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Originally published Thursday, June 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

State's child-welfare system must do better by minority kids

A recent Seattle Times editorial ["Child welfare up close," May 19] touched on the issue of racial disproportionality in our child-welfare...

Special to The Times

A recent Seattle Times editorial ["Child welfare up close," May 19] touched on the issue of racial disproportionality in our child-welfare system. It is a complex and troubling topic that is receiving a great deal of attention both nationally and within our state.

Last July, the General Accountability Office (GAO) released a national study that found that in 2004, African-American children were more than twice as likely to enter foster care as were white children. The federal study also found that, on average, African-American children stayed in foster care about nine months longer.

According to the study, Native-American children were also overrepresented in the foster-care system. Both groups also had poorer outcomes than their white peers.

This month, Department of Social and Health Services Secretary Robin Arnold-Williams will receive a report on racial disproportionality in Washington state's child-welfare system. Based on preliminary statewide data, we expect the report to mirror the findings of the GAO, with one exception. Among children of color in Washington, Native Americans are significantly overrepresented in our child-welfare system.

The report is the product of legislation sponsored by Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, which was passed and signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire just over a year ago. The law established the Statewide Disproportionality Advisory Committee, and directed the committee to determine whether disproportionality exists in Washington state and, if so, to what degree.

The advisory committee's next charge will be to work with Secretary Arnold-Williams to better understand what practices contribute to racial disproportionality, and then present a remediation plan to the Legislature by Dec. 1.

In preparing the statewide report, the advisory committee relied on the experiences of Texas, Michigan and Minnesota, which are ahead of us in tackling this issue; national experts on disproportionality; and on the work of the King County Coalition on Racial Disproportionality, which produced its own report three years ago.

Solving the problem won't be easy.

The Children's Administration is already adopting some child-welfare practices that have reduced disproportionality in other states. Specifically, we are implementing two new approaches: family team decision-making and structured decision-making.

The first involves extended family members and individuals close to the family in the agency's decisions about a child. The second helps identify high-risk behaviors and living situations that help determine the likelihood that child maltreatment will occur.

We can't tackle this problem alone. Some of the solutions may very well lie with our partners in the child-welfare system, and we need their help.

Our experience shows that teachers, health-care workers, law-enforcement officers and workers in the legal system refer children of color to our system at a significantly disproportionate rate compared with white children. This disproportionality at the entry point into the child-welfare system raises some thought-provoking questions for all of us.

For instance, in making a decision to contact Child Protective Services, is there a tendency to overestimate risks in some populations and underestimate them in other populations based on our cultural point of reference?

The issues surrounding disproportionality will get a thorough examination at a two-day symposium beginning June 26 at the University of Washington School of Law. The symposium will include a presentation on the Statewide Disproportionality Advisory Committee's report, and will feature recognized local and national authorities on disproportionality.

Cheryl Stephani is the assistant secretary of Washington's Children's Administration, which receives about 76,000 referrals of child abuse or neglect each year.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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