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.”
Some argue — and federal law states — that a bias toward placing black children with black families is a bad thing, and that race literally does not matter. Others counter that the law prohibiting race-based selection of families for abused and neglected children degrades black culture and prevents open discussion of numerous race issues with prospective adoptive parents.
The federal law in question, called the Multiethnic Placement Act, was designed to stop the race-matching that pushed black children, in particular, into race-based placements, which failed. In 1996, the law was strengthened to ban outright the consideration of race in adoption, while calling for increased recruitment of adoptive parents of all ethnicities.
“The fact that federal law now states that race-matching is equivalent to race discrimination matters in a nation that has committed itself in significant ways to the proposition that race discrimination is wrong,” wrote Elizabeth Bartholet, director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, in 2006.
Despite the federal law’s tough wording and heavy penalties, for years it was not enforced in adoption trouble spots, like Los Angeles. Black children often spend years stuck in the system while social workers illegally hold out for a qualified black family willing to take them.
But in 2003, the feds imposed a $1.8 million penalty on Hamilton County, Ohio, for insisting on black-on-black placement of kids, and in 2005 the government punished South Carolina for illegally scrutinizing nonblack families while failing to subject black families to the same scrutiny.
Bartholet tells L.A.Weekly that since the crackdown, the federal ban is working but laments a new wave of attacks on it.
“Good social science uniformly shows that when people have studied transracially adopted children, they have never come up with evidence that transracial placements hurt the kids,” Bartholet tells the Weekly. In stark contrast, “The longer a child waits for a permanent home, the worse off the child is.”
Victoria Stevens, a Los Angeles psychologist who has worked extensively with foster youth, agrees in principal, saying, the “race of parents, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education of the parents, single parents, et cetera, is of little or no consequence.” The key is “the capacity of the caregiver to pay attention to the separate existence of the child and respond contingently with care, delight, love, respect, play, predictability and consistency.”
Many in the Los Angeles child-welfare community — including county government workers who quietly make these calls — see transracial adoption as a form of racial genocide. But Bartholet sees a dark side to the “black-families-only” movement: “It means black-run agencies get control over the kids, and black foster parents get [county-paid] foster stipends. In a society that is stingy to poor people, it is seen as a strategy to get more resources to black families.”
Adam Pertman, executive director of the Donaldson Institute, which recently urged Congress to rethink the federal ban on racial placement, charges that Bartholet’s “economic argument walks up to the line of racism. Blacks are in all economic strata with all sorts of political views. Ascribing one stereotypical notion of what blacks think is not constructive, to say the least.”
Pertman argues that the federal ban on racial bias hurts black kids because huge federal fines in some states have made social workers “increasingly concerned about uttering anything dealing with race.”
Pertman and Bartholet embody the political divisions that exist in Los Angeles.
Devon Brooks, an associate professor at USC’s School of Social Work and senior fellow with the Donaldson Institute, argues that the federal ban discourages open discussion of race during adoption, saying that this inability to ask questions may be stopping white parents from adopting black children with special needs, such as mental or emotional problems.
“We do think that there are lots of white prospective adopters who would be willing to adopt black kids with special needs, who may need additional support and services,” Brooks tells the Weekly. “Without frank talk about race, prospective parents don’t get a chance to understand the difficulties that may come with taking in a child of a different color and simply give up on the endeavor,” he claims.
Underlying this debate is a strong political belief among some in the black community that blacks as a group suffer when a black child is raised in a white, Latino or Asian household.
Dwayne Martin, a 29-year-old black former foster youth who grew up in numerous Los Angeles homes, says, “As far as heritage is destroyed, it is primarily in the black community. We have a hard enough time holding on to our culture in our own community.”
Martin lives in South-Central, in a one-bedroom house that shares a yard with a group home. To the six boys and teens, most of them black, who are living in the house next door, Martin is a major role model. He was raised in foster care, married, and holds a good job servicing county-government computers.
This makes Martin a rare survivor of a disastrous child-protection system that in Los Angeles spews out huge numbers of soon-to-be homeless and drug-addicted young adults, “emancipated” from their temporary families at the age of 18. (See “Terminated at 18,” L.A. Weekly issue January 11-17.)
But Martin sees the black-adoption problem in broader cultural terms, saying that South-Central blacks as a group “are in a hole. The people in the community need to dig [them]selves out of the hole. If you take the kids out, then they won’t be here to fix it.”
On the other side of this political divide is Anna Tripp, a half-Irish, half-Chinese lesbian. Tripp lives in the middle-class, mostly white enclave of Thousand Oaks with her black girlfriend. The couple are in the final stages of adopting a half-black baby girl, Abigail.
“As long as we say ‘blacks should stay with blacks and whites should stay with whites,’ there is no way to erase those lines,” Tripp says. “As long as you keep this separation, you continue to have separation.”
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Another white adoptive mother, Wendy Kugel, who, like Devon Brooks, has taught at USC’s School of Social Work, says child-welfare workers should simply be finding these kids decent homes — of any race.
“Children are adopted because something has gone wrong,” she says over the delighted screams of her two black children on the Fourth of July. “They have been abused, neglected, their parents have died. ... There are so many things higher on the list than color of skin or where people are from.”
The plight of the half-starved boy tortured in the home of Starkeisha Brown hinges on a political and racial battle still raging among adults. Illegal, black-only placements are still widely believed to be practiced by Los Angeles County government employees. How will this horrifically abused young boy be placed?
“We look for the most suitable permanent home,” insists DCFS' Grasmehr. “If that is a family of the same race, it is the same race. If it’s not, it’s not.”