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.