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New state task force to address racial disparities in Michigan's child protection system

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has created a new task force with the goal of preventing and eliminating systemic racism in the state's child protection system. 

Department officials say the substantial overrepresentation of children of color in the system demands what they call "a fundamental system change."According to MDHHS, children who are Black make up 29% of the state's foster care population while only 16% of children in Michigan are Black. Children of color comprise 51% of the state's foster care population while representing only 31% of children in Michigan.

"As well intentioned as we are, our current system perpetuates injustices and keeps us from meeting our core values," said JooYeun Chang, executive director of MDHHS's Children's Services Agency in a press release. "This is primarily driven by systemic issues and we must therefore acknowledge and then address systemic racism and bias wherever it exists."

Thomas Stallworth, director of the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, is  co-chair of the new Child Welfare Improvement Task Force. 

"The goal is to examine the root causes of overrepresentation of Black children and children of color in the child protection system and to address any racial disparities that drive that overrepresentation," said Stallworth. "We are obligated to look at whether or not the system is operating effectively and whether or not it has implicit bias embedded in it."

Stallworth said children of color enter foster care at higher rates and stay in longer than white children - and this puts them at greater risk of lifelong adverse outcomes in health, education, and social and financial stability. 

MDHHS has also charged the Task Force with transforming the child protection system so it prioritizes family well-being and preventing harm to children through supporting their families and communities in a fair and equitable way before abuse and neglect occur. 

"The question to ask is what can we do to keep kids safely with their families so they don't have to enter foster care in the first place," said Task Force member Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.

"Child welfare can't just look at child welfare to address these problems," said Sankaran. "Other systems like the criminal justice system, the educational system, inequities in those systems play a role in the outcomes we're seeing in foster care."

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Virginia Gordan has been a part-time reporter at Michigan Radio since fall 2013. She has a general beat covering news topics from across the state.
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