Adjusting for Relative Risk: An Apples-to-Apples Approach to Racial Disparity Data

Posted October 5, 2015
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog adjustingforrelativerisk 2015

Child wel­fare agen­cies around the nation aspire not only to help chil­dren in their care but also to end racial dis­par­i­ties that too often plague large sys­tems. One chal­lenge to address­ing racial dis­par­i­ties is under­stand­ing where dis­par­i­ties exist.

To fix a prob­lem, agency lead­ers and data man­agers need to know where to focus their resources,” says Tracey Feild, man­ag­ing direc­tor of Casey’s Child Wel­fare Strat­e­gy Group. You need to know: Is the prob­lem in every sin­gle aspect of your sys­tem? More like­ly, it occurs in one or two or three spe­cif­ic deci­sion points. If you know where those deci­sion points are, you can focus on them.”

In par­tic­u­lar, the child wel­fare expe­ri­ences of African-Amer­i­can chil­dren are alarm­ing. It is no sur­prise that these chil­dren are less pre­pared to suc­ceed in life,” says Patrick McCarthy, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Casey Foun­da­tion. Com­pared to white chil­dren in child wel­fare sys­tems, kids of col­or are more like­ly to drift in care, less like­ly to be reunit­ed with fam­i­lies and more like­ly to expe­ri­ence [group placements].”

One solu­tion to diag­nos­ing and fix­ing the prob­lem is to tune up the agency’s approach to data.

Many nation­al researchers and data ana­lysts use the Dis­par­i­ty Index, an appro­pri­ate tool for mea­sur­ing cer­tain types of inequity, specif­i­cal­ly, in rates of vic­tim­iza­tion and entry into a sys­tem,” says Kat­ri­na Brewsaugh, a senior asso­ciate at the Foun­da­tion. To real­ly get at the issue of where with­in a sys­tem dis­par­i­ties are occur­ring, agency data teams and lead­ers need to use a dif­fer­ent mea­sure. They need the Rel­a­tive Rate Index (RRI). The RRI will give you a much more tar­get­ed and accu­rate pic­ture — and will allow you to track whether changes agen­cies ini­ti­ate actu­al­ly work.”

The Casey Foun­da­tion recent­ly released a research brief to address how and when to use the Dis­par­i­ty Index and the Rel­a­tive Rate Index. It also is dis­cussed in Casey’s recent pub­li­ca­tion: A Child Wel­fare Leader’s Desk Guide to Build­ing a High-Per­form­ing Agency.

It’s time to stan­dard­ize how we mea­sure dis­pro­por­tion­al­i­ty,” Feild says. We need apples-to-apples com­par­isons — that’s what will make improve­ments pos­si­ble. If African-Amer­i­can and white kids enter a child wel­fare sys­tem at sim­i­lar rates, but African-Amer­i­can kids are much more like­ly to be placed in group homes, that’s a prob­lem. With the right data in hand, an agency can improve their use and sup­port for kin fam­i­ly place­ments. They can find and sup­port more fos­ter fam­i­lies. Also, using the RRI, they can see if those changes they make real­ly work and adjust their tac­tics if they aren’t. The key is, you need an accu­rate pic­ture of where the prob­lem occurs to solve it and, many times, the RRI is the right tool for the job.”

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