a system that separates Black children from their parents more than other kids,” said Nichols. “In the data I see, Black children are treated differently, Black parents are treated differently. With every point we picked, the experience of Black children and Black families was worse. Separation from siblings, return to families… whether they were adopted or not… and that’s just data points, that doesn’t even talk to the experience of a Black child… in the way you look or the way you dress or the way you look. It’s conversations like this, studies like this … that really keep pushing us to move the needle further.”

LA County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell shared her experiences in policy around child welfare and discussed the importance of recognizing racial bias. Courtesy of the Office of LA County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell

Mitchell, who currently serves her second term on the first all-female LA County Board of Supervisors, shared her experiences in the evolution of child welfare services, throughout LA’s crack epidemic in the 1980s to the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and racial inequities exacerbated by COVID-19. She stated that one in three Black children under the age of five have been affected by the child welfare system since the start of the pandemic. Mitchell said that poverty and class are also of concern in looking at disproportionality and that everyone, even people of color, possesses racial bias.

“I don’t see colorblind[ness] and blind removal as the same thing at all,” said Mitchell. “What I’m very appreciative of is with the resistance and the concern [around blind removal], the creation of a safe space to have the conversation. I think that’s important, for us all to … be educated and to learn, and to unearth if for no one else but yourself, our own bias.

“All of these elements, I hope will create a system that brings true healing and support, because as hard as it may be for workers in the system to have these conversations, to acknowledge implicit bias, it is harder to be a victim of bias in the system,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell praised the work of the UCLA Pritzker Center, and congratulated, “… this amazing next generation of student leaders, who are coming into this work at a time such as this, when these kinds of conversations and this reality will become their normal. The fact that you are doing the study and educating the next generation gives me great, great satisfaction.”

Hunter described the relationship between mandated reporting and racism and observed that while Black children are only seven percent of LA’s child population, they make up 19 percent of all DCFS investigations. She stated the need for upstream services before families enter the system, and the harms of unnecessary reporting.

“Mandated reporting is the gateway into the child welfare system,” she said. “It is the point at which all society’s ‘-isms’ – racism, classism - formally intersect with the child welfare system. We see the biases that are present in reporting sectors: law enforcement, education, health care. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of what we see in society.

“The goals of this work are obviously to ensure that children are not harmed – that is, the harm that is caused by abuse and neglect,” said Hunter. “But it also includes the harm that is caused… by the child welfare system. It is a machine and … a source of harm for far too many kids and families.”

Scorza delineated the challenges to the LA County workforce and its leadership in achieving deliverables for such a large population while imbuing its work with anti-racism.

“It is incredibly difficult to be able to saturate conversations about race and justice, both at the leadership level, all the way down to the rank and file,” he said. “To reach everybody in the period of time that we need to reach folk (sic), to have a courageous conversation… is very, very difficult.

“Everyone is committed to maintaining that social safety net, getting out there and providing services on the ground … doing the work that needs to be done,” said Scorza. “It’s kind of hard when you’re trying to make sure [clients] have food vouchers or get a job, to then have the capacity to do some of this work, if it’s not already baked in. Looking at how we function on a day-to-day basis and incorporating strategies that reduce barriers – that is an incredibly important approach to advancing racial equity.”

Scorza, who leads the County’s Anti-Racism, Diversity, and Inclusion Initiative (ARDI), said that a proactive approach is needed for the system’s workforce, in order to have honest discussions about racism and how to fight against its effects on the public that they serve.

“Not everyone wants to talk about race… but we have to have that conversation,” said Scorza. “Building competencies to engage in that dialogue is incredibly essential for us to move forward. One of the things that we’re doing at ARDI is meeting with various departments. We’re talking to directors, we’re talking to staff, to understand … what they  may be dealing with, as it can be difficult for them to have these conversations, and to also shift practices, review their policies, and set goals that help achieve outcomes.”

The report’s recommendations include promoting upstream enhancements to target the root cause of significant breakdowns across social safety nets such as health care, mental health, education, and the economy due to systemic racism; dedicating resources to cultural transformation across every level of DCFS through training and normalizing discussions about race; and implementing widespread evaluation of existing and prospective racial equity efforts such as the DCFS Eliminating Racial Disparity and Disproportionality program, SAFE Reductions (4DX), and LA County’s ARDI.

Professor Howard, whose publications include the recent book, “Equity Now: Justice, Repair and Belonging in Schools,” concluded with the fact that behind all the data, are human beings whose lives are doubly upended while seeking help from the child welfare system.

“It’s important that we also not just look at these numbers and forget these are actual lives that they represent… the raw emotion, the trauma, the pain, the hurt that comes from parents who’ve had their children taken away; to talk to young people who were separated from their families inexplicably; to hear people just bawl their eyes out, to talk about how they did not get answers,” he said. “We can’t even begin to imagine the pain … the deep-seated hurt of not knowing where your children are, if they are going to be reunited, who are they with. They felt like they were being pawns in court, they were doing everything they were asked to do, yet still could not find a way to get their children back.

“As much as we look at data and trends upward and trends downward, I ask that we not lose sight of the fact that these are actual lives of the people who live right in this community, who oftentimes don’t see government as an aid but as something to be feared, and they want no connection whatsoever with the system. Let’s not forget those names and faces and lift them up as much as we can.”


Visit this link to read the report, “Beyond Blind Removal: Color Consciousness and Anti-Racism in Los Angeles County Child Welfare.”

Above: LA County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell (third from left, upper row) served as keynote speaker to discuss "Beyond Blind Removal: Color Consciousness and Anti-Racism in Los Angeles County Child Welfare," a new report by the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families.

Other speakers included (L-R, upper row) D’Artagnan Scorza (’13, Ph.D., Urban Schooling), executive director of Racial Equity, LA County; Mitchell, Taylor Dudley, JD, executive director, Pritzker Center; Brandon Nichols, director, LA County Department of Child and Family Services; and Tyrone Howard, co-director, Pritzker Center and UCLA professor of education.

Also pictured: Audra Langley, co-director, Pritzker Center (fifth from left, upper row); and Wasserman Dean Christina Christie, UCLA School of Education and Information Studies (second from right, upper row).

Courtesy of the Office of LA County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell