CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- A Charlottesville mother, who has been fighting to win back custody of her daughter from the state for the past five years, says she believes the system targets low-income black families.
"They legally kidnapped my child, and if it was that easy for them to take my child and take me through all this stuff for five years, I can only imagine how many other children are sitting in the system for absolutely no reason," said Rhiannon Williams.
Williams' lost custody of her daughter in 2012 after her daughter reportedly threatened to harm herself at school. In legal proceedings, Charlottesville Social Services has said Williams refused to seek help for her daughter or cooperate with the department, but Williams denies that. She believes her daughter was taken from her because she is poor and black.
Data supports the assertion that black children are disproportionately in foster care in Charlottesville.
Of 115 children in foster care in Charlottesville at one point in 2017, 80 percent were black or of mixed race, according to data provided by Charlottesville Department of Social Services. But only 22 percent of the total population is black or mixed race, according to University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
Diane Kuknyo, director of Charlottesville Department of Social Services, says she can't comment on Williams' case specifically, but she says the department follows a strict protocol when assessing abuse or neglect.
It starts with a report of neglect or abuse from a community member, a school, law enforcement or doctor.
"We never go out and search for children," she said.
Kuknyo says the department then screens each report to see if it merits an investigation. She says many reports are dismissed immediately.
If the department investigates and does find there is a significant risk to a child, a court must then determine whether the child is taken out of the parent's custody. Kuknyo says that's always a last resort.
"Our number one goal, always, is either to keep the child in the family safely and put in some assistance," she said. "That could be counseling, that could be mentoring or other things that would help the family stay together. Or come up with a safety plan to make the home safer for the child."
Kuknyo says the department is concerned about possible racial bias. She says the Virginia Department of Social Services is working with a team of UVA researchers to see why more minority children are in foster care.
"Hopefully, that data is going to help us look at if there are implicit biases, and where in the system those biases may be happening," she said.
Williams, who goes back to court on Jan. 10 to request custody, says she believes her story is evidence that the racial bias is real.
"I want her out of the system. I want her home. I want her back into my custody," she said of her daughter. "And I want them to be held accountable for what they've done."