JCCA CEO Ronald E. Richter testified on October 28, 2020 at the New York City Council’s Committee on General Welfare hearing on the topic of Racial Disparities in Child Welfare. His written testimony is shared below.
Good afternoon. Thank you Committee Chair Levin for calling this hearing and allowing me to testify on behalf of the children and families in New York City impacted by racial disparities in the child welfare system.
My name is Ronald E. Richter. I have been honored to have once served as New York City’s ACS Commissioner and twice as a judge in the City’s Family Court.
Today, I am the Chief Executive Officer of JCCA, a voluntary child and family services agency that has been working with New York’s most disadvantaged and at-risk children and families since 1822. Back in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, the disadvantaged children we served were Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms and poverty in Europe. Now, a majority of our clients are Black and brown. It is a fact that Black and brown families have been set up to fail in our nation through systemic and institutional racism and resulting inequities. The child welfare system is no exception to this rule.
Increasing resource equity can improve just outcomes for families involved in child welfare, especially families at risk of neglect. An instructive example of this came during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which our prevention programs at JCCA experienced a remarkable increase in engagement with families. This might at first seem counterintuitive given the challenges of social distancing and virtual services. However, we at JCCA benefitted from tremendous generosity from our Trustees, funders, and donors. Because of the funds we raised during the early days of the pandemic, we were able to provide unprecedented financial and material emergency assistance to families. This support engendered genuine trust among our clients, relieving stress for caregivers and, in turn, improving engagement in therapeutic options. By bringing families relief in the face of unemployment, illness, and isolation, relationships with our clients evolved. No longer seen as threatening, we at JCCA are supporting the capacity of the families we serve to survive together. If we could provide this concrete support generally, we would be able to stabilize and empower caregivers far more effectively.
Unfortunately, this kind of support is unsustainable for us, as an agency. And, as a society, because we fail to address the root causes of poverty, trauma, and illness, families are turned over to ACS and Family Court.
An October 2020 study of racial bias in New York courts, commissioned by NYS Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, highlights Family Court as perhaps the worst offender in denying a fair and equitable forum to litigants of color. Judges in the underfunded Family Court have unacceptably high caseloads that they must adjudicate quickly; they may have only minutes to gather facts necessary to issue a decision whether to remove a child or keep a family together. This typically doesn’t allow the judge to consider their decision thoughtfully. New York City caseworkers, responsible for presenting the facts supporting applications to Family Court judges, have similarly high caseloads and time pressures that make them vulnerable to relying on their own unconscious assumptions.
Despite our best intentions, we all have implicit bias, where our prior lifetime of experiences and influences on our subconscious color our interpretation of the world around us. Every second, the human brain receives millions of tiny bits of information. Studies show that we can really only process 40 bits per second, and our brains make assumptions to fill in the gaps. 99.9% of the information we receive is processed at the unconscious level. Without continuously testing our own assumptions and ensuring that we have all the pertinent facts at our disposal, our unconscious bias informs our perspective. For child welfare investigators and family court judges, whose decisions can have life or death consequences, this bias results in demonstrable and regrettable disparities in outcomes for the families involved.
I remember a vivid example of these disparities in action. It was a busy day in intake in 2010 or 2011, when I was a judge in Queens Family Court, and my first case concerned a white family. A young white woman, who lived with her own mother in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens, had delivered a baby girl addicted to drugs. She had been charged with neglect, and ACS asked the court to release the baby to her grandmother, on two conditions: one, that the mother enter drug treatment, and two, that an order be granted that the mother could not have any contact with her baby while under the influence of drugs. It was the investigator’s opinion that the baby would be safe and cared for in this home provided the family met the conditions.
My next case involved a virtually identical scenario. A first-time mother, addicted to the same drugs, who lived with her own mother in Queens. The two differences? The family was Black, and they lived in public housing just south of the courthouse in Jamaica. In this case, ACS sought a removal of the baby to foster care. The day was moving quickly, and I still had several cases left to hear. No overtime is approved in Family Court. But I paused. I had just heard this case. What was I missing? Why were they asking for a different outcome? I inquired to be sure I didn’t miss that the mother had a prior neglect history or a child in care that she hadn’t planned for. Perhaps the grandmother was not deemed appropriate and I didn’t hear the worker say so. But no, same facts as the middle-class white woman. I declined to order a removal, and released the baby to her grandmother with the same conditions as before. I learned a lot that day, about systemic racism and about myself. Would I have been as attentive if I didn’t have a case-by-case comparison in front of me so clearly?
There are ways to improve the objectivity of our decisions in order to reduce unconscious biases, and, for New York City’s child welfare system, they are within reach.
The most obvious recommendation is, of course, implicit bias training. While this may be complicated by the new restrictions placed on government contractors by Executive Order 13950, it is more critical than ever. By a recent measure, we are investigating somewhere between 35-40% of the black families that live in certain Bronx neighborhoods.
We also need to ask ourselves whether we are leveraging the most advanced social science as we decide who should be investigated and who should be subjected to a removal or to ACS supervision.
One tool at our disposal already exists within Connections, the citywide child welfare database. RAP, which stands for Risk Assessment Profile, is a standardized measure in Connections which must be completed at specific intervals during a CPS investigation. The RAP produces a score that classifies whether the case is low risk, moderate risk, high risk, or very high risk. The RAP “score” may be compared to the action that the agency plans to take—supplementing human social work with an evidence-based assessment. The RAP may also be used to test the agency’s action after it has been taken, an approach we took between 2011 and 2013. By drawing managers’ attention to the RAP, we significantly reduced the number of removals for children who were in care two weeks or less. If ACS were to report the RAP/actual outcome discrepancy in real-time, across the system, we could ostensibly increase equity for families in New York City.
Nationally, the conversation in child welfare is centered around the use of predictive analytics, which have advanced considerably since I was at ACS. I understand that ACS is carefully weighing the best way to leverage predictive analytics. I would recommend that the Council work with ACS to identify how predictive analytics are being contemplated to determine the measures/metrics that may be generated using predictive analytics/risk modeling to net more objective assessments of risk to children, eliminating human bias more systematically.
There is a lot of work left to do to improve equity for families of color. In this moment, when COVID has exacerbated poverty, isolation, and stress for families across the country, it is more important than ever that we do everything we can to avoid embroiling families in the child welfare system unless absolutely necessary. Thank you for taking this time to address the systemic and institutional barriers to the stability and success of children and families in New York City.