Race Matters- Solutions to Address the Compounding Problem

In my first post I talked about why race matters in the child welfare system. In my second, I narrowed the focus to talk about why race should be considered in foster care placement decisions. I also acknowledged a significant limitation to considering race in placement decisions: the major shortage of foster homes. In this post, I will talk about potential solutions to the problems I discussed. While there are many ways in which I believe the child welfare system can be improved, I am limiting myself to three things that I believe can be done fairly easily in order to address race in placements: use kinship placements as much as possible, recruit more families of color, and provide better training to foster parents involved in transracial placements.

I would also like to recognize that none of these ideas is new or novel in this conversation, but I’m talking about them because they aren’t currently the norm. I believe that they need to be implemented on a much wider scale, and one way to start that process is simply by talking about them and letting people know that, first, there is a problem that needs to be solved, and, second, there are existing solutions that just need more support.

  1. Emphasize kinship placements as much as possible

The first solution is to emphasize the use of kinship placements as much as possible. One of the best ways that we can ensure a child’s race and culture are represented in their foster care placement is to place them with their own family members who are willing and able to care for them. In the child welfare system, this is known as kinship care: “the care of children by relatives, or in some jurisdictions by family friends (often referred to as fictive kin).” California is one of the jurisdictions that allows family friends (“fictive kin”) to serve as kinship care, though they are referred to as NREFMs, or non-relative extended family members. NREFM is defined as “an adult caregiver who has an established familial relationship with a relative of the child or a familial or mentoring relationship with the child.” Of course, the relationship to the child must be verified, typically through interviews with the parent, child, and relevant third parties, which may include teachers, medical professionals, clergy, neighbors, and family friends.

There are many benefits to using kinship care, whether the caregiver is a blood relative or a NREFM. The most obvious benefit is that a child can be placed with someone that they already know, trust and love. They don’t have to leave their friends and family to live with a family of strangers, easing some of the stress and trauma that comes with being involved in the foster care system. Often times family members are of the same race as the child, making it possible for the child to identify with their race. Another benefit of kinship care, whether it’s with relatives or NREFMs, is that those people are likely familiar with the culture the child is being raised in and how the child’s parents have addressed race with the child. Overall, the child will likely be far more comfortable living with someone he/she already knows than moving in with complete strangers he/she does not identify with.

In California, once a child enters the system, counties are required to provide all located relatives with written and oral notification that the child is entering care. However, the county social worker is only required to give preferential consideration to certain relatives: grandparents, aunts, uncles, or siblings. The fact that the social workers are only required to give preferential treatment to a select few family members leaves out many potential kinship caregivers. The social worker is instructed to assess any relatives that request to be considered for placement, but assessment and approval does not guarantee placement of the child. This regime also requires that relatives take the initiative to request that they are considered for placement. The situation is even more tenuous for NREFM: though they are able to serve as foster families, they are not required to receive preferential consideration.

It is important to remember that kinship care is not a viable option for all families, but it is an option that unfortunately, been historically overlooked and underused. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of kinship care and the national shortage of foster homes, I encourage you to check out my colleague Margaret Trask’s work, which you can find here.

  1. Recruit more families of color to serve as foster parents and adoptive parents

A simple solution to the shortage of foster families is to get more foster families, and if we believe that our youth should be placed with families who share their race, what better way to ensure that happens than recruiting families with the same racial makeup as the youth needing care? Not only does this seem logical to recruit foster families that reflect the demographics of the children in care, it is also mandated by MEPA: The Act also seeks to ensure that agencies engage in active recruitment of potential foster and adoptive parents who reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the children needing placement.”

Recruiting more foster families of color is simple in theory, but difficult in action. For example, because this is a federal mandate, we should be able to find the data to determine whether or not this is being done; yet, after quite a bit of digging, I have not been able to find data on the racial demographics of foster parents in the state of California.

Some data is available for other states. In Washington State in 2018, 16 percent of children in foster care were black, but only 6.5 percent of foster families were black. There are statistics available of the racial demographics of parents adopting children out of foster care. In a 2007 national survey of adoptive parents, data showed that a majority of children adopted out of foster care are nonwhite, and 73% of these children are adopted by white parents. In response to these statistics, Trey Rabun, a black man living in Seattle and working in the child welfare system, decided to look into why there were so few black families serving as foster parents.

Rabun found that there are a number of reasons that families of color may not be foster parents: they may not want to serve as foster families because they distrust the system, they may not be able to afford to take in youth, and they may not have been recruited by culturally appropriate strategies. The long history of disproportionate investigations and child removals have created distrust and fear communities of color. Parents don’t want to be involved in a system they see as racist. Many families of color are also hesitant to work with the system because they have had bad experiences themselves.  Parents of color also worry that if they sign up to become foster parents that their own children may end up being taken away.

Rabun felt that the key to recruiting more families of color seems to be starting with community engagement. It Takes a Village is a program that he helped develop and implement in Washington state. The program is focused on recruiting families of color, specifically black foster families. Their recruitment strategies focus on engaging black communities to build trust, and eventually to recruit families to serve as foster families. The program emphasizes that community relationships be bidirectional, so they work to “support the work and initiatives happening in the black community” to build relationships in which both parties support one another. The program holds meetings for black community leaders to “provide space for those in the black community to learn about the disproportionate number of their children in foster care, discuss some possible causes for that disproportionality, how [they] can offer support to those children and what the process is to care for children in foster care.” The program has also developed an African-American Advisory Council comprised of leaders in the black community so that the program can build trust and interest in the local black community.

More programs like It Takes a Village should be developed to help repair some of the mistrust of the child welfare systems. In order for more families of color to be willing to serve as foster families, people of color need to know about and be willing to engage with the system. Community engagement seems the best way to start repairing that trust. Just as the program leaders in It Takes a Village were able to leverage the connections of local leaders to build trust, foster care agencies can connect with leaders in their own neighborhoods to engage them and build bridges to involve other members of the community.

Change recruitment tactics to reach more families

While using more kinship placements and recruiting more families of color as foster parents are both great ways to help foster youth get the care and support that they deserve, the fact of the matter is that kinship placements won’t work for everyone, and it will likely take time for people of color to trust the child welfare system. One thing that can be done in the meantime to address the growing shortage of foster families is to change recruitment tactics to reach out to more people who may be willing to serve as foster parents, regardless of their race.

It seems that the same strategies used by It Takes a Village could be used with all groups of people. Denise Goodman, who has worked in the field of foster parent and recruitment for 32 years, also believes that community engagement is key.  She believes it’s important to identify the informal hubs in the community such as hair salons and barbershops where people go to swap stories and hang out. It’s important to not just leave information in those places, but also to stimulate a conversation by building relationships with those who work in the barbershops and salons, so that they can become recruiters in their communities.

As I got more interested in the recruitment process, I realized that I couldn’t remember ever hearing about foster care talked about in my community, so I started looking at where agencies and counties were doing outreach. I set myself a few Google alerts, and I started paying more attention to billboards, advertisements, and flyers on message boards. Of course, this is anecdotal evidence and you may find things to be different depending on where you live and what you’re exposed to, but I found far and away more newspaper ads than anything else. While the newspaper may have once been the most effective way to disseminate information, newspaper readership is steadily declining.

We now live in the digital age, and the age when people spend hours on social media every day. As of March 2019, 69% of U.S. adults use at least one social media site, and the average American Internet user has 7.1 social media accounts. Americans are spending nearly 2.5 hours on social media sites every day.

Again, I couldn’t remember ever seeing an ad or foster care agency on social media, so I decided to look into it. As an avid Instagram user myself, I was curious to see what kind of social media presence foster care has on the platform. I did a quick search, looking at some relevant hashtags to see what has been posted recently. I first looked at the #fosterparents tag and found that only 4 out of the top 170 posts were from non-profit organizations or foster care agencies. The other 166 were from private accounts. Looking at #fostercare I found that only 2 out of the 180 top posts were not from private accounts, which indicates to me that social media, particularly on the Instagram platform, is not being used as well as it could be.

If we want to recruit more people to serve as foster parents, we need to make sure that recruitment strategies are meeting people where they are. If people are spending hours on social media, recruiting needs to evolve to use social media as well.

  1. Better diversity/racial training for foster parents

Lastly, I believe that training for foster parents, particularly for those involved with transracial placements, needs to include a significant amount of time dedicated to race: how to get parents to recognizing their experiences with race, how to speak to kids about race in a positive way, and how to foster a child’s positive racial identity.

Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with transracial placements, but as I discussed in a previous post, everyone has implicit biases and those include biases based on race. I’ve also previously discussed the importance of racial identity, particularly for children of color, so when foster parents are involved in a transracial placement, we need to ensure that they are best equipped to handle it appropriately.

Currently California requires that all foster parents have at least 8 hours of training annually, on a variety of subjects, one of which is, “understanding cultural needs of children, including, but not limited to, cultural competency, and sensitivity and related best practices for providing adequate care to children across diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.”  However, it has been difficult to find any sort of specifics on what these trainings actually address.

I am not an expert on racial identity or the best practices of how to talk to children about race and how to foster positive racial identity development in children. These are complicated subjects, and I do not have the answers. I do, however, recognize that there is a need to address these issues, and I believe that California should ensure that trainings are developed to specifically address race and racial identity, that they should be developed by a group or groups of people from diverse racial backgrounds, and that they rely on evidence-based practices whenever possible.

I want to reiterate that none of the ideas I discussed are new or novel, but they are not currently the norm. I am hopeful, however, that the progress that has been made will be further expanded upon, and that children in care will soon reap the benefits of these changes. I hope that by talking about some of these issues, and potential solutions, that awareness will spread, and change will continue.