Carlos had always been close to his brother. When their mother died in November, it was only natural that he would take her place. He moved from Wilkinsburg to Swissvale and took over his family's row house, his goal to keep life as normal as possible for RayQwon, 10.
"I'm just trying to raise him up in the best way, like my mom was," said Carlos, 29.
Soon after, a caseworker from Allegheny County's Office of Children, Youth and Families came to their door: a visit some parents in minority communities dread.
Carlos, who is African-American, said he knew CYF was trying "to make sure the environment was cool for my brother," but he did not know what to expect. CYF controls one of the most powerful government sanctions after imprisonment: the ability to remove a child from his home and place him in foster care.
"CYF has a bad rep ..." said David Hudley, 38, of Turtle Creek, who accompanied the caseworker that day. "A lot of parents, they don't want to open up the door for us."
At the time, Carlos thought Mr. Hudley also worked for CYF. In fact Mr. Hudley, who grew up in Wilkinsburg, is part of a growing group of "cultural consultants" -- people who report to CYF but work for local organizations and have roots in the communities they serve.
Hired under Inua Ubuntu, a CYF program that accepted its first case in April, Mr. Hudley is charged with building trust, improving CYF's community relations and ultimately, keeping more African-American children in their homes.
The Post-Gazette is withholding Carlos' and RayQwon's last names to protect their privacy. Carlos has custody of his brother and returns to court next month to finalize it, he hopes.
About 60 percent of children in "out-of-home placements" here are African-American, although African-Americans make up 18 percent of the county's child population. Dubbed "racial disproportionality," this imbalance is found in child welfare systems nationwide.
Scholars and child welfare officials debate the causes of disproportionality. Some believe it starts with bias in institutions that refer children to CYF, like hospitals and schools. Others argue that it stems from the persistent influence of poverty and related factors, like unemployment and single parenthood: African-Americans are nearly four times more likely to live in poverty than people of other races. Others think racial disparities are compounded by bias in the child welfare system.
"We believe that it's systemic," said Marcia Sturdivant, deputy director of CYF. "It's not just that one individual is making these horrible decisions, but overall, the system has a bias if you are an ethnic minority."
CYF officials hope Inua Ubuntu will start to remedy disproportionality, focusing on boys on whom the negative effects of child welfare involvement fall heavily. The name, from Swahili and Bantu words meaning "To lift up: I am because we are," aims to reflect a collective approach.
Now, when an African-American boy is referred to CYF for the first time, if he is not involved in other systems like the Juvenile Probation Office, his case is forwarded to a unit of five caseworkers and one supervisor. Those caseworkers collaborate with three neighborhood organizations that oversee about 100 cultural consultants. Consultants accompany caseworkers on their first visit and take a lead role later, connecting families to services and support.
The cultural consultants do not need advanced degrees, said the Rev. Brenda Gregg, executive director of Project Destiny, the organization that oversees the program on the North Side. Some are former coaches, teachers or simply neighborhood mentors. But they are meant to have community clout, said Dr. Sturdivant, something caseworkers do not always have.
Inua Ubuntu is a controversial program, as Dr. Sturdivant knows. Some CYF staff do not share her philosophy. A somewhat similar approach in Seattle ran afoul of a federal civil rights investigation. And last year, a major study debunked a long-held assumption of disproportionality: that rates of maltreatment are the same for black and white children despite disparate rates of poverty. They are not.
Still, Dr. Sturdivant stands by the push.
"I think we need to move beyond political rhetoric that wants to justify the status quo," she said. "There is a problem, it needs to be fixed."
Since his first visit, Mr. Hudley has met with Carlos and RayQwon daily, assessing the situation and offering help. Early on, he connected them to grief counseling in Squirrel Hill to address their mother's death, eight years after a heart transplant.
Carlos said he can be wary of aid: "I'm like my mom. I'm very independent. I'm not looking for a handout or anything."
But he accepts Mr. Hudley's presence in his life, he said.
CYF became aware of RayQwon because his caregiver died, but children are referred for a variety of reasons. Inua Ubuntu is designed to help families dealing with an array of problems, including the loss of gas service, a truant child, allegations of abuse or addiction. Most referrals CYF receives fall under the heading of "neglect," difficult to define in the context of poverty, advocates say.
"It's almost like bridging the gap," said Tariq Francis, 29, of Wilkinsburg, another cultural consultant, about his work.
Many services the cultural consultants help people access sound simple -- haircuts, vouchers for coats or furniture, after-school programs, bus passes -- but they are the aid some families need.
"Surprisingly, many of our families are isolated," said Dr. Sturdivant. "They don't have those supports anymore, and someone to fight on their behalf."
Mr. Hudley and the caseworker have 60 days from RayQwon's referral to decide whether to accept his case for ongoing services or close it; the caseworker will present a recommendation at his hearing on custody. The goal of Inua Ubuntu is to leave a child at home when appropriate.
"Once you're in any system, however well-intentioned it is, it's very difficult to navigate out," Dr. Sturdivant said.
Dr. Sturdivant is also aware of the negative outcomes associated with child welfare systems. A 2008 county Department of Human Services study found that nearly half of all youth involved with the Juvenile Probation Office had also been involved with CYF at some point since 2002. Most were male and African-American. The sooner CYF intervenes, the better, she said.
Previous efforts to reduce the county's foster care population appear to have worked. During the past decade, CYF decreased its caseload while maintaining a low rate of child deaths from abuse or neglect, reducing the number of children in out-of-home placements from 3,088 in 1996 to 1,765 last year.
But while the rate of African-American children removed from their homes declined by 32 percent from 2003 to 2009, the rate dropped for white children, too, leaving the disparity constant.
CYF staff interviewed about disproportionality for a 2010 study mostly said it was due to the complex effects of poverty. One worker raised questions, though, telling an interviewer, "I think about that a lot, how often we make these decisions when we aren't even conscious of it, because of the way they look or where they live."
Dr. Sturdivant said she tells a story during CYF training about how a worker once suggested removing a baby because the grandmother was feeding the baby alcohol. Upon further investigation, CYF discovered the grandmother was referring to "pot liquor," the juice at the bottom of a pot of cooked greens.
"It happens more than sometimes we'd like to admit," Dr. Sturdivant said, of cultural misunderstanding.
Becoming the father of a grieving fifth-grader while he was grieving himself was a major change for Carlos. But Carlos takes the responsibility seriously.
"I'm really the only male figure that's ever really been a part of his life," he said of his brother.
Sometimes it is difficult.
"All he really knew was my mom," Carlos said. "He takes it hard some days."
Other days, RayQwon is like any other 10-year-old. His favorite school subjects are reading and gym. He loves to sing and dance.
"He thinks he's Michael Jackson," Carlos joked. "He's got moves like Mike, too."
Carlos hopes his custody becomes permanent.
"I'm just trying to do the right thing for my brother and what my mom would have wanted," he said.
Working smartly with minority households means "respecting that family is not always the traditional mom, dad, the cat and the little white fence around the house," said Ms. Gregg.
Mr. Hudley cautioned that cultural consultants are not there to coddle parents.
"Don't get me wrong. If we see some drugs and guns and violence and stuff like that, yeah, we're going to suggest that the kid be removed because he's not safe," he said. "But we're here to help you out."
By the end of November, Inua Ubuntu had served 117 children; 15 were "accepted for service," nine of whom were removed from their homes. Of those nine, three went to relatives and four to the Mel Blount Youth Home in Claysville, a partner to Inua Ubuntu. The rest stayed in their homes -- a total of 272 children, including the siblings of the referred children.
The program has a budget of $1.5 million, most of which goes to pay staff and provide an $18 hourly stipend for cultural consultants. CYF officials want to provide the same services for African-American girls, but that depends on funding.
Those invested in the project believe it will eventually save the county money; removing children is costly, especially if they are placed in a group home. Some scholars believe that child welfare systems fail to step in enough, but Dr. Sturdivant and others believe they sometimes intervene too much.
"I've seen it ..." Dr. Sturdivant said. "Families are referred for minor kinds of situations, and it culminates in a termination of parental rights."
Inua Ubuntu is not a "magic pill," she said, but it is a start.
Vivian Nereim: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1413. First Published January 23, 2011 5:00 AM