We live during a remarkable time. Recession aside, it's been a time of growing black wealth and influence; an era that saw an African-American man elected president of the world's most powerful nation. It's also a period when African-Americans have had unprecedented influence on industries, professions, and nations.
With so much power and progress, the question remains: Why are so many black children still in foster care? That was a topic I addressed over lunch recently with members of the Washington Association of Black Journalists (WABJ). (See related story by the Root's Deron Snyder.)
Unfortunately the answer isn't simple.
Today, there are nearly a half million children in foster care and more than half of those are minority children -- primarily African-American. In fact, all children of color are overrepresented through each stage in the child welfare process; including how and why they enter the system -- but particularly African-American children.
In 2007, the Government Accountability Office reported that factors contributing to racial disproportionality included a higher rate of poverty, challenges in accessing support services, racial bias and difficulties in finding appropriate permanent homes.
Consider this common scenario. Two children go to the doctor with bruises. One goes home and the other to foster care. The difference often is insurance. The difference often is skin color.
American families who have health insurance will see a doctor of their choice, many times one with whom they have a long-term relationship. A poor family will go to the emergency room or a free clinic to receive services. If a child enters these facilities with questionable bruises, injuries or possible neglect, the hospital or clinic are compelled to call Child Protective Services.
A doctor's office may not if they have a relationship with the family and know their history. Therefore, poverty plays a role in how a child enters foster care. Given that nationally, African-Americans are nearly four times more likely than others to live in poverty, it's easy to see how this occurs.
In addition, poorer families have difficulty accessing needed services that can help support them and keep children who may be vulnerable to abuse and neglect safely at home. However, poverty only explains part of the disparity and does not fully account for differing rates of entry into foster care.
Bias or cultural misunderstanding and distrust between child welfare decision makers and the families they serve also can contribute to the removal of children from their homes.
For instance, the average child welfare worker is a young, educated white woman. She is juggling a demanding case load -- often in communities of color -- and expected to make major decisions about a child's life with limited child rearing experience and exposure to various cultures. This can lead to cultural misunderstandings and mistrust, and also contribute to more children entering care. Such a phenomenon can also be created by minority social workers who have a high level of education and don't share the same socio-cultural background and experiences with the families with whom they work.
The same barriers and problems exist as children try to leave the system. Reunification is the first permanency option considered for children entering care. Yet, in many ways, it is the most challenging option to achieve. Research of national data indicates that White children were almost four times more likely to be reunified with their families than Black children. Also disturbing, once African-American children are removed from their homes, their lengths of stay in foster care average nine months longer than those of White children.
The challenges in accessing services, such as substance abuse treatment and subsidized housing, also lead to longer lengths of stay for children whose goal is to reunify with their families. For Black children who cannot be reunified with their families, it can be difficult to find them appropriate permanent homes, in part because of the difficulties in recruiting adoptive parents, especially for youth who are older or have special needs.
So what can be done?
It's complicated, but good signs abound.
In recent years, the number of all children in out-of-home care continues to drop from 562,712 in 1999 to just below 500,000 in 2007. Another positive sign was the passage of landmark legislation -- the 2008 Fostering Connections Act. Although this is still being implemented, the law has already encouraged profound changes in how child welfare systems align resources and services to get children out the system by:
• increasing access to supportive services that address the specific needs of people of color
• reducing bias by including the family in decision-making and by recruiting and training a diverse staff with the skills to work with diverse populations, including Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans
• increasing the availability of permanent homes
• helping youth who are aging out
• supporting kinship care as a viable option
• involving communities more in supporting their children
However, in the long run, more attention and focus must also be put on prevention of child abuse and neglect as a means to keep more children out of the system and in safe, healthy homes. To do so, proven prevention services such as parenting classes, home visiting and counseling must be more available and encouraged.
As I discussed with WABJ members, the future of Black children is in our hands. If we address the issue of disproportionality, we end up creating a higher quality more responsive system of services for all children. To make progress, we must have serious dialogues about the future of our nation's vulnerable children. A White House Conference on Children and Youth is a long-overdue means to convene a national discourse on the topic of children and disproportionality.
In a century that has seen much forward movement for African-Americans, it's time for the President to embrace a White House Conference, giving it the green light to move forward. A dialogue that engages leaders and stakeholders from around the nation is needed to build cohesiveness and drive system and thought changes. Our hope for a better future rests with helping all children succeed.