By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors
A decade ago, Marilyn A. Moores, then a presiding judge of the Marion County Juvenile Court, was concerned about the disproportionate number of children of color coming before her.
She wasn’t the only one. Cindy Booth, the chief executive officer of Child Advocates, felt the same way. She recognized that the percentage of African American children served by her agency was nearly double to that of the overall African American population in Marion County.
At the time, the same concerns were being expressed on the state and national levels. In Indiana, a disproportionality summit was commissioned by General Assembly, and nationally, the Annie E. Casey Foundation was championing court-based training, research and reform initiatives to combat the problem.
At the direction of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court judges, Moores opted to go a step further and formed the Courts Catalyzing Change Committee, and charged it with a simple agenda – to do something. She appointed Geoffrey Gaither, a magistrate in the Marion County Juvenile Court system, and Jennifer Hubartt, then the director/regional manager for Department of Child Services-Marion County, to chair the 31-person group.
One member of the group, Andrea Manning-Dudley, worked for Child Advocates as the guardian ad litem supervisor and attended a training given by People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Emboldened by what she learned, she told Booth that this powerful training might be perfect for DCS staff. By coincidence, Booth and Gregg Ellis, the Child Advocates chief program officer, attended a national CASA conference and an overview of the same workshop that Manning-Dudley was talking about.
Suddenly, pieces were beginning to fall into place.
Booth decided Child Advocates could take the lead and serve as the catalyst for change, and so she approached Moores.
“I went to Judge Moores, and I said, ‘You want to do something with the courts to catalyze change. I’ve just been introduced to this workshop. If you let me raise the money, will you tell people they have to come to this? If I tell them, they’ll just go ‘thank you, but no.’ But if you tell them as a judge, they’ll come.’”
“This was like a godsend because as a committee we were struggling about how to institute change,” said Gaither, who has presided in Marion County Juvenile Court since 1995 and was introduced to disproportionality in an article that Judge James Payne shared on the topic in the late 1990s.
That first workshop was offered 10 years ago and would be one of four convened that first year.
Gaither’s reaction to the training was similar.
“I used to consider myself an expert on being a black man, but I was blown away by what I did not know and what I learned on those two days. I thought the information was explosive, powerful and life-changing. At the end of the two days, once your eyes are open they can never be closed again, at least in theory,” said Gaither, who speaks at the beginning of most workshops.
Now, nearly 65 Undoing Racism trainings later, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond has trained over 2,800 Indiana DCS employees, judges, police, teachers and others. Officials considered the differences in treatment of blacks, whites and Latinos so serious that Booth said they’ve invested roughly $600,000 in grants and donations to train people who work in those systems.
The New Orleans-based national organization’s two-day training analyzes the history and effects of the racial divide in the U.S. in order to share how those translate into the disparities that exist today.
Last year as demand increased, Child Advocates upped its offerings, conducting 14 Undoing Racism workshops. While much of the training has remained the same, many of the attendees have changed. Now, Child Advocates service providers, as well as other nonprofit organizations, are among the participants. Last year, the entire staff of the Central Indiana Community Foundation invested time to attend. Based on its experience and with increased demand beyond the initial DCS audience, CICF offered a $100,000 grant to expand the program.
Child Advocates has continued to lead and added Jill English as the initiative’s co-director along with Diana Dunn. Dunn, the widow of the co-founder of the People’s Institute and a core trainer and organizer of the institute from its beginning in 1980, moved to Indianapolis last year to work with English.
“What we’ve seen happen is it’s branched out now to more service providers that touch the children that we serve. It can be the mentors, the therapists, it can be those doing the visitations for children, home-based counselors. The effect trickles down to the children we serve,” said English. “We also have been very surprised, we have been getting a lot of nonprofits in the community that have come through and continue, including organizations like the Indianapolis Symphony and multiple school districts.”
Last year as a refresher, DCS invited English and Dunn to present 90-minute intro sessions for DCS cohorts. And while DCS has been a constant supporter, the agency has considerable attrition, so those individuals trained 10 years ago may not still be employees. Typically, 10 DCS folks attend the 40-person trainings on a complimentary basis.
Along with other enhancements, Dunn and English are developing a cadre of 10 local trainers and working to revamp the local workshops based on feedback from participants, making it more interactive and the history more Indiana-centric.
By the end of the year, they plan to add Indiana history. “What was the history of the Klan in Indiana? When we talk about red-lining, we ask: What was happening in Indiana? We just had a case come down recently where somebody was still red-lining. What we are learning from our local community group advising us is that we really need to include a lot more Indiana history,” said Booth.
Child Advocates sees this work as core to its mission to better support the children it serves.
Back in 2009, English said the staff at her agency was concerned about the number of children of color who were being removed from their homes or that Children in Need of Services (CHINS) filings were not in proportion to the African American population. Initially, she said the idea was to inform people how race affects the children that Child Advocates serves. Today, for example, she said while Marion County is about 28 percent African American, the percentage of children Child Advocates serves is about 48 percent African American.
“The organization hoped it would make a difference by creating awareness of their treatment in education, the courts and other agencies. I don’t think we knew as the ball started rolling that it would become so massive in terms of people understanding how race impacts the families in our community, which boils down to how it’s impacting our children,” said English.
“There are no studies that show that people because they’re male or female or because they’re Buddhist or Catholic abuse their children more. There are no studies that show that people of color abuse their children more, so why is this?
“If we’re the voice for children in this county, and we’re ignoring it, then we’re not doing our jobs. Our population of abused and neglected children that are represented by DCS in this county should represent our population, and race allows us not to see that.
“We are leaving white children in very dangerous situations because of race. And until we see it from all sides, then we’re going to continue to leave children in dangerous situations. That is what race has allowed us to do. Sometimes I refer to the Turpin case that was in the news last year. I say, ‘What African American family could have lived in middle America, multiple states and abused and neglected those children for decades and nobody EVER had alarm bells go off?’ That’s what race does.
“But I ask participants, do you ever do the flip and think that these are all of our children. We know that almost 70 percent of our county is white. Are you asking, where are those white children?”
With Dunn coming on board, the agency is able to offer debriefings and follow-ups for participants. She has helped them process the workshop information and share what companies and institutions have done in the past with her in-depth understanding of the organization’s roots and history.
Child Advocates also recognizes that many different fields send employees to training. One goal is to connect people in the similar fields, like health care providers, so the trainings can be more concise for, say RNs or epidemiologists, in order to be as productive as possible.
Adding more workshops for young people is another goal. This past spring break, Booth said that young people attended a session that included adults and youth, with some from group homes.
“It was wonderful and powerful. Youth held the adults accountable. I think it’s a natural extension of what we do to reach out to youth and have them participate,” she said. In a debriefing with the young attendees, their comments included: “We’ve never been listened to and given a platform to talk about this the way we were able to and adults actually listened.”
English said that one of People’s core trainers has worked with youth all over the country, and led the one over spring break. He’s kept in touch with several of the young people from the session.
Marion County Juvenile Court Judge Gaither said anecdotally, he’s seen improvement in the attitudes and understanding of officials. He attributes that to the training.
“I recall a couple of years ago, a case in front of another magistrate. The magistrate came to me and said there was a recommendation made for a child and the magistrate openly wondered if the child were another race, would that recommendation have been made. This was after we started doing the Undoing Racism. And I marked that as a ‘wow moment’ because I don’t believe that magistrate would have had that conversation five years ago or 10 years ago. These are issues that we openly talk about now, but we never talked about in court back in the 1990s.
“So, there’s been change in how we look at what we do. The first rung of action is awareness. It’s not a problem to you until first there’s some awareness and then there’s acknowledgement. Then there’s responsibility, then there’s action. So, I think we are at the awareness and acknowledgement phase on this continuum. And I think this is systemwide,” said Gaither. “Participating in this workshop is step one. It will disavow you of all your previous thoughts and feelings about this issue.”
During the two-day workshop, there are regular check-ins to assess the climate. English recalls this summer when several participants said, “I looked at the debate last night completely differently. I never would have looked at it that way before. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
English, who worked for DCS in the late 1990s, said that she has also heard case workers say they can now read a report and before getting to the part that explains the family’s race, they can identify the child’s race by the language and words used to describe the family.
According to Booth, it achieved some things that she didn’t realize were going to happen, but it also changed her agency and helped staff be more vocal about race and racism.
For example, it has helped them question when they see two cases and the only difference is the color of the child’s skin to ask why one family is getting this service and the other not.
“Has it changed the work we do? We did a study of 550 some children,” Booth said. “We looked at when their advocate, whether it was a volunteer or staff person, had the race equity training and then looked at factors in the child’s permanency: Did they go back home? Were they adopted? Did they move less? Did they get placed with siblings? What we saw was that after the advocate had training, outcomes for all children improved, but particularly for African American children.
“I think that’s because those people were more aware of all issues surrounding the child,” said Booth.
“It also fit into my view that our organization should reflect the children whom we serve, not only in the staff that we have but also in the principles by which we do our work. So that really helps for accountability.”
Booth is encouraged by the effort and the change that has happened with over 100 organizations having taken the training.
“Whether it’s been somebody who’s been sent or volunteered to go from their organization, either nonprofit or for-profit, they are intrigued to learn more about race and racism. But I think what happens is they’re there for work, and then they realize they need to share this with somebody.”
The highest compliment she’s heard is “I’m going to tell my family about this. I cannot wait to go home and talk to my kids about this.”
For more information about Undoing Racism, contact Jill English at Child Advocates at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Address: 8200 Haverstick Rd #240, Indianapolis, IN 46240
Phone: (317) 205-3055