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California Legislator Wendy Carillo

Illustration by Christine Ongjoco

A bill aimed at addressing rampant racial disparities in California’s child welfare system by removing information on the race of children when critical decisions about their lives are being decided will not advance in the state Legislature this year.

Sweeping Investigation

Introduced by Los Angeles Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo (D), Assembly Bill 656 would have created pilot projects in child welfare agencies in five counties. Under a process known as “blind removals,” social workers deciding whether to remove a child from home following allegations of abuse or neglect would deliberate the circumstances of their case without knowing the family’s race or other identifying information that could lead to bias.

A spokesperson for Carillo, Unai Montes-Irueste, said the legislative proposal prompted questions from social workers and other critics over how well the state matched up with the demographics of New York’s Nassau County, where the blind removals method has been in place for about a decade. California is substantially less white and more multiethnic than the Long Island region.

Others concerned about the bill noted the new process could cause delays and increase caseloads for social workers at a time when child welfare systems have been strained by the coronavirus pandemic, Montes-Irueste said.

As the nation’s child welfare systems have grappled with a racial disproportionality, the color-blind removal process has seen a surge in popularity.

“Instead of trying to rush it through and having it fail, we made the decision to move it to a two-year process, so we can have the opportunity to have more conversations,” he said.

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Susan Abrams, director of policy and training for the Children’s Law Center of California, a sponsor of AB 656, said she was disappointed it would not be moving forward, noting the larger context. Over the past year, the death of George Floyd and other police killings of Black people have brought a sharper focus on long-standing issues of racial inequity in the child welfare system, she said, and the state should gather more evidence about whether removing biased decision-making could be an effective way to address disparities.

“This is precisely why we need a pilot — to allow for thoughtful planning, bold action and essential data collection, analysis and evaluation,” Abrams wrote in an email. “The equally important values of child safety, strengthening families and dismantling structural racism can and should co-exist within our child welfare system.”

As the nation’s child welfare systems have grappled with a racial disproportionality, the color-blind removal process has seen a surge in popularity, with jurisdictions in New York, Minnesota and Michigan embracing the new approach over the past two years.

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo

In 2011, Nassau County began implementing a system that redacts race and zip code information from the removal decision-making process. The New York State Office of Children and Family Services has credited the colorblind process with decreasing the share of Black children entering the county’s foster care system, though data on the project has been limited and has varied considerably.

California’s bill was designed “to promote racial equity and advance practices of equity and inclusion in the child welfare system,” an area where racial disproportionality is stark. Black children are over-represented in California’s foster care at a rate 3.34 times their share in the general population — the greatest disproportionality of any state in the nation — according to the National Center on Juvenile Justice.

AB 656 would have surpassed other color-blind removal efforts by requiring social workers to obscure not only the race, ethnicity and address of the children and parents under child welfare investigations but also the parents’ religious beliefs, political affiliations, marital status, number of children and income, as well as information about any prior investigations of the parents that did not result in a substantiated finding of child abuse or neglect.

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The bill would have also mandated the California Department of Social Services to conduct an evaluation of the impact of the pilot programs after three years of implementation, with specific interest in how it would impact the removal of Black, Native American and Latino children from their homes.

Jeremy Loudenback
The Imprint