The new director of the Iowa Department of Human Services is hoping to make a difference with a campaign called "Help Make No Difference." Gene Gessow says the play on words refers to his goal of eliminating racial disparities in the state’s child welfare system. Gessow says he’s interested in possibly implementing a program in place in Polk County to other areas of the state.
That program is entitled "Undoing Racism." It’s a two-and-a-half day course, taken by employees in the Polk County D.H.S. office, that examines personal attitudes about race and cultural biases. "I understand that it is actually a very tough course to take for the people who take it," Gessow said. A similar course is available to D.H.S. employees in Woodbury County. Gessow says the "Help Make No Difference" campaign will involve a number of strategies, but is primarily designed to build trust between the D.H.S. and the people the agency serves.
"One of the things we’re trying to do is work with families, rather than instruct or direct families," Gessow said. "That involves a lot more listening on our part and a lot more attention to what is being said to us." In Iowa, the percentage of African American children involved in D.H.S. out-of-home placements is about four times higher than their share of the state’s general population.
Gessow says he hopes to eliminate racial disparities in Iowa’s child welfare system by 2018. "I think if we did that, we would be doing very well," Gessow said. The new campaign, which includes a website and brochures, encourages social workers, reporters of child abuse and the general public to examine their cultural and racial biases. The training in Polk County is open to juvenile judges and mandatory abuse reporters – such as school teachers and health officials. Gessow says an effort is also underway by the D.H.S. to recruit more African American foster homes.