Time to Abolish Racist Foster Care System, Children’s Commissioner Says

The nation’s fast-evolving rage and newfound commitment to upending long-standing racial injustice spilled into the normally staid meeting of the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families on Monday, with several members describing the nation’s largest foster care system as racist and ineffective in its previous efforts to combat the pervasive overrepresentation of black and brown children taken from their parents.

The commission that advises the county Board of Supervisors on the management of child protective services and policies affecting young people heard from its members with the most lived experience, and they were blunt.

“We need to abolish the foster care system,” commissioner and former foster youth Charity Chandler-Cole said during the two-hour virtual meeting. Chandler’s sister, Jessica, is a well-known child welfare social worker for the county and was featured on HBO’s recent documentary about the department, “Foster.”  

In response to the intensity of the times, the agenda for Monday’s meeting was dedicated to “current events involving racial and social equity.” The commission is an advisory board but nonetheless has sway over the nation’s largest child welfare system, serving 36,000 young people, who overwhelmingly were born into the region’s poorest households. 

Black children in Los Angeles make up just 7% of the county’s youth population, but nearly 29% of those in foster care.

Disproportionality in the child welfare system has long been acknowledged, but little has been accomplished to correct for it. That is now quickly coming to the fore, in a world upended and transformed, first by the coronavirus, and then by burgeoning protests over the killing of black people by police. These historic events, happening at breakneck pace, have impacted every facet of society.

“I am living this right now,” said commissioner Tiffany Boyd, the co-chair and a former foster youth from Long Beach. Boyd called on her fellow commissioners — many of them older, white professionals — to give her the space to speak in her authentic voice and “be real.”

“I want to not dress up for you,” she said, “and still have a seat here.” 

Bobby Cagle, the director of L.A.’s Department of Children and Family Services, revealed how the pandemic has hit home in his agency, with 30 child welfare workers testing positive for COVID-19. The families visited by the social workers who had tested positive were notified by the department, he said, as were fellow employees who could have been exposed; Cagle did not provide additional information on whether the infections had grown as a result. He also did not describe how sick the 30 workers had become, and follow-up questions to his agency’s media line were not answered by press time. 

Between the two massive events throwing the county and nation into upheaval, Cagle told the online gathering, foster youth are feeling isolated and overwhelmed, with shaky links to family, and their support networks stretched even thinner by social distancing requirements and school closures. 

For months, many foster youth in the county have not seen their parents or social workers face to face. While all child abuse and neglect investigations and visits to the homes of families considered high risk are still being done in-person, many children and teens are being checked on through video chats. 

Cagle said this month and next, social workers may begin making in-person home visits that for months have been on hold, in accordance with local and state coronavirus protection orders. He pledged to make those visits safe through the use of appropriate protective gear. After initially struggling to equip social workers masks and gloves, the department has since been able to stock up, and now has 36,000 extra sets of masks to provide to families during the visits. 

In response to outrage over George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota, and to the disproportionate impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on communities of color,  Cagle pledged a “redoubling” of efforts to address the disproportionality in the county’s foster care system. Those efforts, he said, will be spearheaded by the director of a newly created Office of Equity, which was developed to stem the overrepresentation of children of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+ in the foster care system. The department declined to name the incoming director of the office, pending a formal announcement.  

But that wasn’t enough to put Chandler-Cole at ease. 

“I don’t care how big your Office of Equity is, I don’t care how many black people and brown people you hire,” she said. The only way to really make the needed changes is for people who have lived the consequences of structural racism to be in the leadership, making decisions, she continued. In 2017, Chandler-Cole, who also chairs the board of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition,  said she sought the top job at DCFS, before Cagle was hired. 

She also pointed out that the system does nothing to help make sure black foster youth are prepared to interact safely with the police whose aggression may threaten their lives, leaving them at risk of harm. 

“Our black foster youth are not OK,” she said.

Chandler-Cole emphasized the need for going beyond implicit bias training. She says county employees need coaching on how to call out instances of racism, and to receive criticism without being defensive.

Boyd echoed Chandler-Cole’s sentiment, noting: “We need to take stakeholders who are impacted by these decisions and make them stockholders.” But she also pushed back against the paternalistic instinct to “suddenly rush in and save the black community.”

As the meeting closed, Boyd thanked her fellow commissioners for letting “the two people who have lived this to have some of the loudest voices” in the conversation. 

She apologized for not being as professional as usual, to which Dr. Tamara Hunter, executive director of the Children’s Commission firmly replied, “Your outrage is righteous.”

The meeting was led off by U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D), co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. In her remarks, she said that “we know that young people in the child welfare system are impacted disproportionately by COVID,” and that teenage foster youth and those aging out “have a lot more contact with police” than their peers.

“These issues hit the child welfare community extra” compared to “people who have the family support,” Bass said.

The congresswoman also challenged the continued incarceration of young people during the pandemic. “Really, why would you have somebody incarcerated right now, when you know you’re exposing them to COVID?”

Sara Tiano can be reached at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

Corrections: This article was updated to remove an erroneous description of Tiffany Boyd’s remarks at the meeting. This article has also been updated to better reflect Rep. Bass’ remarks at the meeting, and to make clear that she was not present at the meeting at the same time as other speakers referenced in this article.  

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Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change 124 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach her at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org.