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August/September 2020Vol. 21, No. 6Black Children Are Overrepresented in the Foster Care System: What Should We Do About It?

Written by Cheri Williams, senior vice president of Domestic Programs at Bethany Christian Services; and Kimberly Offutt, national director of Family Engagement and Support at Bethany Christian Services

COVID-19 has placed an extreme amount of stress on children in foster care. Many children haven't been able to see their parents during the pandemic; others have had limited access to the services and resources they need because of lockdowns. Families are questioning whether this is the right time to foster or adopt. Isolation takes the greatest toll on vulnerable children, and this strain has disproportionately affected Black children.

Why? Because across the United States, Black children are nearly twice as likely to be put into foster care as White children. They stay in foster care longer, and they are less likely to be reunified with their families or adopted.

If you've worked in child welfare, you already know these tragic statistics, and you know how they came to be. It's about systems, and the child welfare system wasn't designed to protect Black children or Black families. Systemic racism has led to the forcible separation of Black families at disparate rates for generations.

If you consider poverty, a lack of health care, and a higher risk of incarceration and addiction and it becomes easier to see why there are more Black children than White children in the foster care system. But whose fault is it? Is it right to blame the parents, many of whom started their own journey in similar traumatized circumstances?

As lifelong child welfare professionals, we have advocated for children in foster care day after day, painfully aware of the systemic problems that led them there. It isn't their fault that they were removed from their homes; in many cases, it is not their parents' fault either. To address the disproportionate number of children of color in the child welfare system, we must be willing to take a long, hard look at the system itself and the role we child welfare "lifers" have played. 

One systemic cause comes from reforms enacted in the mid-1990s through the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). Prior to ASFA, social workers were required by law to make "reasonable efforts" to reunify children who are in the foster care system with their families.

ASFA was enacted because too many children languished in the foster care system for many years without permanency. As sometimes happens with well-intentioned laws, ASFA only addressed one side of the equation. When ASFA weakened the "reasonable effort" requirement and prioritized moving children from the taxpayer-funded foster care system into permanent adoptive homes, it failed to invest in family-strengthening, preservation, and reunification efforts. This has disproportionately hurt Black children and families.

The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act of 1994 also intended to remove barriers to adoption for children of color in foster care by prohibiting a child's or family's race from being a factor in placement. Again, while well intentioned, this law prevents social workers from ensuring the protection and support of Black children's cultural heritage within their temporary or permanent homes.

Please hear our hearts. We are not blaming child welfare advocates who supported these policies for decades. Today, we are better educated about the impact these policies have on Black children. We believe that we must do better because we know better. We can't claim that the lives of all children in foster care matter when Black children in foster care continuously experience the worst outcomes. Support for Black children must start with support for Black families.

Congress has taken steps in recent years to invest in keeping families together by passing the Family First Prevention Services Act and the Family First Transition Act, which increase funds for programs designed to prevent out-of-home placements. This is a great start, but it takes more than just program funds. It takes antiracism training, compensation, and more resources for overworked social workers. It takes more Black foster parents and more Black social workers. It takes wraparound community support for struggling parents, especially from church leaders, who are more likely to be aware of which families need support. It takes a community that listens, cares, and advocates for change.

Finally, it takes child welfare professionals, like us. Even though we didn't design the U.S. child welfare system, we have helped it survive. We must consider how we have contributed to this broken system. The fact is, we have been complicit in these negative outcomes for Black children, families, and communities. Let's dismantle this broken system and build a new one that protects children through true family and community care, even if it means sacrificing the interests of our organizations. If it's in the best interest of children, it's worth it.

Are you in?