The Fight for Racial Equity in Child Welfare Continues

“All we really needed was some therapy. Foster care just made things worse.”

These words from “Michelle,” an African-American woman discussing her experiences in foster care at a recent panel discussion, are a reminder of how our child welfare systems struggle to meet the needs of children and families.

Michelle was a teenager when she was placed in foster care due to conflicts at home. Her father had recently passed away, and her relationship with her stepmother was getting more and more difficult. Given the trauma of her father’s death, especially during adolescence, Michelle was likely acting out because of grief.

Instead of providing the in-home supports and services that Michelle now recognizes she needed, she was taken into child welfare custody and placed in a group home. She eventually aged out of care, now the mother of two children.

The Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare, a coalition of national organizations, state and local leaders, judges, researchers, practitioners and policy makers, has advocated for improved outcomes for families of color in the nation’s child welfare system since 2004. Through our efforts, we know that Michelle’s story is not unique. She represents the disproportionate number of African-American children in child welfare custody across the nation and the disparate outcomes they face when becoming system involved.

While some will argue about whether racial disproportionality is a function of poverty or implicit racial bias, there should be a shared sense of urgency around the disparities that occur after youth are placed in the child welfare system’s custody. Children of color are less likely to return home to their families, more likely to age out of care, and are disproportionately placed in congregate care facilities.

Michelle also represents the unique experiences of girls of color in foster care. As highlighted in the first report from our Fight for Our Girls series, African-American youth are placed in the child welfare system at twice their rate in the general population, and they constitute the largest growing group of girls referred to juvenile courts and entering detention. For girls in the child welfare system, placement in a congregate care setting doubles their risk of juvenile justice involvement; the same is not true for boys.

In recent years, members of the Alliance’s Social Service Administrators Network in the Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) have taken a critical look at the experiences of black girls in foster care. After disaggregating their data by race and gender, they found black girls were being brought into foster care at disproportionately high rates for “parent-child conflict” – a report that does not constitute abuse or neglect.

The sobering data is outlined in a recent report that lifts up the agency’s efforts to provide services and supports for families experiencing such conflict without opening a child welfare or juvenile justice case.

The Alliance seeks to not only shine a light on efforts like those in Allegheny County, but to also track emerging policies that threaten to deepen disparities for children and families of color. These currently include:

The Alliance has not “quietly suspended” its efforts, as stated in an op-ed published in The Chronicle of Social Change. In fact, we continue to inform policy and practice, share promising approaches to reducing disparities and lead national networks of leaders in the field. Our fight for young people like Michelle continues.

Tashira Halyard is a member of the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s child welfare team, leading the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare. The Alliance provides national leadership in support of improved outcomes for children and families of color involved with the nation’s child welfare systems.

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