Jameelah lost custody of her newborn son in the delivery room after she tested positive for marijuana. The baby was returned four days later after the state determined he wasn’t in imminent risk of harm — that’s the standard the state is supposed to prove in order to place a child in foster care.
That intervention landed Jameelah in rehab, which she must attend three days a week in order to maintain custody of her son. The mom of six from Newark thinks the state is too quick to remove children from black parents.
“You’ll see a Caucasian person in a supermarket and let’s say their children don’t have on a hat or shoes and its cold outside,” Jameelah said. “Let that happen to an African American. Before you know it they’re reading your license plate and, boom, you have a social worker knocking at your door.”
Research shows there are no differences in the rates of drug use between African American and white families, said Orande Miller, who leads the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare in Washington, D.C
“There are also white parents, or white mothers in particular, who are using drugs,” Miller said. “But just aren't being reported to child welfare.”
New Jersey Public Radio and WNYC analyzed data on the 25,713 children who entered foster care in the state between 2009 and 2013, examining each child’s race and ethnicity and the reasons why their parents lost custody — whether the harm to the child was neglect, abuse, inadequate housing, drugs or any other factor.
Our investigation revealed that black children are more than four times as likely as white children to enter foster care in New Jersey. In 2013:
- Black children make up just 14 percent of the child population in New Jersey, but 41 percent of those entering foster care.
- White children account for 49 percent of the child population in the state and just 31 percent of the foster care population.
- Hispanic children are slightly under-represented in foster care, accounting for 24 percent of the child population in the state and 22 percent of those entering foster care.
In an email, the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency said it was “unable to speculate why there may be ethnic disparities.”
Later, after New Jersey Public Radio pressed for a deeper response from the agency, spokesperson Ernest Landante wrote, “When assessing racial disparity in child welfare, you must examine child- and family-level risk factors and not race and ethnicity alone.”
Substance abuse, personality disorders, and family structures could explain the disparity, Landante said, and he pointed to research that suggests socioeconomic conditions are a better indicator of who enters the child welfare system than race or ethnicity.
But Oronde Miller, of the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare, says assuming black parents are “more troubled” is a lazy explanation for the racial disparities.
“If there is an assumption that poverty is a driving factor and that race is not a significant factor, they can test those assumptions,” he said.
He pointed to the state of Texas, where officials analyzed their data and practices in 2011. They found that poverty did not account for the racial disparities in their system. Instead, Miller says case workers and judges were treating poor black parents differently than poor white parents.
White Children Seen As “Safer”
“When families presented a similar set of circumstances, family background, family circumstances, they actually found that workers judged the level of risk associated with those conditions and factors differently for white parents than they did for black parents,” he said.
White children in homes where there was drug use or domestic violence were seen as safer than black children in the same situations.
In New Jersey, almost half of all case workers are black, and the division says it’s committed to helping all workers understand the impact of their personal views on the job.
But most allegations brought against parents come from people who do not work for the child welfare system. Hospitals, schools and neighbors play a role in who gets investigated for potential child neglect and abuse. And the division is required to investigate each allegation that comes into a state hotline. Case workers go out to the home, sometimes with police, and they look around.
Latifa has had those home inspections before.
“I’m going to keep it honest, it’s more on people’s appearances,” said Latifa.
She and other mothers say the first thing case workers do is look for food.
“They open the refrigerator,” Latifa said. “That’s the first place they look at.”
An Empty Pantry for Someone with a Division Case
The mom of three from Newark always worries she doesn’t have enough food in her house, so she borrows some.
“I’ll go down the street to a neighbor’s house to collect cans from their house or extra meat from their refrigerator,” she said.
“Literally go hurry up and knock on doors and ask, ‘Okay let me hold your meat real quick or let me borrow your canned goods real quick.’ Just so I could have something in the refrigerator for when they come.”
Parents can tell case workers they need services like food stamps, but some worry that could give the division another reason to suspect they can’t adequately care for their children.
Robin Shorter runs the Integrity House’s WISE Woman’s Program in Newark. It’s an outpatient center for mothers who are trying to regain or maintain custody of their children. Latifa is one of her clients.
Shorter says a half-empty pantry for someone with an open case with the division is magnified.
“It’s malnutrition,” she said. “It’s starving your child. It’s very unfortunate.”
In the vast majority of cases, children are not removed. More than 40,000 children a month receive services from the state and are under supervision, but get to live at home. The Division says it buys beds and cribs and has put down security deposits on homes just to keep children with their parents.
“We have been able to collaborate with a lot of workers at the Division just in an effort to help the children be reunited with their mothers,” said Shorter.
A Registry of Abusers and Neglecters
The state keeps a registry of people who have abused or neglected children in the past, which is meant, in part, to protect kids from ending up with the wrong people.
Ten years ago, attorneys say parents were getting on the registry for dirty houses and hitting their kids with a hairbrush. And there’s no way to get off it. You’re on it for life.
Cristal, 24, is on the registry. She grew up in foster care in Newark.
“You feel alone, like nobody cares for you, especially your own family. I felt like nobody wanted me,” Cristal said.
She was in foster care during a period when the state of New Jersey was sued for not doing enough to protect children like her who were removed from their parents.
“They placed me in places where I was molested, where I was beaten, there was a house that was infested with roaches,” she said. “It was bad.”
She signed herself out of the system when she turned 18. But having grown up in foster care put Cristal at a higher risk of losing her own kids — a boy and a girl.
She got in a fight with her girlfriend recently in front of her son. Before being handcuffed, Newark police allowed her to drop her son off with his grandmother, who is on the registry after losing her parenting rights to Cristal. And the state had a problem with that.
“That was also a big issue in my case, the fact that I left him with my mother knowing that she wasn’t supposed to be left with him unsupervised,” Cristal said.
The division had been called on Cristal before. This time around, the state determined she was putting her children in dangerous situations.
Friends and family qualified to become her kid’s foster parents, so they’re not with strangers like she was.
“But it’s still nowhere like being with mommy,” she said. “It’s always better with mommy around.”
Cristal is now working toward unsupervised visits with her children. In the meantime, she is completing a court ordered drug rehab program for smoking marijuana.
Drugs use alone is not supposed to be enough to lose custody of a child in New Jersey. The drug use needs to result in neglect or abuse, but lawyers and drug treatment providers say that does happen. And black mothers are particularly vulnerable.