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Gardenia Harris’ research highlights outcome disparities in social services

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Even though African Americans receive social services in higher proportions than Caucasians, their service outcomes can actually be worse. School of Social Work Associate Professor Gardenia Harris’ research is dedicated to documenting this phenomenon and investigating its causes, specifically the decisions along the way that contribute to disparate outcomes.

Harris has looked at disparities in service outcomes between African Americans and Caucasians by examining several social service systems including foster care and adoption preservation, drug court, and HIV prevention services. She has focused her efforts in the Midwest, specifically downstate Illinois and Missouri. However, current literature shows that these disparities are pervasive throughout the United States. Harris became especially interested in outcome disparities when she was a temporary worker at a crisis nursery.

“I could look at clients’ skin color and know what sort of services they were receiving. There was an overrepresentation of African American children in the child welfare component to the services. They were receiving more mandated, as opposed to voluntary, services.”

Harris looks at various sources of information, including case records, administrative data and information on services provided to the families. From this collection of data, she is able to make a comparison on the aspects of services provided and conduct an analysis to compare groups of people receiving services. She has found that the overall quality of services that black clients receive is lower than what white clients experience, which contributes to poor outcomes.

In the instance of child welfare services, African American children tend to receive lower quality services. Children also may be put in foster care instead of receiving services in the home. Another inequality can be seen in drug court clients. African American clients complete the program successfully at about half the rate as Caucasian participants.

Harris observed that not just race, but poverty and income levels, and factors within the systems themselves, specifically decision-making, all related to outcomes. She found that the disparities accumulate as a result of decisions made at various stages of the process of providing social services. In child welfare cases, the decision by a caseworker or mandated reporter to handle one instance of abuse informally rather than reporting it, is just one in a series of decisions that accumulate over time and can result in a poorer outcome down the road.

“When you look at the big picture, the final outcomes for African Americans are more negative. They either don’t complete programs successfully at the same rates or don’t receive the same quality services,” said Harris.

Harris also noted that in certain cases, a disparity in care may be based on an empirical reason. She has found that the disparities may be due to an array of circumstances. Institutional discrimination may exist or, in the case of African American drug court clients, there may be other contributing factors such as a lack of family support or differences in the drug of choice compared to Caucasian peers. Addressing this problem with program modifications that provide additional support to the client would be appropriate.

In general, Harris believes that more careful monitoring at the different stages of receiving social services and review of those practices would help improve outcomes for African Americans and close the gap in the quality of care they receive. However, one facet to this problem is that social service program administrators may be reluctant to acknowledge that a disparity exists or deny that race is a factor.

“Often you have to present data to them, which is why the first step is just documenting the existence of a disparity,” said Harris. “I document whether there is a problem, look at contributing factors, and discuss implications for practice and policy that stem from those factors. I hope for more equal outcomes where race doesn’t play such a large factor.”

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