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Healing from the Historical Trauma of Slavery: A Training Series for the Orleans Parish Safe Babies Court Team

Dawn Bentley-JohnsonJudge Ernestine GrayMarva Lewis

Dawn R. Bentley-Johnson, MS, Supervising Community Coordinator, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court (left)
Judge Ernestine S. Gray, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court (right)
Marva L. Lewis, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of Colorado, Boulder

Summary: The authors describe a training program developed by the Orleans Parish Safe Babies Court Team that offers workshops targeting issues impacting African American families involved in the child welfare system. 


Few people—black or white—want to talk about slavery. This topic usually leads to silence, strong unexpressed emotions and conflict. One hundred and forty-eight years after the abolishment of slavery in the United States, black/white relationships continue to be impacted by its legacy.

While not everyone agrees whether racial differences affect rates of child maltreatment, it is well documented that black children are more likely to be placed in foster care. Nationwide the disproportionate representation of minority children in child welfare has been a major concern for decades. National efforts such as the Casey Alliance for Racial Equity led by sociologist Robert Hill, and Courts Catalyzing Change, an initiative of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, are committed to developing and implementing national, multi-year campaigns focused on studying and combating disproportionality, the overrepresentation of children of certain racial or ethnic communities in the child welfare system, and the disparities in outcomes for these children.

These modern day disparities are, in part, a direct legacy of slavery. How so?

To eliminate these disparities we must understand the human factors that may contribute to the over representation of black children in foster care. For example, mandatory reporters: Are they holding African American families to a standard that other families do not have to meet? How are child welfare professionals’ perceptions of black families influenced by negative stereotypes? Do their stereotypes result in black children entering foster care, while white children are allowed to remain in their homes with services in place? Professionals who serve black children are typically unaware of these unconscious legacies of slavery.

Despite juvenile judges’ adherence to equal justice and non-discrimination under the law; despite attorneys’ commitment to fair representation; despite social workers’ professional practice standards and mission of social justice, the fact remains that black children continue to be over represented in foster care.

Deeply concerned about this phenomenon, the Orleans Parish Safe Babies Court Team collaborated with psychologist Marva Lewis to tailor her model of healing from the psychological residuals of slavery to address the modern day implications of legacies of slavery with Court Team members. We designed a series of workshops to address the application of these issues for African American children in foster care.

The topic of slavery is typically fraught with intense emotions for the descendants of both black and white racial groups. Whites typically express shame, guilt or disinterest in the topic. Blacks typically express anger, rage or denial of any feelings about the topic. Both groups typically operate with limited factual information about the distinct practice of slavery in the United States. More compelling is the need to understand the psychological trauma associated with the four-hundred-year practice of chattel slavery. Consequently, our workshops begin with the need to establish psychological safety so participants may learn how legacies of slavery are evident in current cases of black children in foster care.

Each workshop focuses on one of three perspectives—that of the professional Court Team member, the African American family or the young child in the foster care system. Throughout the workshops the following concepts are addressed: disproportionality and racial disparities in the child welfare system; structural, individual and modern day racism; unrecognized white privilege; and the implications for services to African American families with children in foster care. Participants learn how everyone—regardless of their racial group or professional status—is impacted by the trauma of slavery.

Permanency planning decisions may be influenced by destructive stereotypes carried forward from slavery and racism-based stress in black individuals. We address colorism,defined as racial acceptance or rejection based on skin color. This is a psychological residual of the trauma of slavery and it permeates relationships within African American families and communities.

Response to the Workshop Series

The response of the participants to the workshop series has been positive. Approximately 43 participants signed up for the series, exceeding our original cap of 40. Of the 25 Court Team members completing evaluation surveys, 81% of black participants and 100% of white participants indicated they were “likely” or “very likely” to change the way they work with African American families based on what they learned.


Despite the reluctance of many people to engage in discussions about this difficult topic, we are pleased that the Orleans Parish Safe Babies Court Team seems to be ready to embark on a journey of healing from the historical trauma of slavery. This is significant for the children and families in New Orleans.

Author biographies:

Dawn Bentley-Johnson has been the Orleans Parish Court Team supervising community coordinator since 2007. She is responsible for managing the project at the local level and works directly with providers, families and judges to ensure that the project’s goals are met. In addition, she provides supervision for community coordinators in Honolulu, HI, and Little Rock, AR. Before joining ZERO TO THREE, Ms. Bentley-Johnson’s experience included over 10 years of work as a social services specialist, adult protection specialist, and most recently, a child welfare specialist with the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services. She received both her bachelor’s and master’s of science degrees from Grambling State University.

Ernestine Steward Gray was first elected to the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court in 1984. She was re-elected in 1986, 1994 and 2002. Judge Gray attended Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, and the Louisiana State University School of Law, where she received her juris doctorate degree in 1976. Before her election to the bench, she was engaged in the private practice of law and worked with the Baton Rouge Legal Aid Society.

Judge Gray has served as the President of the National CASA, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the YWCA Board of Directors and is currently Secretary of the Louisiana Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Judge Gray has received national recognition for her work and is in great demand as a presenter and speaker on the local, state, and national levels.

Marva Lewis, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Lewis's practice experience includes family therapy, divorce mediation and parent group education. Her basic program of research focuses on exploring culture as a source of strength and vulnerability in normative developmental processes of parent-infant attachment relationships, discipline practices, racial socialization, and ecological network coping assistance to children. Her applied research interests center on the development of culturally valid theories and methodologies for assessment and intervention with African American families. Lewis’s current research includes the development of a training model for social workers to be culturally competent infant mental health practitioners, and developing evidenced-based interventions to support the reunification of formerly incarcerated parents separated from children in foster care.

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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