The first time Margo Santana met a person she would describe as a cultural broker was the early 1990s. Her family was confronting a crisis: three of her nephews were heading to foster care.
Santana got a call from Derrell Roberts, then a family advocate at Father Keith B. Kenny Elementary School, she said, and although they had never met, he told her: “We need to sit down as a family before CPS comes, and let’s try to work out a plan for care.”
Now Roberts is leading a nonprofit that he co-founded 17 years ago with his wife Tina Roberts, and the couple recently hired Santana to be a cultural broker. In the role, she and others from around Sacramento County help to open lines of communication between African-American parents and child welfare workers investigating abuse or neglect.
All too often, when social workers arrive at homes in neighborhoods such as Oak Park, Meadowview, Del Paso Heights or North Highlands, they come with a police officer, said Chet Hewitt, a former child welfare system administrator who now leads Sierra Health Foundation. He said they are met with a wall of silence because black parents fear that anything they say will be twisted to bolster a case to remove their children.
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“Communities have seen workers show up and move without a level of support and help to remediate the issues that gave rise to complaints,” Hewitt said. “They now require more trusted individuals … to help restore healthy linkages with a system that is increasingly looking to serve children in a culturally appropriate manner, taking into account that poverty in and of itself is not a reason to remove a child.”
That’s why Hewitt and others on a countywide steering committee approved adopting the methods of Cultural Brokers Inc., a nonprofit that has succeeded with assisting African American families in Fresno County. Sacramento County is providing a large part of the funding for the cultural brokers program, and Santana and roughly a half-dozen other cultural brokers work closely with child welfare workers.
First, CPS asks parents if they would like the assistance of a cultural broker, Santana said. If they do, they sign documents authorizing that information be shared. Santana and other brokers just connected with their initial families earlier this month.
The local cultural broker program is one element of an expansive, five-year initiative known as the Black Child Legacy Campaign that aims to reduce the number of African-American child deaths in Sacramento County by 20 percent by 2020.
The campaign arose out of data showing that a disproportionately high number of African-American children die in Sacramento County as a result of perinatal and infant sleep-related conditions, third-party homicides and abuse or neglect, and as the Sacramento Bee reported in August, a countywide steering committee is implementing strategies to improve the life expectancy of black children.
Cultural brokers are confronting statistics showing that African-American children in Sacramento County are nine times more likely than children of all other ethnic groups to be killed as a result of abuse or neglect. Those neglect cases include instances where parents, debilitated by drug addictions, are not providing enough supervision to protect a child from catastrophe.
Despite the daunting numbers, Santana said she’s excited about the work she’s being given.
“This is what I signed up for," she said. ".... We prior have been doing stuff like this anyway, just under a different name. We had a family who had a shooting at the park, and they called us to come in and assist, and we’ve been assisting this family for a year. It’s a CPS case also, so we’ve been going to court with the family.”
Santana was volunteering to assist the family as a member of Community Mothers of Del Paso Heights. Traditionally in African-American families, this is a role that an aunt, an uncle, a cousin or a concerned neighbor would have undertaken, said Tina Roberts, but those networks have been devastated in part by the explosion of crack cocaine dependency, the resulting deaths and lifetime disabilities, and the ensuing War on Drugs and three-strikes law.
“One of the things that really drove up the numbers of black kids in child welfare was the crack epidemic," Hewitt explained. "The intervention was not substance abuse treatment and services. It was: Take the kids. Two generations of kids grew up (in foster care) and had bad outcomes. ... There is no replacement for family. You don’t fix kids by not fixing families.”
If crack users survived, they were incarcerated more often and for lengthier periods than other drug addicts. Sentencing disparities meant that a user in possession of 5 grams of the cheap crack cocaine would get the same five-year felony sentence as a user who had 500 grams of pricey cocaine. Hewitt contrasted that response with the tens of billions of dollars being poured into treatment for opioid addiction, a health crisis that kills far more whites than blacks.
Disparate responses from government have led to a level of distrust on the part of African Americans when they are confronted by child welfare workers, Hewitt said, and rather than expecting access to services that will help them overcome challenges, they have come to expect punishment.
Even when African American parents try to work within the system, they typically receive a cookie-cutter set of services, not something tailored to their needs, said Margaret Jackson, founding director of Cultural Brokers Inc. Jackson said she's seen cases of women, abused by their spouses, who have been required to show up for regular drug tests, even though they don't have a habit. Others have requested mental health services but have been turned down multiple times.
Cultural brokers in her program have helped guide African-American parents to get the services they need. The brokers have a difficult balancing act, Jackson said, because both parents and CPS must see them as forthright, trustworthy and supportive.
A licensed social worker, Jackson said that child safety is paramount. She has had to report one of her own relatives for neglect and take temporary custody of that person's child. Cultural brokers do not support a parent in wrongdoing, she said, but they will ask pointed questions of child welfare workers if they see inequity in treatment.
“We zero in on behavior,” Jackson said. “We’ve got to change that behavior so the remaining children can be safe. We’ve got to help them recognize that, and they (parents) have to learn about their own trauma and how they contributed to the trauma of their children.”
On the other side, Jackson said, cultural brokers challenge child welfare workers when they act to remove children before examining whether a parent’s behavior contributed to harming a child. CPS compounds the trauma for both parents and children when they separate them at times of crisis, she said.
Her team of cultural brokers help parents understand what safe behavior looks like or how they can access much-needed resources. They also help parents build a support network of people who can assist them in a crisis and who refuse to turn a blind eye to unsafe behavior, Jackson said.
“You cannot plan for safety with only the people you’re worried about at the table,” Jackson said. “You have to have other people to help to support you….Then they begin to think about it. Well, what about their kids? Who shows up for their kids? There might be people who will show up for their kids who wouldn’t show up for them.”
This village mentality used to be the norm among many African-American families, said Hewitt and Tina Roberts. Hewitt recalled family friends – “Auntie Edna or Auntie Cynthia” – who would care for him when his parents were unable to do so.
Tina Roberts played the role of a cultural broker two decades ago when she became a “SisterFriend” to 14-year-old Keturah Redd. Redd, then a few months pregnant, was serving a stint in juvenile hall after getting into a fight. Redd said she was running with gangs and selling drugs to make money for her family.
Redd said she tried to take advantage of Roberts when she met her, and she thought she had succeeded a few months later when Roberts helped her to get released on probation. To celebrate that victory, Redd said, she cut off her court-mandated ankle monitor while taking a long soak in the bath.
Then she went on the run. She said she tired of dodging cops, though, and called Roberts for help. But Redd’s SisterFriend was emphatic: The only help she would give was picking her up and taking her to turn herself into the police.
Now 38, Redd counts two college graduates among her five children, she said, and all her children speak at least two languages. Her eldest daughter, La’Nisha Williams, has a degree in criminal justice and is trying to get a position as a juvenile probation officer.
Roberts was there when Williams was born and cut her umbilical cord. Both mother and daughter say it was Roberts who gave them license to dream and taught them step-by-step how to be responsible adults.
“Tina always told me, ‘You want to go beyond Sacramento. You want to go beyond this place. Don’t let Del Paso Heights be your world. There are better things in life than selling drugs and doing whatever you’re doing out there,’” Redd said. “Tina took me to go get registered in school. When I needed financial aid, she told me how to go through the channels to get the aid. But then she taught me, ‘You don’t stay on aid. You go get a job.’”
The Robertses model what the village should be like, Hewitt said. Cultural brokers and the entire Black Child Legacy Campaign must re-establish the self-helping systems that were once common in African-American society, Hewitt said, and marry those systems with public programs.
“A cultural broker brings … a level of security for a parent and trust for a parent that, when they walk into that room, they will have an advocate by their side to help them navigate,” Hewitt said. “Then parents will be more forthcoming to gain access to the types of services that will improve the conditions under which their child is living.”
How cultural brokers work
A CPS manager and a social worker will review potential cases within a ZIP code, identifying African-American families they feel could use additional support.
- The social worker goes to the family and explains the role of the cultural broker. They explain, for instance, that, just like social workers and teachers, cultural brokers are mandatory reporters, that any interactions with the family will be documented but also that this individual wants to help them succeed as a parent.
- The social worker asks whether they want a cultural broker’s counsel and assistance. The parent signs forms allowing CPS to share information with the cultural broker.
- CPS officials meet with the cultural brokers to review new and old cases and set up when the social worker will introduce the cultural broker to the family.
- Once connected to the family, the cultural brokers must establish a rapport that allows them to guide and counsel. They typically have had past personal experience with CPS themselves and have achieved successful outcomes, but they also rely upon the reputation they’ve established in the community as approachable, trustworthy and discreet.
- The cultural broker’s real secret, said Tina Roberts, co-founder of the Roberts Family Development Center, is their tact. They know when to cajole and how to probe behavior. And, many know how to deliver home truths in a way that will elicit abashed agreement rather than anger.