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Spence Perspectives: Brandi Vaughns ’00 on Social Justice in Child Welfare

Brandi Vaughns ’00 has been working in social justice since 2008. However, her passion for this line of work dates back to growing up in Brooklyn.
“I’ve always been an advocate for social justice,” she explained. “I looked to my grandparents as role models who were leaders in their respective communities, but also had very sensitive dispositions toward the suffering of others and a strong passion for doing things the right way.”
Currently serving as the co-founder of the Healing Alliance for Communities of Color, and the Director of Preventive Services at CAMBA, Vaughns spoke to Spence students, alumnae, faculty and staff in February at the second Spence Perspectives lecture of the year. In conjunction with the theme of service and activism, Vaughns spoke about her experiences advocating for families of color dealing with the racial disparities within the Child Welfare System.
Vaughns explained that one of her first introductions to the system was during an internship in Flatbush, Brooklyn. “I found that we worked primarily with families of color. In a neighborhood as ethnically diverse as Flatbush, I was repeatedly struck by the disparity in which families became involved in the child welfare system,” she said. “There was a real disparity not only in which families became involved but the reasons why and how they were interacted with once in the system.”
Citing the Office of Children and Family Services, Vaughns explained that racial distribution of white, black and Hispanic children in New York City hovers around 30 percent each. However, the allegations of abuse and neglect are staggeringly different, at 7 percent, 39 percent and 38 percent, respectively.
“These are really stark numbers that speak a lot to what we were experiencing on the ground,” Vaughns said. “There’s no research that shows there is any difference across race, socioeconomic status or immigration status in the prevalence of abuse or neglect. So the numbers really are not matching up to what we know is happening within families.”
Vaughns quoted University of Pennsylvania professor Dorothy Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds, which explores racial disparity in child welfare, saying, “Race influences child welfare decision-making through powerful, deeply embedded stereotypes about black family dysfunction. Black families diverge the most from the parenting ideal embodied in the white, middle-class model composed of married parents and their children. The racial disparity in the families involved in the system, in turn, reinforces a quintessential racist stereotype—that black people are incapable of governing themselves and need state supervision.”
She added that if institutional racism is then defined as a system of order in the world, then it can be understood that regardless of race, we are all affected by the system and have all internalized it.
“And if we have all internalized it, then we all have work to do,” she said.