Across the country, African Americans represent 12% of the general population, but 23% of children in foster care. It’s a similar story for Native American children, who are three times as likely as caucasian children to end up in out-of-home care.
The racial disproportionality in foster care demands attention. It clearly illustrates an opportunity to provide more effective support for families that need help — before coming to the attention of the child welfare system. Capitalizing on that opportunity starts with a commitment to better education.
When communities, state legislators, caseworkers, and foster parents are trained to understand the sources of racial inequality, they have the opportunity to become allies. Without education they are at best ignorant, and, at worst, potential instigators of racism.
Just as there is no single reason children enter foster care, there is no single factor that drives the relationship between race and the likelihood of entering out-of-home care. Understanding that multiple drivers are at play is critical if we want to drive solutions to racial inequality in the foster care system. A few primary factors that lead to racial inequality include:
When families are poor, they’re less likely to be able to provide safe, secure, and stable housing for their children. Without adequate support resources, it’s more likely that state agencies will step in and separate families.
“Poverty in general leads to the fact that more children are experiencing neglect, which is the primary reason children come into foster care,” says Carla Arnold, Executive Director at Youthnet NW. “There aren't enough resources, there isn’t enough access to support systems, there aren't enough services available to these populations, so that leads to more children of color coming into care.”
It is an unfortunate reality that racism exists in lots of systems, including foster care. Agencies, social workers, caseworkers, and foster parents are all capable of bias that leads to a greater percentage of African Americans in the foster care system.
At times, social workers make recommendations to separate children from their families based on race, foster parents struggle to create safe environments for children, and agencies fail to provide equal resources for all communities.
For foster parents, understanding how poverty and racism are associated with the foster care system is a powerful way to begin combating racial inequality. But there’s more to do.
While education is the single most important thing foster parents can do to combat racial inequality, there are many more ways to get involved. Here are three ways you can start to fight racism in foster care:
“Not everyone that comes into the foster care system is set up to provide appropriate cultural humility with children of color. Foster parents need to understand cultural humility and be open to working with families,” says Carla Arnold. “Building a relationship with those families and working toward reunification is what foster care is all about.”
When foster parents practice cultural humility, whether it’s attending a birth family’s church, celebrating a special cultural holiday, or simply reaching out to talk directly with parents, it helps maintain cultural connections that promote reunification and improve a child’s chances of going home.
Foster parents must also work to understand their own bias, which may be hard for many. But the reality is, actions speak louder than words. Reflect on your own behavior, find out what subtle biases you may introduce, and work to resolve those biases.
Become an advocate in your community by joining in recruitment efforts, particularly those focused on recruiting families of color. This is true for white foster parents, who can speak to the overwhelming need for more families, and foster parents of color, who can work directly to recruit other foster parents of color. Join foster parent support groups, make yourself available to local non-profits as references for families interested in foster care, or attend recruitment events to lend your experienced voice to others.
When foster children are able to find placement with families that reflect their race, it improves permanency outcomes.
Over the last few months, the marches and protests across the country have shown us the power of unified voices. If you’re a foster parent, make your concerns about racial inequality heard in your community, to your agency, and to your state legislators.
Become a vocal ally and make parents and children aware that you’re committed to preserving their cultural connections and family bonds.
Strong foster parents who take real action as advocates are critical to improving racial inequality issues within Washington State’s foster care system.