Welcome to the initiative prepared by the Family Justice Initiative Race Equity workgroup. 

In creating this initiative, we began with certain core concepts. First, we were directed and influenced by the voices of people who have experienced the child welfare system  as children in foster care or those threatened with removal, or as parents, families, loved ones and communities that have been impacted by the child welfare system.  Second, we believe that as legal practitioners we have a duty to continually learn and educate ourselves on the topics of race, racism, bias, and sexual orientation discrimination;  how these topics and issues are manifested in the workplace, in various systems (child welfare, carceral, health care, housing, etc.), and how these ideas and behaviors show up within ourselves and those we work with. Lastly, the initiative was developed to highlight practical tools and approaches for lawyers and multidisciplinary teams to use in their client advocacy.  

As you read through this material, we encourage you to “walk in the shoes” of the narrators; the children and parents that have been involved and impacted by child welfare. What would they have wanted from their attorneys and interdisciplinary teams? Those of us who have worked with children and parents for many years, in our busyness as practitioners, often do not stop to consider the short and long-term impact that being in the system has on children, the people that brought them into this world, or the people that love those children dearly. For example, how would it feel to be taken to a stranger’s home and dropped off? What if you and your sibling(s) were dropped off in separate places? As a young child, how might you process the different smells of that home? The different foods? The different words, language, behaviors, and routines? What happens over time with those feelings and the tears and pain of being separated from the things and people most important to a child, parent, or relative? As practitioners in our rushed practice, when we use legalese and acronyms which have no meaning to our clients, how dismissive must this feel to them? The strategies in this initiative are meant to address these types of questions and lead us to be bold in our advocacy.

We acknowledged that each of us are at a different point in our  race equity journey, from newly curious to those considered “experts”.  We ask that the reader engages with the material intent on  growth and learning regardless of where you are on the continuum.  Further, before engaging in conversations regarding race and before “litigating race” in your cases, it is important to spend time  thinking about  your own cultural beliefs and racial identity, often called “reflective work”.   How and when did you learn what you know about American history and child welfare history or about the laws that now shape child welfare concepts and legal decisions? Racial dialogue is important in understanding another person’s perspective and view of the world.   To do this, we must understand our own racial identity and cultural beliefs.

Despite our intention to provide practical tools, we could not build an “anti-racist” initiative without talking about race and examining what it means to be anti-racist. It is imperative that those in the child welfare community recognize not only the role that race plays in courtrooms, but also how it impacts the way we analyze and prioritize cases, and how it impacts our individual representation. “If we don’t see it [bias] in ourselves, we’re not going to be effective at our jobs.” – Jeff Adaci   https://www.nacdl.org/Content/Racial-Disparity-and-Public-Defense

We must overcome our natural aversion to “raising the race card.” As defense attorneys, we reasonably fear that raising racial issues can impact trial strategy in unpredictable ways. Heading into trial, our instinct is to control as many variables as possible, because we know there will be variables we absolutely cannot control. But whether we admit it or not, Pandora’s Box of bias based on race often impedes justice. If we fail to ferret out and explore racial issues, we permit ourselves to wear blinders. If we never explore race issues, never investigate, or research to find law to benefit a client who is being railroaded, in part, because of race, then our failure is not a reasonable strategic decision. If we fail to preserve race issues for appellate review because we never even saw the issues, we certainly cannot swear that we utilized  a reasonable trial strategyThe Advocate, Journal of Criminal Justice Education & Research Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, Volume 30, Issue No.  3  May  2008.

Another potential “elephant in the room” when discussing becoming “anti-racist”  revolves around the value of having a diverse staff.  Diversity in this context means people of different ethnicities, sexual orientations, socioeconomic statuses, ages, genders, religions, and other ways in which humans innately differ.   “People see the presence or absence of members of their group in certain roles and domains as a cue of whether they belong and are welcome there or not… The first step to success is imagining that it is possible.”  2009, Five Questions for John Dovidio, PhD, American Psychological Association   https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2009/02/questions-dovidio

A recent American Bar Association study from 2020 found that the legal profession in America has remained overwhelmingly white and male over the last decade and that racial diversity among lawyers has regressed in some respects.  Exclusionary and classist: Why the legal profession is getting whiter, August 10, 2021, REUTERS  The percentage of Black and Native American attorneys has receded slightly since 2011. Black lawyers went from 4.8% of the profession to 4.7% in 2021, and Native Americans from 1% to less than half a percent. Those numbers are much lower than the 13% of Americans who are Black, and the 1.3% who are Native Americans.

Hiring a diverse and well-trained staff is an important strategy if an organization is going to  truly be “anti-racist”.  Staff who communicate and wrestle with these complex issues alongside  people from diverse backgrounds will lean more into anti-racist ways of thinking and practicing.   In summary, we live and practice in a tumultuous period in which issues of marginalization and structural oppression are occupying a prominent space.  Many in the legal and child welfare fields are actively seeking information to propel their practices to the next level. 

As you delve into these materials, we encourage you to be thoughtful, humble, and open to learning.