U receives grant for study of child abuse and influence of race

by Mickie Barg

The incidence of child neglect in Minnesota and the disproportional reporting of incidents based on race will be the subject of a federally funded University study.
The Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice received a $1.1 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health in September to determine the part racial bias plays in child neglect cases.
The focus is on three Minnesota counties — Dakota, Hennepin and Ramsey — and the over representation of minorities in reported and substantiated cases of child neglect.
Project investigators, professor Samuel Myers and associate professor Sheila Ards, will facilitate the analysis of data from the counties, which account for nearly half of all child maltreatment cases in the state.
The research focuses on cases of neglect rather than the more serious forms of abuse. Examples of neglect include keeping children home from school, not dressing them properly and not attending to their dental needs.
Myers said he sees a connection between neglect and the likelihood of eventual abuse, truancy and after-school violence.
Myers and Ards have been following data from the National Incidence Studies, which show Minnesota has the widest racial disparity in reported cases of neglect in the country. The concern of the state Department of Health and Human Services, community members, professionals and administrators brought about the idea for the study, Myers said.
“No one is comfortable with what is going on with the wide racial disparity that we observe,” Myers said. “It’s hard to come to grips with a conceptual explanation for it.”
Myers said some people conclude the over representation of minorities in child protective services must be due to racial bias.
The simplicity of this reasoning is not the only possible cause.
“When a black kid has bruises people are convinced he has been beaten and it is reported,” Myers said. “But a white kid with bruises couldn’t possibly be abused because we don’t think white, middle-class parents abuse.”
But he also questions this racism or bigotry explanation. A bigot would be less likely to spend time and money helping minorities than they would helping white children.
“A real bigot might devalue minority kids and not provide the resources and time to investigate and substantiate a case,” Myers said. “You would expect to find greater service and larger representation of white kids.”
He said a racist might get two different calls — one from a middle-class neighborhood and a call from a poor neighborhood.
“He may not know the race of the kid but he certainly knows where the call is coming from,” Myers said. “Some people don’t like to go into some kinds of neighborhoods.”
Patricia Ray, coordinator of the Children of Color Initiative in the Minnesota Department of Human Services, keeps track of data and makes reports to the state. She said only in the past two years has the issue really become important to the public.
“There are all kinds of disproportionate representations in our systems — particularly of African-American people,” Ray said. “I think all of the disproportionality is connected and reflected in sectors of the community.”
Additional data will be supplied by the National Incidence Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect, the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect, and a South Carolina study.
“The Minnesota component will take place first and we will compare data with counties in South Carolina,” Ards said. “We will get some real geographical differences, probably some racial differences and I think we will have a good overview of the issues.”
“I think it is useful to try to eliminate some of the possible explanations so that we can focus on the kids,” Myers said.

Mickie Barg covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected]