Jená Bellezza, COO of the Indiana Parenting Institute, shown in 2019 file photo. (Kyle Telechan / Post-Tribune)
Jená Bellezza, COO of the Indiana Parenting Institute, shown in 2019 file photo. (Kyle Telechan / Post-Tribune)
Indiana University Northwest is hosting a series of online forums on child abuse and neglect, including one Friday focused on changing biases leading to structural racism.

“Implicit Bias and Institutional Racism: Making the Connection” was hosted by Brenda Graves-Croom, a social worker and cultural and linguistic competency coordinator with the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

The 90-minute discussion via Zoom, featured taped interviews that talked about implicit or racial biases that exist in law enforcement, schools, politics, mental health or health care, and how they can be addressed. All four interviewed either work, or have been involved in juvenile justice reform.

“It is imperative for all of us to help create a climate where it’s OK to discuss and set out what biases may be in play,” said Joann Price, a lawyer with the Lake County Juvenile Justice Center.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in big cities and tiny towns in every U.S. state - and even around the world - to protest the May 25 killing of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck as he pleaded for air.

“As horrific as George Floyd was, it’s opened up a door that has allowed us to address these issues,” said Jená Bellezza, chief operating officer of the Indiana Parenting Institute. “We can really think about what we need from them, so we can help them to understand the changes that are needed to help them implement these changes.”

They say they are protesting police brutality, but also the systematic racism non-white Americans have experienced since the country’s birth. Many say they marched so that one day, when their children asked what they did at this historic moment, they will be able to say they stood up for justice despite all risks.

“It’s hard not to notice that one particular race is always in a conference room,” said Naara Olivera, a coordinator for the Lake County Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative. “I would like to see more diversity in law enforcement.”

Olivero, who is Latina, said her brother-in-law, who has worked in law enforcement for more than 20 years, trains police, yet has been passed over for promotions, she said.

“He is good at training these people that end up in positions that he tries to apply for,” she said.

As one example, Olivero said a Black girl, 17, was taken to juvenile detention after getting into an argument at the mall. She had a job and was an honor roll student.

“You can see that the police report was very simple.” It was “not required or necessary for her to be arrested,” Olivero said. It was “teaching her a lesson, rather than having a conversation. That’s how I see biases in our institutions.”

Nationally, there has been a sea change in public education with educators recognizing that bias in discipline, which disproportionately affects minority students, especially girls, can create lasting harm, in many cases later pushing children toward the criminal justice system. Some schools have started to address when children may have underlying trauma, rather than calling the principal’s office, according to several news reports.

“I am amazed by how many schools will call the police, because they think that kid needs tough love,” Bellezza said. “You can’t be one of the parties ensuring that continues to happen.”

It doesn’t account for the “struggles that (kids) have been having in life in the past 20, 30 years,” she said. “That is part of their existence is dealing with law enforcement.”

Schools need to be prepared and proactive if they can help children deal when they experience racism, said Anthony McDonald, who is black, a Juvenile Probation Officer for Porter County.

“I don’t know how to prepare my child for racism the first time she sees it,” he said of his daughter, 4. “It’s something that I am struggling with right now.”

“My hope is that the teachers can be an extension of the conversations we have at home,” he said later.

October marks Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The talk was part of IUN’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs' 30th Annual Forum on Child Abuse and Neglect.

The series is hosting additional forums next week:

Oct. 23, 9 to 10:30 a.m., “Parenting While Poor: Product of Poverty” hosted by Bellezza.
Oct. 23, 9 to 10:30 a.m., “Using the CDC’s Essentials for Childhood Framework to Promote Great Childhoods for All,” by Bart Klika.
For registration, go to iun.edu.

The Associated Press contributed.
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