A few times a month, in an unmarked white office building on Long Island, a group of Nassau County government employees discuss which children they should separate from their parents. The meeting involves a caseworker, supervisors and attorneys reviewing notes from the caseworker’s investigation into child maltreatment allegations against the parents. If the group makes the difficult decision that a child is not safe at home, the attorneys will drive to the county courthouse down the road to argue for a removal before a family court judge.
Most of the professionals involved in this decision will be white. If the judge approves the removal, the foster parents who take in the child will likely be white, too. But for years, even though only around 13 percent of the county’s overall population is black, black kids have made up half or more of the Nassau children deemed in need of foster care placement. It’s part of a familiar story: decades after the height of the civil rights movement, extreme racial inequalities persist.
“It was shockingly bad,” said Maria Lauria, the director of children’s services for Nassau County, referring to the disparity. “Personally, I would use the word ‘ashamed.’ At the time I wondered, ‘Why is it so bad?’ We had to try something.”
So, in 2010, her agency tried something. What happened next is a less familiar story: what they tried worked.
When a government caseworker substantiates an allegation of child abuse or neglect, they typically present their notes to a group of superiors before seeking a judge’s order. Those notes detail visits to the child’s home and interviews with family members and with doctors, psychiatrists or other investigators. The notes also include demographic details about the family — including race or ethnicity. But beginning in 2010, Nassau County took that part out. In its new “blind” removal meetings, information about race, as well as names and addresses, which could provide clues, is redacted by the caseworker. In other words, the people making these decisions are color-blind.
The results of the experiment were dramatic. In 2011, black children made up 55 percent of removals. In 2016, the number was down to 27 percent — still disproportionately high, but an unprecedented drop in such a large county-run foster system.
The breakthrough made waves. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration praised it in an annual report, and other counties in the state started calling Nassau for advice. A team of researchers from Florida State University conducted a study on the experiment that turned into a TED Talk that has now been viewed more than a million times. Child welfare administrators from around the country are visiting soon to watch a demonstration.
It is unusual for efforts to address racial disparities to make an actual impact. Decades of research have painted a rich picture of the political, social and psychological origins of systemic racism, but our understanding of what actually works to overcome it has not come close to catching up. “By many standards, the psychological literature on prejudice ranks among the most impressive in all of social science,” wrote Elizabeth Levy Paluck and Donald P. Green, a pair of prominent scholars, in 2009. But, after reviewing nearly 1,000 studies on various interventions designed to reduce prejudice, they concluded that the effects of the vast majority of interventions were largely unknown — an observation Paluck has confirmed in more recent research. Yet here, in Nassau County, was a good result from the field.
Given the success, it might seem surprising that more institutions have not attempted to use “blinding” techniques to achieve more racial equality. Withholding information about race (or gender, age, and so on) from decision-makers is one of the oldest proven ways to circumvent discrimination. But the concept has largely fallen out of favor among racial justice advocates, in no small part because it has been co-opted by conservatives as a way of opposing any policy that takes race into account in an effort to combat racial inequality.
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