Moving From ‘Prioritizing Racial Justice’ To Prioritizing Racial Justice

Issue January/February 2022 February 2022 By Cristina F. Freitas and Debbie F. Freitas
Juvenile & Child Welfare Law Section Review
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From left: Cristina F. Freitas and Debbie F. Freitas

As the Massachusetts budget process for each state agency continues this winter and each agency submits spending plans in anticipation of the governor’s proposed budget, we encourage every family- and youth-serving agency to prioritize racial justice. Not just nominally, in speeches or in written reports, but in every aspect of their operations. There is a lot of work to be done by each one of us, and the agencies we work for, contract with or encounter.

Currently, children of color are outnumbered three to one in the Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) caseload when calculated according to their proportion of the child population in Massachusetts (2020 DCF Annual Report, p.4). Likewise, although youth of color represent approximately 33% of youth under age 18 in Massachusetts, they represent 70% of the Department of Youth Services (DYS) committed population (2020 DYS Annual Report, p. 3). The same is true of the children we encounter in court, where children of color account for more than 50% of those charged with delinquency cases (Mass. Juv. Ct. tableau FY2020). As attorneys whose work focuses on representing parents and children in juvenile court through contracts with the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), our caseloads reflect these racial disparities as well.

Yet, none of these statistics are new or surprising. Year after year, the same unfairness and injustice that have plagued our state’s children and families of color continue. At the same time, however, none of us who enter these family- and child-serving fields enter with a desire to perpetuate this unacceptable result. But here we are. And here we can stay no more.

In order to move us forward toward a more racially just society, each one of us must embrace change — we must acknowledge that merely doing (and spending critical dollars on) the same thing this coming fiscal year as we have every prior year will predictably result in the same outcome we have today: significant racial disparities in every realm. Agencies that have “prioritized racial justice” in their yearly goals must commit to more than saying those words; they must fund that goal. Each of us must hold each other accountable in identifying and addressing barriers to achieving racial equity. Agencies must be bold and deliberate, not passive and traditional, in addressing racial disparities lest 2022 go down in history as more of the same.

Importantly, in a state system where virtually all DCF, DYS and CPCS direct client services are outsourced to independent contractors for foster placement, services, medical and psychiatric treatment, or legal representation, this means engaging every extension of the system in this bold and deliberate effort to eradicate racial disparities. There is a place for each of us in achieving racial justice. It also means listening to and including those tangled up in these systems in our efforts to change these systems for the better. There is no doubt that it will not be easy, but it is necessary to ensure a fairer system. Agencies must bring all these people to the table — tables whose composition traditionally may have been seen as complete without them.

This true engagement has to happen not once a year or semiannually, but every day. Requesting and receiving feedback has to be a reiterative process, and one rooted in fairness and humility, too. Those same agencies must be cautious of not creating additional time or financial burdens for those caught up in these systems or those already doing this work in order not to increase stress on families or lengthen waitlists for services, foster homes or attorneys. It requires family- and youth-serving agencies returning to their roots, seeing their work — and the people they work with and for — as part of their own community.

So, to every person in our community reading this piece in every role across our commonwealth, what is your agency, company, law firm, office or unit doing differently this year to disrupt racial disparities and racial inequities? What are you personally doing? How much of your budget is allocated for that? How much of your time will you dedicate to that? If we aren’t taking on bold and deliberate efforts to effectuate change, we must ask ourselves, “Why not?” and “How will this prioritize racial justice?”

It may be hard, expensive, humbling or just different, but isn’t it worth it? If we cannot commit to moving from “prioritizing racial justice” to actually prioritizing racial justice, at the end of this year we may find that instead of taking significant strides in eradicating racial injustice, we may just have been running in place.

Cristina F. Freitas, JD, MPH and Debbie F. Freitas, JD, MPH are the co-chairs of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Juvenile & Child Welfare Section Council. Cristina and Debbie are law partners at Freitas & Freitas LLP in Lowell, where they represent parents and children in the child welfare and juvenile legal systems. They have been in practice since 2010. The opinions expressed herein are their own.