URBANA – A little less than a quarter of Champaign County children – about 22 percent – are African-American. Yet that ethnic group accounts for 63 percent of out-of-school suspensions in Urbana, 60 percent of child-welfare cases, 81 percent of discipline referrals in Champaign schools, and 82 percent of admissions to the county's juvenile detention center.
That's known as "disproportionality," and groups from all three systems that serve children in trouble – schools, child-welfare agencies and juvenile justice – got together Tuesday to see how they could work together to eliminate it.
Angela Hassell, placement supervisor at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, organized the day-long "Beyond Obstacles" forum at the Urbana Civic Center with the goal of "mobilizing Champaign County to eliminate the disparities facing African-American families."
"We're all working with the same children," she said.
The forum was sponsored by Saving Our Families Together Today, formed in 2007 to keep families "together and safe."
Robert Blackwell, regional administrator for DCFS, said he hears "a lot of complaints from families" about bias and constraints imposed on them in the complex child-welfare system.
DCFS and other state child-welfare agencies failed a federal review a few years ago, prompting them to begin a new emphasis on "permanency" – a permanent, nurturing family for every child.
Blackwell said the problem can only be solved by addressing underlying issues in society, notably "structural racism." People have talked for years about cultural sensitivity and diversity, yet it's still a problem, he said. His department is trying to eliminate racism "in what we do and how we make decisions," such as how it responds to an abuse report and who makes placement decisions.
"We think a work force that is race-informed will be a stronger work force, and produce better outcomes for all children in care," he said.
Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz, who has extensive experience with child-welfare, truancy and juvenile justice cases, says her top priority is not to put children in jail but keep them out of the court system whenever possible. Prosecutors in general have realized "we're not helping our community if we focus our energies on locking people up. Those people come back," she said, and if they don't get support services they'll make the same bad decisions again.
Rietz said she bases her decision on whether to prosecute a case on behavior, not race. She said she's been pressured by some in the community to label the recent attacks by young men on campus and elsewhere as "hate crimes," but refused.
"I can't say that, and I'm not going to stir that pot," Rietz said. "Quite frankly I don't think it's a race issue. I think it's a behavioral issue."
The county runs a court-diversion program, funded by a quarter-cent sales tax, to help keep juveniles out of the court system. They're given a chance to accept responsibility for their behavior and make restitution or perform community service, with the hope that they'll avoid a criminal record and move forward, she said.
Another program, Parenting with Love and Limits, offers family-based counseling for minors and their parents, and it's proved effective for white and black families alike.
"If you can't fix the family as a whole, you're not going to fix the problem," she said.
Rietz said it might be time to bring back the idea of "family conferencing" to find solutions in child-welfare cases, which was considered years ago but "never really got anywhere."
Walker said involving families is paramount, a concept also adopted by the Champaign County Mental Health Board's multimillion-dollar Project ACCESS. He said DCFS calls it "coming off the porch and going into the yard."
Rietz also said agencies should respond much earlier to truancy problems, long before a case ends up in court.
"By the time we address it at a high school level, a lot of kids have missed so much school they can't catch up," she said.
Both school districts have community liaisons and outreach staff who work to keep kids in school and on track for graduation, officials said. They also are working on alternatives to out-of-school suspensions and special education, where black students are overrepresented.
Orlando Thomas, director of achievement and pupil services in Champaign, cited the relatively low number of black students in honors classes and said that "achievement gap" starts early. Preschoolers who are read to 20 minutes a day start kindergarten with a 10,000-word vocabulary, compared to 500 words for those who aren't. Parents need to get involved, through volunteering, PTA and help at home, he said.
Jean Korder, curriculum director for Urbana schools, said the effects of poverty can't be underestimated. The number of low-income students has grown "exponentially" in recent years, she said.
Some programs have helped, such as a "bridge program" for high school students on the verge of failing, she said.
Hassell said she hopes the forum will prompt participants to take small steps to reassess their work "so we can begin to keep families together. It's not a change overnight. We're breaking new ground here."