Gabrielle Rodriguez interviewed ACS Commissioner David Hansell on June 11, a few weeks after George Floyd’s murder sparked protests against police brutality and white supremacy around the world.
Gabrielle Rodriguez: What does Black Lives Matter (BLM) mean to you?
David Hansell: It starts with the work we do at ACS. I became commissioner three years ago, and have always believed it’s our responsibility to address racial disproportionality in the child welfare system, and to make sure we’re part of the solution and not part of the problem. We’ve taken many steps to consciously address racial equity.
We have a Racial Equity and Cultural Competence committee, open to all staff in any part of the organization. Its mission is to sustain equity across all categories: racial, ethnic, disability, gender, LGBTQ. We created an office of Equity Strategies at ACS, whose core staff provides direction and implements our plan to address inequity and come up with strategies to better racial equity.
Within the last year and a half, we’ve also required that all employees take training in implicit bias, including me. We think everyone should be able to identify and work against any unconscious bias.
Everything that we do has been thrown into stark relief by the protests and the murder of George Floyd. We’re building up what else we need to do to be an anti-racist organization.
GR: Besides the committee, are there any specific steps ACS is taking to change the statistics that Black people have their kids taken away at greater rates than others?
DH: Great question. There is a disparity between numbers of Black and White children placed in foster care. We look at the whole system to see where we can change that.
It starts with calls to the state hotline to report child abuse or neglect. We then decide if a child is at risk of abuse or neglect, and in a small percentage of cases, we decide to remove a child. And you’re right; it is more Black than White kids who are removed.
We have to examine what reports are being made to the state hotline. Most come from mandated reporters, like teachers and counselors. We believe that there should be implicit bias training for mandated reporters. We’ve advocated that to the state.
We’ve talked to the state directly about what calls should be accepted by the state. Some don’t even make an allegation that a child’s safety is at stake. And then, once we get a referral, we do our best to conduct every investigation in an even-handed way, and don’t discriminate in any way. To really address the end result, we need to look at every step of the process and see where bias creeps in.
GR: Is the implicit bias training a one-time training, or ongoing?
DH: At ACS, we have one virtual training everyone takes, then one in-person training that everyone who interacts with families has to take. The concepts and skills that staff learn in the training are reinforced through supervision as well as through other work that ACS is doing in this area, such as a leadership forum focused on equity and implicit bias [held in late July].
GR: Are there any other ways you tackle racism within ACS?
DH: There are many ways. One is to create spaces where people can talk honestly about their feelings about racism, COVID-19, and anything else within their workplaces, their communities, and the wider world. One of those spaces is Healing Circles—all voluntary—for staff to talk about experiences they’re having.
Healing Circles are available as virtual drop-in sessions and are open to all staff and offered twice a week. Supervisors and managers can also request Healing Circle sessions specifically for their teams. They are organized by the ACS Racial Equity and Cultural Competence Committee, the ACS Office of Equity Strategies and the ACS Workforce Institute, and are facilitated by licensed social workers.
It’s about self-care—now people have so much stress—but also to talk about actions, what they can do themselves and things they think the agency should do. Besides the Healing Circle, we have speakers and show films to help people talk about these things.
GR: How many Black people are in leadership roles at ACS?
DH: We thought you’d ask this, so we looked up the data. We have identified leadership roles as the top 67 people, and 21 are Black. We need to work harder on this, and there’s still an opportunity to make progress.
GR: You’re known for meeting with people, being on the ground as a commissioner. You were a big part of Fair Futures, for example. Does ACS plan to advocate for a less racist society as an agency? Could ACS rally around that the way you did around Fair Futures?
DH: I’m delighted you see me as visible in the community. I understand that ACS doesn’t have a positive image in all communities. And we need to have a dialogue.
It’s important we get input from different communities. We now have a parent advisory council; I hear from parents in the system, and now we’re putting together a youth advisory council so we hear from all the affected parties.
It’s important for us to be directly involved in advocacy, in directly supporting Black Lives Matter, and we at ACS have a special responsibility to address the child welfare system. I’m particularly focused on places we can make a positive and progressive impact on the child welfare system, because we can make change directly.
GR: Do you have any specific plans and timeframes you’d like to share about advocating for a more anti-racist society?
DH: We advocate for legal changes. As you know, there were good changes around policing. We’re working on changing the standards for substantiating a child welfare case and expanding the rights of parents. We have been a part of advocating for the Foster Care Reform Bill, which would include implicit bias training for mandated reporters.
The Foster Care Reform Bill that the governor signed early this year also changes the standards for substantiating an allegation of abuse or maltreatment. It also would reduce the amount of time that being involved with the child welfare system can affect someone’s employment by keeping them on the registry. (For example, employers in child care jobs are required to ask about the history of child welfare involvement.) The bill will also expand the rights of the parents to expunge their child welfare involvement record.
GR: How will you support foster youth who are protesting? What if a youth in care gets arrested for peaceful protesting?
DH: We believe that youth in care have a right to protest; it’s a fundamental right in this country. Youth have led this movement to a large extent. A few years ago, after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, when they had the March for Our Lives, we enabled foster youth to march in those marches. We both are making sure that foster care agencies work with youth to demonstrate and if they get in trouble protesting—arrested, ticketed, or any other interaction with the NYPD—it’s part of our job to make sure they can return as quickly to their placement.