“The situation facing First Nations children and their families today has never been worse,” noted Canadian Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Phil Fontaine at the 2006 launch of AFN’s Leadership Action Plan on First Nations Child Welfare. “There are more than 27,000 First Nations children in care today…. three times the number…in residential schools at the height of their operations.”
Dr. Robert Hill, in a 2007 report for the Casey-CSSP Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare, states, “Both black children and Native American children are overrepresented…within the [U.S.] foster care system at the national level.” In some regions, Latino children are also overrepresented. If we are to reverse this trend, federal and local leaders must address factors that drive out-of-home placements, and provide the financial flexibility agencies need to explore more child safety and permanency strategies.
Disproportionality and Disparity
“Disparity,” note Fred Wulczyn and Bridgette Lery in Racial Disparity in Foster Care Admissions, “means a lack of equality.” Racial disparity shows up in the rates at which children of color are reported and investigated for abuse or neglect, enter care, and leave care. Entry rates are highest for children under one, and in 2005, infants of color entered care at nearly three times the rate of their white counterparts, despite evidence that black families are no more likely to abuse or neglect their children than similarly situated white families.
A July 2007 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report [African American Children in Foster Care: Additional HHS Assistance Needed to Help States Reduce the Proportion in Care] also notes that, “at each decision point in the child welfare process the disproportionality of African American children grows.” Disparity and disproportionality increase still more, Dr. Hill finds, as Native American children travel through foster care.
Factors That Influence Disproportionality
Other factors are at play. The Urban Institute identifies disparities caused by unequal access to education, employment, income, and health care—problems that plague both black and native families. Youth with consistently poor school outcomes are ill-prepared to hold jobs with good pay or benefits, and more likely to encounter severe life stresses that can make parenting extra challenging.
Personal and institutional bias also propel more minority children into care. Cited by Dr. Hill in his 2006 Synthesis of Research on Disproportionality in Child Welfare, various researchers have found that children of color are more often reported, investigated, and found to be victims of abuse or neglect than white children.
Overrepresentation is most dramatic at the reporting stage, perhaps due to where many families of color live. Reports come from inner city black hospitals that, unlike suburban hospitals, routinely drug-screen new mothers. They come from police officers who patrol urban streets.
Funding practices keep American Indian and Aboriginal families at distinct disadvantage. As stated in a February 5 Amnesty International Canada article, “federal funding for health and social services on reserve is dramatically lower per child than that provided by the provinces or territories” for non-Aboriginal children. U.S. tribes must contract with states for social service support and, overall, have far fewer funding options than states.
Disproportionality Reduction Strategies
First, governments must support efforts to keep children safely at home. Crucial are:
Some states and local governments have already realized the value of preventive services. In Pennsylvania, where birth families have access to in-home counseling and parenting education services, the number of children in foster care dropped 11.2 percent between 2002 and 2007. In addition, substantially fewer children have entered residential care since 2004.
Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Travis (Austin) County, Texas are also working to keep children out of care. Since 2006, Tarrant County Child Protective Services has held 16-week parenting courses for African American parents referred by CPS. Announced in April, more than $2.5 million in federal and state funds will help Travis County run a drug treatment court that helps parents to keep their children while learning to live substance free.
Ongoing efforts to keep more children out of foster care and keep children safe when they cannot live with birth parents will only succeed if states, provinces, and tribes have additional resources and greater financial flexibility. Too often, services are inadequate or non-existent.
As Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, recently observed, “The need for effective behavioral health services for American Indians and Alaska Natives is particularly severe.” Needs among the Canadian Aboriginal population are also dire. To help tribes, clans, and bands provide for children as their traditional family-centered philosophy dictates, funding for education, health care, and social services is vital. Native children should not have to enter care to get services.
Funding is also needed for alternative or differential response programs. Piloted in California, differential response allows workers to, depending on the risk of harm, refer families to community services, suggest child welfare and family support resources, or work to keep families in contact when children must leave home. In early findings, only 1 percent of children whose families were referred to differential response later entered care.
Children whose parents cannot raise them fare best in stable placements with people they know, and relative care is the most stable of any out-of-home placement setting. To keep this option viable for more children without the trauma of terminating parental rights, federal financing rules must be adjusted to allow for supported kinship care, subsidized guardianships, and customary adoptions:
North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
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