05/23/2013 08:59 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

Hispanic Youth in Foster Care: Over-Represented or Not?

"A historic number...record increase...startling phenomenon."

These were some of the words that accompanied recent news articles about increases in the number of Hispanic children in foster care in the United States. The increases are real. Data from the Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Center show that the number of Hispanic/Latino children in foster care did in fact grow between 2000 and 2011. Hispanic youth made up 21% of the foster care population in 2011, compared with only 14% in 2000.

And yet, while the number of Hispanic foster children increased, the proportion of Hispanic children who came into care in 2011 decreased by 25%. Two factors account for the difference in these numbers:

1. The truly historic rise in the overall Hispanic population of the United States. The 6% increase in the Hispanic foster youth population was much lower than the 40% increase in the overall Hispanic child population, and
2. An equally dramatic drop in the presence of other groups of children in foster care. African American children, for example, saw the largest decrease (by nearly 100,000 over those years), followed by white children (with a decrease of nearly 30,000).

The most significant part of this story comes without the startling language. A 2007 study published by the Urban Institute found that things are different for different generations of Hispanic children. While children of immigrants were underrepresented in foster care, third generation children were over-represented.

A deeper dive is required to understand what is going on. The Urban Institute study did not examine the reasons for the over-representation, but focused instead on differences in placement settings for these youth. There is reason to be concerned about these placements, which are less likely to be with relatives and more likely to be in group settings. The authors speculated that immigration issues such as detention and deportation of parents could affect the availability of placement settings for Hispanic youth.

It appears that many immigrant children arrived in this country with some significant protective factors that have contributed to their under-representation in foster care. This tentatively upbeat conclusion rests on more recent research, reported in January of this year.

The research is based entirely on California data. Here is the key sentence: "Upon controlling for socioeconomic and health indicators, and in keeping with what was observed for Black/White disparity, risk differences reversed for Latino children of U.S.-born mothers (i.e., low socioeconomic status Latino children were less likely to be referred, substantiated, or enter foster care than low socioeconomic status white children) and became even more extreme for children of foreign-born mothers."

In other words, something has insulated many Hispanic youth from CPS involvement. At least according to the California data, they seem to have been less likely to be in foster care than similarly situated white children, and the effect is stronger the closer the youth are to the time of immigration. The authors speculate that the protective factors could have cultural roots and include family ties, religiosity, social support, social networks and beneficial health behavior.

As the authors point out, this research does not mean that bias does not operate in child welfare systems. But this much does seem clear: to protect the best interests of foster youth, judges, lawyers, advocates, caseworkers and service providers must have a very deep understanding of how bias inter-relates with poverty and culture. And most of all, an equally deep respect for the protective factors that exist within any culture.

• Immigration reform that keeps Hispanic families together, reducing the need for placement in foster care, especially in non-family settings
• Child welfare training that goes beyond anti-bias training and incorporates more thorough understanding of the protective factors that operate in all cultures
• More research on the placement of Hispanic youth to see if the California conclusions apply more generally
• Evidence-based approaches to linking protective factors to various cultural traditions
• More flexible options for placement of Hispanic youth in family settings

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