An Ode to Black History Month: The Sorrow Behind The Statistics
In honor of last month’s Black History Month, it is crucial to acknowledge systematic racism in the United States in all its forms. Weaved into this narrative is its impact on Black children who children face disproportionate representation in foster care, many of whom are not exempt from victimization.
According to Kids Count Data Center, Black children made up 14% of all children in the U.S., but 23% of those in foster care in 2018. The disparity was drastic in some states like Tennessee, where among kids who spent two or more years in foster care, white kids were more than three times as likely to get adopted than their Black counterparts. Nationally, the numbers were 16.1% and 22.4%, respectively.
Author of Racial Bias in American Foster Care: The National Debate, Tanya A. Cooper, claimed that, “[t]he fact that [a] system supposedly designed to protect children remains one of the most segregated institutions in the country should arouse our suspicion.” Despite existing for approximately a century, the foster care system has yet to fully address these disparities.
The system's history is grim. In the very beginning, when foster care institutions fought to “save the children,” “white only” was written in the fine print. With the work of progressive reformer Jane Adams, the children of European immigrants could count on a rural home that would take them in and provide what their parents could not.
African American children, however, did not reap the benefits of such a system. They were excluded from attaining this additional support, and ultimately, were left to fend for themselves. Progressivism only went so far.
It was only in the 1950s that foster care institutions began including African American youth. As the years progressed, the percentage of white youth in the system decreased, but increased for Black youth. What has also changed along with the aforementioned distribution, is the quality of care. Foster care was no longer a privilege of any kind, but a broken system for broken children.
Conversely, the underrepresentation of certain groups in foster care applies not only to white children, but also to Native Hawaiian, Hispanic and Asian children. This distinction complicates the issue, as it is not as much focused on a more general minority group. Overrepresentation in the foster care system is almost exclusive to Black youth.
How are these statistics possible? Why is only one group seemingly “targeted” by foster care? Systematic racism is largely at play while it lingers among the actions taken against Black youth and their families. At relatively much higher rates, Black families are reported for maltreatment of their children and lose the following custody battles. The children are removed from their homes and placed into the system.
Sharon McDaniels, founder, president and CEO of A Second Chance, explained the interconnectedness of drug epidemics and Black youth foster care placement. In her lifetime alone, she was faced with two- the crack and opioid epidemics.
At the peak of the epidemic, the criminal justice system was quick to incarcerate the crack-addicted Black Americans. With this influx of incarceration, many children found themselves tangled in the thorns of child welfare. McDaniels explained that the violent media portrayals did nothing more than elicit pity- a manifestation of racism.
During the opioid crisis, the opposite reaction was evoked. "Illicit drug use and overdose by whites was met with empathy, compassion and therapy,” McDaniels recalled.
Not only does this contrast highlight disparity in the emotions directed towards struggling communities, but also the seemingly easier criminalization of Black Americans. According to McDaniels, the higher rate of child removal faced by the Black community can be attributed to just this- the idea that Black children need white protection.
While Black children are placed into the system at higher rates, they are also more bound to it. This means they stay within the system and away from their biological/potential adoptive families for much longer, despite oftentimes being wrongfully taken in the first place. The aforementioned adoption rates of white versus Black youth depict this disparity and, according to Child Welfare Information Gateway, reunion rates do not dispute it either.
Zooming out, a contradictory (and inexplicable) trend appears. The percentage of Black children in foster care declined from 30% to 23% between the years of 2009 and 2016. Simultaneously, the population of white children in the system rose 4%. Even though the percentage has declined, Black youth remain overrepresented and there remains more work to be done. This nuance, while doesn’t contribute to the issue per se, doesn’t make up for it either.
Children’s Rights, a nonprofit organization advocating for improvements within Child Welfare, has specifically targeted Tennessee as a centrum for their attempts at reducing the racial disparity in the foster care system. In a lawsuit filed in 2000, they demanded certain reforms- increasing African American foster homes, diversity in workforce, analysis of performance by race, and subsidized guardianship were of a few. In terms of solutions, this only touches the very tip of the iceberg.
Children’s Rights also believes the solution should pacify the core issue- the ravaging of homes and taking of children unjustly. Therefore, they urge support to be directed towards families and their communities, which may be struggling. Healing is a process which must manifest internally prior to developing into a collective experience.
What is there to be realized from such disparity? The United States may not withhold its name’s implied standard of unity. Even within the mission of saving children lingers the racism which holds root in our country's history.
One must also realize that regardless of the grim statistics, hope is never out of the question. Dr. Kizzy Lopez, Associate Professor of Sociology at Fresno Pacific University, experienced the notebook childhood of an individual who experienced foster care- complete with domestic abuse and mental illness. Prior to coming of age, she experienced the system and homelessness alike.
Lopez still recalls many hardships which stood in her path, but she found motivation to trudge forward- motivation which manifested through the belief that she was smart.
Lopez also offered insight into where she thinks the solution lies. As she reached success in her career as a professor, she learned a vital lesson that she in turn, wishes to place in the hands of her students: “I want to show students that research can have an impact on organization and through policy, and so research has the ability to have tremendous influence.” Regarding organizations already seeking to aid vulnerable youth, she sees value in their message coinciding with one of anti-racism. Awareness and direct support must be observed with greater frequency.
Dr. Lopez concluded in an interview with CBS that, “I hope that my life tells people that life beyond surviving is possible, that you can thrive as someone who has been in foster care and has been homeless, and that your life can be a beacon of hope for others.”