Legally Brief: Racial Justice and Indiana’s Children in Court

By ICADV Chief Legal Counsel Kerry Hyatt Bennett

I’m sharing a snip of a recent article by Julie Whitman, Executive Director of the Commission on Improving the Status of Children in Indiana. My apologies for the steal,  but this was printed in the Indiana Court Times, so it is not necessarily readily accessible.

It’s a must-read.

According to county statistics, Black youth in Indiana are more likely than white youth to be referred to juvenile probation, detained pretrial, placed in secure confinement, and transferred to adult court. Hispanic youth consistently have the second-highest rate of contact with the juvenile justice system at each of these decision points after Black youth. Similar disparities appear in the child welfare system. According to data from the Department of Child Services, black individuals are:

·         5x – 2x more likely to have a report called in to the hotline

·         More likely to have an assessment than white peers

·         More likely to have a CHINS case than white peers

·         More likely to be placed with a stranger in foster care

·         5x more likely to be placed in a residential setting and stay longer

·         2x as likely to “age out” of the system without legal connections to family

·         Spend more time in care to reach adoption than white peers

We know from decades of research that having contact with either the juvenile justice or child welfare system increases the likelihood that a child will experience negative outcomes in adulthood, and prolonged contact with either system—including “aging out” of foster care—can have serious negative consequences for a child’s future. While the purpose of our juvenile courts is clear—to keep children safe and to correct delinquent behavior—what is much less clear is whether our system is achieving its intended outcomes consistently, especially when it comes to youth and families of color.

[Indiana’s] court system is in fact working toward solutions. Within DCS, a Racial Justice, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council was formed, which includes a steering committee consisting of DCS executives, a juvenile judge, a residential provider, and an older foster youth. Under the leadership of this group, DCS added racial justice, diversity and inclusion to its stated agency values, which also include respect for all, a culture of safety, and a commitment to continuous improvement. To ensure these values are put into practice, DCS created work groups tasked with developing specific recommendations in six areas: hiring and employee relations, culture and climate, private and public partnerships, services and resources, training and professional development, and policy and practice.

On the delinquency side, the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative is working closely with 38 counties to improve outcomes for youth in the delinquency system while protecting public safety. Some of JDAI’s core strategies include the use of data, collaboration, and a commitment to reducing racial, ethnic, and gender disparities. JDAI counties routinely track and analyze data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and gender. This practice is one way sites are working to center race equity. It allows them to hold themselves accountable as they work to improve outcomes for all youth.

Whitman goes on to make a plea to judges, suggesting several ways they can help improve the equitable administration of justice in courts and systems, especially as they impact children and families.

Closing strongly (because we all should listen to the Chief Justice), she notes Chief Justice Loretta Rush’s June 2020 statement on race and equity is a call we must continue to embrace: “We must listen to and learn from the experiences of our communities who are too often unheard. Heeding their voices will give us the wisdom we need to correct the entrenched disparities that still divide us.”

As the Chief Justice made clear, we can and must do better.

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