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Racial disparities plague foster care in America

A groundbreaking data project shows that national foster care numbers are dropping while systems across the country are increasing the number of foster homes for these children to live in.

While this is good news, black children are much more likely to live in foster care than their peers — but are rarely cared for by black foster families.

“Who Cares: A National Count of Foster Homes and Families,” launched by the Chronicle of Social Change, shows a drop in the overall foster care population for 2019 to just under 430,000 as of March 2019, as compared with 440,000 in 2017, the last year federal data is available.

This decline is positive, and could signal a leveling off of the opioid epidemic, which many analysts believe contributed to the increases of the past five years.

As foster youth numbers declined, total licensed homes across New York increased by 23%, also a promising development. However, this improvement in New York’s foster care capacity is tempered by growing concerns of racial disparities among foster youth, particularly among black youth.

According to the “Who Cares” data, there were 10,666 black children in foster care in 2017, as compared with 7,358 white youth. While black youth make up nearly 15% percent of the population in New York State, they make up nearly 57% of the foster care population.

What’s even more troubling is the fact that these children are less likely to be cared for by black foster families, with only 1,500 black families serving as foster parents across the state. The data also shows a sharp decline (22% in 2019 alone) in children living with relatives, known as kinship care.

Research has repeatedly indicated that keeping children within families when possible has better outcomes. Child welfare law and policy has traditionally prioritized placing children with kin as a means to minimize trauma and improve child wellbeing. Children who maintain family connections, particularly children of color, are more likely to achieve and preserve their cultural identity.

According to federal statute, states must “consider giving preference to an adult relative over a non-related caregiver when determining placement for a child, provided that the relative caregiver meets all relevant state child protection standards.”

Disparities in the child welfare system are the result of a myriad of complex factors and will require complex solutions. Outright and implicit bias impacts decisions made by numerous agencies and mandated reporters across the child welfare system that come into contact with a child, including educators, health care workers, law enforcement, and the judiciary. Poverty can also play an exacerbating factor in decisionmaking.

Several new measures, both at the state and local level, aim to address the racial disparities within New York’s foster care system.

At the local level, there is a move by Mayor de Blasio to retool the city’s Administration for Children’s Services to address bias. De Blasio signed a legislative package in September 2017 that mandated training on implicit bias, discrimination and structural inequity at city agencies. New courses were rolled out last year based on the law’s mandates.

At the state level are two bills introduced by State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery and Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee. The first would promote kinship care by expanding the type of relatives and family friends who are eligible to participate in such programs.

The second is the State Central Register Reform Bill, which would shorten the length of time that a parent’s name will be visible on the state’s database of those accused of child neglect, a practice which some have charged unfairly targets vulnerable families.

Both bills have passed and are awaiting signature from the governor.

Ultimately, these measures are aimed at addressing the current disparities that see black youth removed from their families at a rate twice as high as white youth.

By signing them into law, Gov. Cuomo will send a strong signal that he is committed to addressing racial disparities and ensuring that children, especially children of color, are not needlessly removed from their families.

Heimpel is president of Fostering Media Connections and publisher of the non-profit journalism organization’s two publications, The Chronicle of Social Change and Fostering Families Today Magazine.