Renequa Burch still wonders why exactly Child Protective Services moved so quickly to take four of her five kids away from her in the summer of 2018, but she’s convinced the fact that she and her children are Black had something to do with it.
A social worker and mother of five kids between the ages of one and eight at the time (three of them adopted out of foster care), Burch’s first run-in with CPS happened in May 2018 at her children’s first daycare, when her then three-year-old daughter supposedly told someone on staff that her father had hit her. When CPS called Burch to ask about the situation, she said that couldn’t have happened; She and her then-husband were separated, he wasn’t living with them at the time, and her daughter hadn’t seen him recently. CPS closed the case.
Several weeks later, Burch and her children moved from Houston up to Conroe, trying to get as far away from her soon-to-be-ex-husband as possible. At their new daycare, one of the workers asked about her adopted four-year-old son, who they’d caught eating out of a trash can. Burch said it wasn’t the first time (before she adopted him, Burch said he was found on the streets eating out of dumpsters, and that he was later diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome and autism). She explained the situation and told the daycare worker he just needed to be redirected.
Soon after, Burch started getting notes left at her home that a CPS caseworker had come by wanting to speak with her. Burch tried and failed to get a hold of this new caseworker via email. She reached out to the CPS case worker who she’d dealt with after the incident at her previous daycare, who told Burch she didn’t know what the new inquiry was about.
On June 28, 2018, Burch said both her personal and work phone started ringing back and forth. When she eventually answered, a CPS caseworker was on the other line, who said she was at the Burch children’s daycare. The caseworker first asked Burch when a good time to meet that day would be, and they settled on a time later that evening. She then told Burch that she’d noticed her one-year-old son was bleeding, and asked if she was going to come pick him up right away.
“I was like, ‘What do you mean? Where’s he bleeding from?’ And she’s like, ‘I don’t know.’ And then she’s like ‘Are you going to come and get him medical attention?’ And I said ‘Does he need medical attention?’ And she said ‘I don’t know.’”
Then, Burch admits she got frustrated. She told the CPS rep if her son was really injured, she expected someone at the daycare would have called to tell her and would have taken care of the situation themselves. “I said ‘Okay, let’s hang up the phone and you have one of them call me back,’ and she said ‘Okay.’”
“Then she called me back two hours later,” Burch said, to inform her that “the state of Texas has taken custody of four of your five kids.”
Anyone who follows the Texas child welfare and foster care world closely knows that the system takes Black children away from their parents more often than white children. Experts point to several factors that could be blamed: a habit among caseworkers of mistaking poverty for neglect, classist attitudes from CPS staff, and subconscious or overt racism within CPS and among the law enforcement officers, teachers, healthcare professionals and childcare workers who often call CPS in the first place.
According to data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the state agency that oversees CPS, Black children in Texas were 1.6 times more likely to be removed from their families than white children in 2020 once their parents or caretakers were reported to CPS.
In Harris County, the disparity is even more staggering: In 2020, Black children in Harris County were 3.5 times more likely to be removed by CPS than white children.
When the Houston Press asked to speak with a representative from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services about the racial disparity in child removals by CPS, an agency spokeswoman said she’d only be able to share a brief statement.
“Disproportionality – the over-representation of minorities in a system — is found across many systems including child welfare, education, juvenile justice, criminal justice, and health care. This is true both nationally and in Texas,” the DFPS statement read. “Statistics show those who report allegations of abuse and neglect to DFPS are more likely to make reports regarding African American children. And minority children are more likely to be removed from their families.
“DFPS is committed to partnering with representatives across systems and, importantly, with communities to listen and to address issues of disproportionality in CPS,” the statement continued.
DFPS also claimed that “Field staff, supervisors and administrators are required to take training to increase cultural responsiveness and understanding of poverty issues,” and that “CPS provides financial support for kinship care to help relatives care for children so children can stay with extended family rather than entering foster care.”
How It Broke Down
In calling for Burch's children to be removed from the home, the CPS caseworker cited a busted lip on her one-year-old (he’d tripped on the doorstep on the way out of the house to school that morning, Burch and her other children told CPS), various marks on three of her other kids CPS thought could be signs of abuse, and the fact that one day, one of Burch’s daughters showed up to daycare with mismatched shoes.
Only her oldest son, then 8 years old, was allowed to stay with Burch. For the next eight months, she and her legal team went back and forth with CPS in court to get her other four children back home for good.
Tiffany Cebrun, an attorney with Houston’s Foster Care Advocacy Center who helped Burch get CPS’s findings of child abuse and neglect removed from her record, said CPS wasn’t able to prove the Burch children had been abused at all. “The medical records were just really mediocre,” Cebrun said.
Eventually, CPS dropped its case against Burch, and in January 2019 her four kids were finally allowed to come back home.
“I think that what the caseworker thought is ‘Oh, this is a single black mom going through a divorce. We can target her, and she’s not going to fight back,’” Burch said.
Cebrun believes that CPS would have handled Burch’s case completely differently, and likely wouldn’t have taken her children away in the first place, had she not been Black. Burch’s case is indicative of how the child welfare system often treats white and Black families in similar situations quite differently, Cebrun said.
“You go into a Black home that’s dirty, and it all of a sudden looks worse to CPS, it’s all of a sudden more concerning. [But] if you go into a white home that’s dirty, you tell them to clean it up, you know? You give them time to get it clean,” Cebrun said. “So I think a lot of it is [based on] subconscious bias.”
Tara Grigg Green, a Houston attorney and founder of the Foster Care Advocacy Center whose organization has worked on hundreds of cases representing both parents and children caught up in the state’s child welfare system, said she’s seen firsthand the way CPS treats white families differently than Black families
Even if it might not be intentional, Green said, “I do think that there are a lot of things that go into it that are markers for race, or that are just implicit biases that we’re only now starting to talk about.”
“I am a white lady who lives in a nice neighborhood. And if for some reason I have a baby, and I tested positive for marijuana and so does that baby, no one’s taking that baby from me,” Green argued, a benefit of the doubt she said is rarely extended to Black families that find themselves entangled with CPS.
Alan Dettlaff, a former CPS employee and current dean of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, contends that subconscious anti-Black racism baked into Texas’ child welfare system itself plays a role in this disparity.
“All of the conditions that keep Black people oppressed, the child welfare system is inflicting on Black people,” Dettlaff said. “So the child welfare system is acting as an agent of oppression by disproportionately inflicting harm on Black children and families.”
Dettlaff also argued that over-surveillance of Black Texans by law enforcement is a factor in the racial disparity in child removals. “That absolutely has a huge role. It starts with law enforcement’s role and biases and racism that are present within law enforcement,” he explained.
For example, in Texas as well as other states, “law enforcement officers have the right to put children immediately into foster care, and often don’t look for relatives. And that may disproportionately impact Black families,” Dettlaff said.
Is It Classism or Racial Bias?
A recent Texas Observer report
quoted Aurora Martinez Jones, a Travis County district court judge who earlier this year presided over two nearly identical child welfare cases on the same day. Both involved mothers who were arrested for drug possession during traffic stops, and each had a child in the car. One of the mothers, a white woman, was allowed by the arresting officer to call the child’s grandmother, who came and took the child away. During the court proceedings, CPS only asked Martinez Jones to order that the mother be supervised going forward.
The other mother, a Black woman, had CPS called on her by the officer who arrested her. Without giving her the opportunity to call a family member, CPS immediately took the Black woman’s child, who was then put in foster care. In court, the child’s grandmother asked to be granted custody of the child, but CPS requested that the mother’s parental rights be revoked and argued against the grandmother being granted custody, citing some years-old criminal charges on her record.
“You can not come in my court and ask me for two different outcomes for two different mothers, when the only difference I see is the color of their skin,” Martinez Jones told the Observer.
“What often happens in Black families is that people are disqualified from serving as kinship care providers,” Dettlaff explained, oftentimes “because of old criminal histories, again, that may have nothing to do with risk for maltreatment. Non-violent, criminal histories, possession of marijuana 10 years ago, the system will deny that as a relative caregiver.”
“Because we know the criminal justice system disproportionately surveils, polices and arrests people in Black communities, it’s more likely that Black family members are going to have these prior criminal histories, so then they’re more often disqualified from serving as care providers,” Dettlaff said, even if their records don’t have anything to do with that person’s ability to raise a child safely.
Another critic of the Texas child welfare system, Parent Guidance Center executive director Johana Scot, agrees that Black families are treated differently by CPS than white families, but believes that’s more due to classism than either outright or subconscious racism.
“If you are an African American family and you have to bring a child to the emergency room with a broken arm, you’re very likely not going to receive the same response as an upper-middle-class white person bringing their 3-year-old in with a broken arm,” Scot said. “So you already are going to have, I think, more of a class system set up the moment they walk through the emergency room doors.”
If it were truly just an issue of classism, though, one might expect the rate at which Hispanic children are removed from their families compared to white children would be similar to the disparity in removals between Black children and white children, seeing as both Hispanic and Black families in Texas are much more likely to suffer from poverty than white families.
But across Texas, “Hispanic children had similar outcomes” to white children in terms of CPS removals in 2020 according to a recent DFPS report. And in Harris County, Hispanic children were actually 0.8 times less likely to be removed by CPS than white children in 2020.
Dettlaff argued that these statistics prove his point. “If this was solely a problem related to poverty,” he said, “then you would expect Hispanic children to be entering the system at high rates also, because they’re also more likely to live in poverty and all of these external conditions that bring children into the system.”
“But that’s not the case,” he continued. “This is specifically an anti-Black racism problem.”
As to what could solve the problem, advocates have several
solutions. Green believes that the work she and her Foster Care Advocacy Center colleagues are doing on pre-trial interventions could go a long way toward preventing local Black families from having their children unjustly removed.
“I do think that front door is the most important door,” Green said. “Once that removal happens, once you have an active lawsuit, once CPS has their tentacles in you, it’s so hard to get out.”
Dettlaff is pushing for an even more radical shift: “The long-term goal [should be] abolition, the complete abolition of the existing child welfare system as we know it, because of the harm that it causes to children and families.”
A more immediate solution, Dettlaff said, would be for CPS to “drastically reduce removals that are related to poverty concerns, and divest the millions of dollars that are currently used to support this system of foster care and reinvest those funds in families and communities.
“There’s research that shows that just a moderate amount of financial assistance significantly reduces contact with child welfare agencies and reduces the risk of maltreatment,” he said.
Since being reunited with her family, Burch has remarried and moved out to Cypress. She’s even added two more kids to her family: a nearly two-year-old foster daughter whose adoption paperwork is nearly complete, and a six-month-old daughter she had with her new husband.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Burch said, “I’m not someone who’s like ‘Oh, CPS needs to go away. No. I know that they serve a purpose. I know in my [adopted] kids’ case, absolutely they were not safe, they could not remain in the environment that they were in.”
Still, she hopes that CPS can figure out how to focus more on the cases where children are truly in danger, because she knows her four children that were taken away will always carry that trauma with them. Burch said all four kids have major attachment issues now, and even her oldest son who wasn’t taken by the state is in therapy these days.
“They are not the same kids,” Burch said.
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