IN JUNE, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES broke the story of Starkeisha Brown, a 24-year-old resident of South-Central Los Angeles, who allegedly abused her 5-year-old son for years. She and her lesbian partner are believed to have burned the child with cigarettes, hung him by his wrists, and stained him with his own feces. When the boy was rescued by a stranger, the skin on his hands was so badly burned, he could no longer open them.
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In 2005, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) conducted an investigation of his situation as a toddler but closed the case that same year. For two more years, until the tip to the authorities from the anguished stranger, the boy endured chronic abuse.
Neighbors and caretakers of the child who lived at 11018 South Figueroa Street described to authorities what seemed to be, if not a code of silence in his South-Central community, then a reluctance to help a child in terrible danger.
One caretaker, Donna Hunter, stated, “I don’t really know what I was thinking,” after admitting to the Times that she ignored numerous injuries on his body and face. And neighbor Vivian Daniels told the Times she had seen Brown “whip the baby butt naked,” but, she also said, in South-Central, “sometimes you turn your head.”
Brown, the battered boy’s mother, has spent time in the California Youth Authority — for battery — was a known gangbanger, and has been arrested as an adult. Immediately after the revelations, Los Angeles County supervisors Mike Antonovich and Gloria Molina called for better interagency communication to identify and help children endangered by violent parents.
As the horror of this young boy’s life made headlines, a long-standing national debate in the child-welfare community has resurfaced: Is it better to wait to place black abused or neglected children with black families, when there are never enough qualified black families to go around?
Blacks make up less than 10 percent of L.A. County’s population, yet black children account for 30 percent of the infants, children and youths removed from their homes. Nationally, black minors are victimized by their own family members and caretakers almost twice as often as their white and Hispanic peers, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Because of this, federal law was changed in the 1990s to eliminate race as a factor in finding an abused or neglected child a safe, loving home.
But in May of this year, as Starkeisha Brown’s child was allegedly enduring his final days of abuse before being rescued, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, an influential New York think tank, issued a report calling for the reinstatement of race as a factor in determining proper foster and adoptive placement for black children.
Caught in the middle of the disquieting debate over skin color and abused children are youngsters like the unidentified boy, now removed from his home. In Los Angeles, such children are placed on one of two tracks: one aimed at “reunification” with the abusive or neglectful family, the other aimed at “permanency” with a new family.
A case as horrific as the Brown child’s will “probably” not lead to attempts to reunify her son with his family, according to DCFS spokesperson Louise Grasmehr.
But some abused and dangerously neglected children are returned to their abusers by social workers using Structured Decision Making (SDM), a computer program that attempts to assess risk on the basis of information from initial tips, visits to the home and other information in a child’s file.
“There is no substitute for social worker judgment,” says Dick Santa Cruz, the department’s SDM manager. “No tool will make a bad social worker good. It [SDM] is simply there to provide structure.”
Grasmehr says there has been a flood of interest among prospective adopters since the Times broke the Starkeisha Brown story. And this is where the still-raging national debate over skin color and adoption could impact the young boy.
Will the widest array of foster or adoptive parents, regardless of skin color, be considered as prospective placements for the boy, which would let him exit “the system” as fast as possible, and dramatically increase his chances of being a normal, happy kid?
Or, as often happens in the case of thousands of black children who never make the headlines in Los Angeles, will he be forced to remain in the government system for years, moved in and out of group homes and fleeting foster placements, while waiting for a black family?
Karen Bass, speaker of the California Assembly and a well-known child advocate, equivocates on the best way to go, saying, “Safety and well-being can be handled by a person of any ethnicity. But I do think it is important, if possible, to place black children with black families. That is a very good thing. Until society becomes color blind, you can’t act like race doesn’t matter.”